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Breakout Performance

An audacious POW rescue made this Prince a hero.

Photo: Rex Rystedt

DUTIFUL: Prince, now retired in Kirkland, Washington.

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By Kevin Cool

Fifty-six years after the worst night of his life, Robert Prince can remember the gnawing worry that he and his men might die at any moment.

They were on their bellies, muddy, soaked in sweat, elbows pulling them along a few inches at a time on the baked, cracked earth of a dried-up rice paddy. They had crawled three-quarters of a mile across this open, exposed plain and now were within a few hundred feet of the prison camp they had come to liberate. Daylight was fading, but with one glance, a sentry could have looked down and seen Prince and his 100 or so men flattened across the ground like a slow-moving army of insects.

It was January 30, 1945, a Tuesday, and Capt. Prince, ’41, was commander of C Company, 6th Ranger battalion, whose near-suicidal mission was to rescue 513 American and British prisoners of war from Cabanatuan, located 16 miles behind Japanese lines on the Philippine island of Luzon. Prince had received the urgent assignment just three days earlier; American military leaders feared that the prisoners might be wiped out any day by a retreating Japanese army ordered to kill its prisoners rather than give them up. Two weeks before the raid on Cabanatuan, 139 POWs had been murdered in a failed attempt by the Japanese to exterminate the entire camp population in Palawan. Only 11 men escaped.

Prince, under the direction of Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, was put in charge of organizing the assault on Cabanatuan. “There was no time for rehearsal,” Prince recalled recently from his home in Kirkland, Wash. “We learned about the assignment Saturday—and by Sunday morning, we were on our way.”

Sixty hours later, having negotiated their harrowing crawl across the rice field, the men of C Company slithered into a ditch 10 yards from the camp’s barbed-wire perimeter. A lone American Black Widow fighter plane had spent the previous 20 minutes buzzing the camp, effectively diverting attention from the creeping column of would-be rescuers. At roughly a quarter to 8, Prince’s plan exploded into action.

While Filipino guerrillas held off 1,000 Japanese troops encamped across the Cabu River nearby, Prince’s assault team stormed the prison, laying down a withering curtain of gunfire, and began rounding up POWs. “We had to convince them we were Americans,” says Prince. “They couldn’t believe we were there to rescue them.”

At one point, while Prince was standing near the entrance to the camp as soldiers pushed, pulled and carried to safety the stunned, emaciated prisoners—many of them survivors of the Bataan Death March—a mortar shell landed a few yards from him. The company medic, Jimmy Fisher, was mortally wounded, and several other Rangers were injured. Prince, however, didn’t have a scratch. “The only reason I wasn’t hit was because there were several men between me and that mortar,” he says.

After 30 intense minutes of fighting, shouting and confusion, Prince sprinted through the empty compound, looking for Americans who may have been left behind. Finding none, he fired a red flare to signal support units that the assault was finished. The freed POWs, naked or in rags, staggered back across the rice field with the Rangers as bullets whizzed over their heads. By the next morning, they were back on Allied ground.

Prince, who had seen virtually no combat prior to the raid on Cabanatuan, returned to the States a hero—a label he still vigorously rejects. He and the other officers involved in the raid spent several days being debriefed at the Pentagon, were honored by President Roosevelt at the White House and then commenced a four-week tour of the country, visiting war factories as part of a morale-boosting campaign. “I felt a little funny about being singled out that way, but I guess when you’re an officer that’s what happens,” says Prince, whose military training began when he joined ROTC as a freshman at Stanford. “All of those men [in the raid] deserved credit.”

History has cemented Cabanatuan’s status as one of the war’s most dramatic episodes, most recently in Hampton Sides’s bestselling book Ghost Soldiers (Doubleday, 2001). And while each retelling of the event places Prince in a spotlight he neither seeks nor believes he deserves, he acknowledges that some good has come of it. “A new generation is learning about the sacrifices that were made [in World War II],” he says. “I’m glad to see that happening.”

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