The untold story behind The Great Raid

The Miramax Studios version of an epic World War Two POW rescue mission, The Great Raid, opens today.  Five hundred thirteen American prisoners—of—war, including survivors of the Bataan death march, were being held at a place called Cabanatuan on Luzon Island.  Late in the war the Japanese began massacring POWs.  When would that fate befall the men on Luzon? The Great Raid portrays how C Company, 6th Ranger Battalion, Alamo Scouts and Filipino guerrillas liberated those men in one of the most successful missions of its kind in American military history. 

Before a pre—release screening of the film in Washington, DC, Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker told the audience that

'There is perhaps no other story which illustrates each and every tenet of the warrior ethos quite like The Great Raid'

He went on to note that American military history is replete with similar examples. 

Nevertheless, this is a movie, with its share of Hollywood inaccuracies, glaring omissions and inexplicable fictionalization.  Nowhere in The Great Raid is this more evident than its treatment of the vital role played by the Alamo Scouts. Yes, I know, the movie is about the Rangers and so you've got to concentrate on them, but there is no excuse not to tell the whole story; to give full credit where it is due.
In late 1943 U.S. 6th Army (a.k.a. Alamo Force) commander, General Walter Krueger, decided he needed a reliable reconnaissance and raider unit for the difficult operations that lay ahead in the execution of General MacArthur's island—hopping campaign.  General Krueger devised a training program outline for his intelligence chief, Col. Horton V. White, who handed it off to his capable deputy,  Lt. Col. Frederick W. Bradshaw. Gen. Krueger later praised Bradshaw as the perfect man to command the Alamo Scouts.  Rigorous training in swimming, cover & concealment, scouting & patrolling, stalking, movement under enemy observation, rubber boats, night scouting, plus weapons — .45 pistols, M1 carbines and Thompson sub—machine guns — was given to selected volunteers from 6th Army divisions and regiments.  Other members, such as Sgt. John E. Hidalgo and Rocky Ileto, came from the 1st Filipino Infantry. 

The debut mission for the Alamo Scouts was led by Texan LT  John R.C. McGowen. For the landings on the Admiralty Islands,

' it was still essential to get more definite information on the enemy than we had,'

Gen. Krueger later wrote.  In late February 1945 the 6—man team was put ashore on Los Negros by PT boat.  In his report, which pinpointed Japanese locations on the island, LT McGowen noted tersely,

'The place was lousy with Japs.'

Of the 106 known missions carried out by the Scouts, many were conducted on the Phillipines archipelago. Under the auspices of the Special Intelligence Sub—Section commanded by Captain Mayo Stuntz, teams coordinated Filipino guerrilla operations, reconnoitered beaches and trails, and set up road watch and coastal lookout stations.  And they rescued POWs.

The mission statement read: 

'Rescue and evacuate a Dutch family of 14 persons and several Javanese held prisoner in a native village by 26 Japanese soldiers (estimated).'

On October 4, 1944 the PT boats motored steadily westward into the Pacific twilight towards their objective, Cape Oransbari, on the northwest coast of New Guinea's Vogelkop Peninsula.  Onboard were Alamo Scout teams led by Lieutenants Tom Rounsaville and his assistant, LT William E. Nellist.  Veteran officer LT John M. Dove, who planned the mission, led the contact team, which was responsible for landing and recovering the rescue party.   Arriving at the offshore departure point, the PTs throttled back.  Scouts and their native guides boarded three rubber boats and paddled silently ashore.  Rounsaville held his men on the beach, waiting for reconnoitering natives sent ahead to report back. 

Twenty minutes later, they informed him that no enemy had been sighted and that there was a trail that would allow them to approach the village from the rear.  Seven hours of slow, muddy, slippery going later, Rounsaville halted his men at a point well behind the village, established a perimeter, and sent natives on in to obtain last minute information on the prisoners and their captors: 18 Japanese were guarding the prisoners in a large hut; south of the village, 2 Japanese were holding a native chief hostage; at the designated PT pick—up point, 4 Japanese manned heavy and light machine guns.  Rounsaville and Nellist split the teams three ways to accomplish the mission.  Rounsaville and 5 Scouts  would rescue the prisoners;  Nellist and 4 Scouts would take out the machine gun position; Corporal Andy Smith and PFC Bob Asis would free the native chief.  All teams were led to their objectives by native guides.  Watches were synchronized for 0400 hours (4 a.m.).  The assaults would begin when Rounsaville's team opened fire.  If not able to hear that signal, Nellist's team would act at daybreak.

Inside the big hut guards were preparing a meal, unaware of the Scouts lurking 5 feet away.   A white phosphorus grenade exploded in their midst.  Strong light beams from flashlights taped to M1 carbines bored through the early dark along with streams of well—aimed 30 caliber rounds.  Three minutes later, 18 Japanese lay dead or dying.  Alerting the prone, frightened Dutch and Javanese prisoners that they were rescuers, Rounsaville and his team entered the hut, reassured the former POWs and made a quick search for documents.

For their part, Smith and Asis made quick work of the guards, rescued the chief, then joined in helping with the rescued prisoners.  Nellist and his men accomplished their mission then established a defensive perimeter.  As the 66 freed people proceeded to the beach with their rescuers, they encountered a Frenchman, his wife and 10 children who had been trying to escape.  Now they would.  At seven in the morning, four PT boats arrived to take aboard the unexpectedly large group. 

Among the Alamo Scouts who earned medals for that successful rescue mission was PFC (later Command Sgt. Major) Galen Kittleson.  He also participated in the Cabanatuan raid.  Twenty—three years later in Vietnam as a Special Forces NCO he led an unsuccessful attempt to rescue Green Beret  LT Nick Rowe from his U Minh Forest prison.  In 1970, Kittleson was on the team that penetrated North Vietnam for the Son Tay POW camp raid. CSM Kittleson is the only soldier to have been involved in four such missions in two different wars.

Based on their previous, successful rescue effort,  Lieutenants Nellist and Rounsaville were chosen to be Alamo Scout team leaders for the Cabanatuan mission.  So why  did Miramax and director John Dahl decide to call them Lieutenants Able and LeClaire respectively.  (Here are the Scouts in their teams:  PFCs Asis, Cox, Laquier and Vaquilar; PVTs Kittleson and Fox; Corporal Smith and Tech. Sergeants Wismer and Alfonso.)  I see no reason for depriving those heroes of their true identities and relegating them to historical anonymity.   And LT John Dove, who helped guide the Rangers to their objective, isn't even mentioned. And how did LT Dove know where to go? Because on January 27, three days prior to the raid, Scouts had reconnoitered the camp, another fact not mentioned in the movie.  Obtaining that vital intelligence required establishing contact with Filipino guerrilla units followed by a 30 mile march across rice fields, streams and rough terrain.  Traffic on the National Highway was so heavy that, under cover of darkness, Scouts crossed between vehicles 2 or 3 at a time.

The Alamo Scout report on the Cabanatuan mission itself states that 'On the morning of 30 January 1945, two teams moved to within 700 yards of the prison camp.  Covered by other team members, Nellist and PFC Rufo Vaquilar, disguised as local farmers, walked for a while, then crawled up to an empty hut, 200 yards directly north of the prison gate. The elevated hut made for an excellent observation post. They could see right into the prison, noted the guards and marked complete information of Japanese positions and barracks on an aerial photo which was sent back by runner to the Scout team in the rear.  LT Dove carried the photo by native pony to Platero, where he relayed the information to Lt. Col. Henry A. Mucci, Ranger commander.'

The report continues:  'The Scouts, who were to act as guides for the rescued prisoners, remained at the prison gate until the attack had been initiated.  LT Nellist moved quickly into the part of the camp area occupied by the enemy and directed the fire of a group of Rangers, silencing a mortar which had dropped three rounds at the gate, wounding LT Rounsaville and Tech. Sgt. Alfonso.  LT Dove moved into the prison area to hurry the evacuation...Scouts not required as guides remained at the prison gate, forming a rear guard. They withdrew when the main body had reached cover. 

All Scouts, except Tech. Sgt. Alfonso, assembled on the north bank of the Pampanga River, where they formed a firing line to cover removal of the seriously wounded and stragglers.  Accompanied by LT Dove, the main body moved to Kabul, where trucks and ambulances were met.  LT Dove then returned to Balangkari Sur. The Scouts remained there, and on 31 January, they buried the two Rangers killed in action and prepared to evacuate the wounded.  They directed civilians in the construction of a small airstrip, until it was decided to evacuate the wounded by oxcart.'  But the Scout mission wasn't over yet.  Upon checking a report that one of the prisoners had been left behind, LT Dove returned to the Platero area where he learned that the man had been taken to a Filipino guerrilla camp.  After checking in with 6th Army headquarters, LT Dove returned to Platero and evacuated the last prisoner of Cabanatuan.  

While the movie is told from the point of view of Ranger company commander Captain Robert Prince, surely the writers, director and producer, professionals all, could have found a way to give the Alamo Scouts more credit and recognition without making the film too long. Doing so would in no way detract from the heroic accomplishments of the Rangers.  To repeat, there is no excuse for this serious omission; none for denying them a fair portrayal of the vital role they played in the great raid.   

There were only 138 Alamo Scouts.  During 17 months of operations from the Admiralties to the Philippines they earned 118 awards and decorations, including 44 Silver Stars.  For their role in the Cabanatuan rescue mission they earned a Presidential Unit Citation.  In 1984 the JFK Special Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina authorized surviving members to wear the coveted Special Forces tab.  Their place as one of the ancestors of today's Special Forces was firmly established. 

Paraphrasing Gen. Schoomaker's comment cited above, the Alamo Scouts illustrated each and every tenet of the warrior ethos.

For those interested, the author recommends Lance Q. Zedrick's SILENT WARRIORS OF WORLD WAR TWO: The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines, which can be ordered at

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.