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It Wasn't Hollywood to Them

For two Northern Virginians "The Great Raid" is reality.

There were the vast majority who went to see the movie. Then there were the few who not only saw the movie, but were the movie.

The movie, "The Great Raid," is the story of the raid on the prisoner of war camp at Cabanatuan on Luzon in the Philippine Islands. It was that camp were many of the survivors of the Bataan Death March ended up to endure three years of punishment, starvation, illness and death at the hands of their Japanese captors.

On Jan. 30, 1945 that misery ended with a raid by 120 of this nation's newest, and untested, fighting force — the U.S. Army Rangers. They freed the remaining 513 American prisoners at that camp and killed 300-plus of their tormentors in what history has acclaimed "the greatest rescue mission every undertaken and accomplished by the United States military."

Two of those who lived through those experiences reside in Northern Virginia. One was a prisoner who had been moved by the Japanese prior to the raid but spent two incarcerations at Cabanatuan. The other was one of the Rangers who pulled off the raid and brought the prisoners home.

U.S. ARMY COLONEL Melvin H. Rosen, a 1940 graduate of the Military Academy at West Point, was one of the 10,000 Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese upon the surrender of Bataan on April 9, 1942. They were joined by 50,000 Filipinos.

Rosen was not at Cabanatuan on the night of Jan. 30. But he had been there twice before. That night he was encased in an even deeper hell — forced slave labor in Japan.

Rosen had been moved numerous times by the Japanese on three of their so-called "Hell Ships" to various locations in the Pacific to perform hard labor. His freedom did not occur until Sept. 10, 1945, nearly a month after the Japanese stopped fighting and eight days after their formal surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

"We were liberated by the U.S. Army's Seventh Division at Incheon, Korea," he recalled. He and others had been pressed into forced labor in Korea, then a Japanese territory. "Nobody knew we were there. Who would have thought Korea," Rosen, now 87, said sitting in the living room of his Falls Church home.

BURSTING THROUGH the gates of Cabanatuan Prison just after dark that fateful night 60 years ago, was 21-year-old Vernon Abbott of High Point, N.C. He had enlisted in 1940 at age 17. Little did he know that his destiny and that of the men who came to be known as the "Ghost Soldiers" would cross on a Pacific Island some 9,000 miles and a "lifetime" into the future.

Abbott became one of the 120 specialized forces assembled by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, the Commanding Officer of the 6th Ranger Battalion. They were an elite infantry unit with very little combat experience except for Mucci who had commanded ranger training in the jungles of New Guinea.

A West Point graduate and second generation Italian American from Bridgeport, Conn., Mucci, portrayed by Benjamin Bratt in the film, had been Provost Marshal in Honolulu on December 7, 1941. He was affectionately referred to as "Little MacArthur" by his men because of his pipe smoking and flare for the theatrics of war.

"He was the best officer I ever served under. I'd have done anything for him. He was one of us. He stayed with the enlisted men even when he could have been with the officers," Abbott, now 81, said at his upholstery shop in Mount Vernon District.

Army intelligence became aware of a Japanese plan to kill all POWs when an invasion of the Philippines by American forces became imminent. It was referred to by the Japanese high command as "the final disposition of prisoners" and was emphasized in the movie.

That was when it was decided that a rescue mission would be launched to save the prisoners that remained at Cabanatuan. That decision was made on Jan. 26. They estimated they had no more than five days to save the prisoners before they were slaughtered as had been the case at other POW camps.

HOW THAT DECISION was carried out and the lives of the prisoners leading up to the night of Jan. 30 is the story of "The Great Raid." Both Rosen and Abbott judged it authentic and accurate with only a few flaws they excused as "Hollywood."

"Overall, it was pretty good. There were a couple of things I didn't like. The Black Widow planes in the movie just flew in and out. But that's not the way it happened," Abbott said.

"Those planes kept flying around that camp to distract the Japanese. The Black Widow was the only plane with radar in its nose which made it especially equipped for night flying," he said.

Abbott also thought the directors of the movie should have used more actual film of the prisoners so that their true physical condition would have more accurately portrayed. "Some of the ones in the movie looked like they were in better shape than we were coming through the gate," Abbott said.

He also wished the public could have been made more aware of how the Japanese not only mistreated the POWs but how they slaughtered them. However, it is vividly portrayed in the film that if one prisoner escaped 10 others were executed including the escapee who was inevitably captured. It also shows how prisoners were herded into bunkers and burned alive as part of the Japanese plan for "the final disposition."

Abbott also took exception as to how the raiders were chosen in the film version. "In the movie it doesn't show that they asked for volunteers. But, that's the way it happened in real life. We were all volunteers. And Col. Mucci said that some of us would not be coming back so we better pray before we left," Abbott said.

Abbott had great praise for the Filipino Scouts that fought with the Rangers on the raid. "Their part in the raid was very well portrayed in the film. They took out all the Japanese reinforcements," he said. And, that is exactly how it is shown in the film.

"I went in the main gate after we shot the guy in the tower," Abbott recalled. "When we got to one of the prisoner barracks they thought we had come to kill them. Then my buddy, Bill Butler, said, "I'm from Tulsa, Oklahoma. We're here to take you home."

"The prisoner said 'God bless you.' And, that's when we started freeing them. Many we had to carry. They were too weak or sick to walk," he said. A picture of Abbott carrying a prisoner is displayed in the book "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides. Above that photo is the prisoner's quote "We thought they were Gods."

THE RANGERS did not lose one prisoner. However, during the evacuation, several died due to ill health, malaria and malnutrition, according to Abbott. The movie records only one of those deaths.

The Rangers lost only two. One was their medical officer. There were no Japanese survivors.

Rosen also gave the film high ratings, although, as he admitted, he was not lucky enough to be one of those rescued. "I was a Canbantuan twice, but, was moved out to serve in slave labor camps. The second time I left was only weeks before the raid," Rosen said.

"Since I wasn't there at the time I can't really speak to the authenticity of the movie. But, I do know it portrayed conditions at the camp accurately," he said.

POWs from Bataan were first taken to Camp O'Donnell before going to Canbantuan. "We buried 1,500 American at O'Donnell. The Filipinos buried 26,000 there," he said.

Rosen spent two years at a penal colony on Mindanao before returning to Canbantuan for the second time. Then he was put on a "Hell Ship," eventually ending up in Korea.

"The raid took place in January of 1945. I was put on the ship in November 1944. Bad timing," said Rosen with a glint in his eye.

He also had high respect for the Filipino Scouts who were equivalent to the U.S.'s Rangers. "They were the most highly trained and disciplined soldiers the U.S. Army ever had," said the West Point graduate.

Rosen chose the Philippines upon graduation from West Point because he had decided, "We were going to be at war with Japan and I thought the Philippine bases had the most and best of everything," he said.

"How wrong I was. As soon as I arrived in January 1941 there was a fly over. I looked up and saw they were flying World War I planes. That's when I knew I had made a big mistake," Rosen recalled.

"The Japanese hit us on Dec. 8, right after Pearl Harbor. It was actually the same day because we were on the other side of the international date line. We went into the Bataan peninsula as a defense strategy," Rosen said.

After a 150-day siege the Americans had no ammunition or many other supplies. That's when the largest surrender in American military history occurred and the infamous "Death March" followed by three years of hell began.

Rosen's only complaint about the movie is that it portrays all the prisoners as survivors of the Death March. "Many in the camp were also survivors of Corregador as well as Bataan," he said.

He also defended Gen. Douglas MacArthur's escape to Australia prior to the fall of the Philippines which is referred to at the beginning of the film. "He was ordered to Australia by the president. What else could he do? He was first and foremost a soldier and he followed orders. No one should ever question his personal honor," Rosen said.