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People & Events: The Moment of Liberation

Cabanatuan POWs Prisoner of war James Hildebrand had left dinner early that night, going back to his bunk to work on some "shoes." He was a cobbler of sorts, trading his skills fixing shoes for cigarettes and food. He was working alone in his shack when the roof literally exploded over his head. Totally confused, he ducked and ran straight into the biggest man he ever saw. Scared, he turned to run the other way, wondering what the hell that men was wearing and why he smelled like... American cigarettes. He ran back to ask, "Who the hell are you?" But it was clear -- bullets were zinging everywhere -- that the Americans had come to save them.

A Massacre?
Hildebrand remembers: "God Almighty, there were bullets like crazy. As a matter of fact, when they hit my building, they took the top off of it, it all landed over the top of me... I thought it was a massacre. I thought this is exactly what the Japanese are going to do, because Uncle Sam was getting close. That's exactly what happened at Palawan... I got panicky. I started to run. And I ran into what I classify as a 'very gentle brick wall.'"

The brick wall turned out to be Lt. Murphy of the 6th Army Rangers.

All Hell Broke Loose
Cabanatuan POWs, 6th Ranger Battalion, Philippines, World War II Hildebrand was not alone in his confusion. Most of the POWs were entirely stunned. The American soldiers looked huge. They were wearing strange outfits and had strange guns. Tommie Thomas recalls, "All hell broke loose. And boy, [there] were shots in every direction, they came over the top of my head."

A Lot of Shooting
John Cook recalls, "there was a lot of shooting, fireworks, and tracer bullets. It was like Fourth of July many times over... and all I could think was, how was I going to cook the lugao in the morning if they are shooting up our cookware?... We were stunned... and then this man spoke.... He looked like Pancho Villa, with bandoliers of ammunition strapped across his chest and hand grenades hanging off his belt. It was the weirdest sight. He just looked huge."

Chaotic Half Hour
The thought dawned -- they were being rescued. Through the chaos, the POWs got moving. The men couldn't take anything with them: diaries, photographs, letters, jackets, coats, shoes. They simply had to flee. Most were next to naked, wearing just their Japanese underwear -- g-strings. They were evacuated in 30 minutes; only one was left behind to be rescued later.

Carrying POWs to Safety
The Rangers and Alamo Scouts assisted the POWs out of the camp. Some could walk, others had to be carried -- piggyback or on makeshift stretchers. Water buffalo carts provided by Filipinos in the area were a godsend. Most of the men were far too ravaged to walk through the night.

Mutual Admiration Society
Rescued POW Through that long night, as the Rangers and POWs walked and rolled to safety, the men got to know each other. Former POW Tommie Thomas recalls, "We wanted to know where they had been and what they had seen. And they were anxious to know how it had been with us, and whether it was a rough as they had heard. We regarded them as heroes. They regarded us as heroes. It was a mutual admiration society."

The next day, the POWs got their first taste of freedom. They arrived in San Francisco a week later. John Cook said, "When we got the pier, every one of us bent down and kissed the earth and then we really let out an exhale and said, 'We're finally home.'" To a man, they remained thankful throughout the rest of their lives to all those who contributed to rescuing them.

Honored, At Last
In August 2000, ex-POW John Cook honored the 124 Rangers, three Signal Corpsmen, 14 Alamo Scouts and two Filipino officers -- Joson and Pajota -- through the installation of a monument in their honor at the Ranger Hall of Fame, Fort Benning, Georgia.

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