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A different time, a different war

Editors Note: This is the first of a four-part series about the role Francis R. Schilli, formerly of Farmington, played in one of World War II’s most daring missions. The 6th Ranger Raid on Cabanatuan has been the subject of several books and is now the subject of a new movie, “The Great Raid.” This series of articles were first published in the Daily Journal in March of 2003 and were written by the late Joe Layden

In January of 1945 Francis Schilli, a farm boy from Ste. Genevieve County, found himself in the steaming rain forest of the Philippines. He had enlisted in the Army in September of 1940. This was more than a year before the outbreak of war.

It was a different time … a different war but any discussion of “Special Ops” brings memories flooding back for Schilli who was part of a daring special operation of World War II. It was an operation so important, General Douglas MacArthur would say at the time, “No incident in this war has given me greater pleasure.”

Schilli’s outfit had started as mule skinners called 98th Field Artillery Battalion, Pack.” The mules just didn’t work out in the jungle and rain forest. The trucks, like 6x6s, could move better there than the mules, so they disbanded that outfit,” Schilli said.

Seated in the visitor’s room at St. Francois Manor on Old Jackson Road in Farmington where he now lives, he recounted a story of men in war. (Schilli is now a resident of a nursing home in Perryville.)

By January 1945 the former Pack Battalion had been training for more than a year as a Ranger group patterned after the British Commandos. Led by a rock-hard Lt. Colonel named Henry Mucci, they now proudly carried the title of the 6th Ranger Battalion.

Mucci and the men had been itching for a fight. Mucci once sent a message to headquarters that said, “Here we are with the g—— bullets and no Japs.” So it is no wonder when called to 6th Army headquarters by Commanding General Walter Kurger, Mucci jumped at the chance for a real mission.

******The Mission******

That mission was to travel almost 33 miles in four days behind Japanese lines. They were to bring back alive more than 500 prisoners of war held in a hellish camp deep in the jungles and rice paddies of Luzon. Among these POWs, barely able to hold onto life, were some of the last survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March, men who had been captured in 1942 on Bataan and Corregidor.

Escapees from other Japanese POW camps had described massacres in those camps. American officials became convinced that as their drive to take back the Philippines moved forward, the men held by the Japanese faced a certain death.

Schilli remembers the day Mucci addressed his men. “He told us where we were going. He said it would have to be secret. We could not tell anyone about it. Then he told us he would not force anyone to go. He asked for a show of hands of the men who would be a part of it,” Schilli said.

“Every hand in the place went up including mine,” Schilli added with a clear sense of pride.

“Even when Mucci told the married men that they really did not have to go, not one man backed out,” he added.

Mucci left his men that day by saying, “One other thing, there’ll be no atheists on this trip. I want you to swear an oath before God. Swear that you’ll die fighting rather than let any harm come to those prisoners.”

Why would anyone volunteer for a mission so clearly filled with danger in every step?

To men like Francis Schilli the answer is easy. “I was there to serve my country and do my duty. These men had suffered a long time at the hands of the Japanese. It was our duty to our country to free them!”

Tuesday: PART II The MARCH.

Editor’s Note: There have been several books written on the raid. The most recent are “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides published by Anchor Books; “The Great Raid on Cabanatuan: Rescuing the Doomed Ghosts of Bataan and Corregidor”, by William B. Breuer, published by Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated. Both of these have passages that refer to the actions of Francis R. Schilli. In addition there is “Raid on Cabanatuan” by Forrest Bryant Johnson, published by A Thousand Autumns Pr. There is also a movie in the works titled “The Great Raid” that was released this weekend. There is no one Web site devoted to the raid, but there are several that will be found in a search for “raid on Cabanatuan” that have information on the event.

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