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Rangers prepare for most daring rescue of World War II

Editor’s Note: This is the third in 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 now a newly released film “The Great Raid. This series of articles was first published in the Daily Journal in March of 2003 and was written by the late Joe Layden.

******The Raid*******

It was time for the 6th Rangers to move, Commanding office Lt. Col. Henry Mucci decided. The sun had set. The calm of the light blue tropical sky belied the violence that was about to rip through rice fields just outside the Philippine city of Cabanatuan on the island of Luzon.

The 6th Rangers were about to pull off the most daring rescue of World War II. There, in the POW camp they were moving to attack, were more than 500 men who had survived the Bataan Death March only to end up for three years in a hell called Cabanatuan Camp.

Francis R. Schilli, who just two years before had been an Army mule skinner, was in the 30-member Company F about to play a key role in the raid. Company F was sent to cover the back of the prison camp along the east fence. “We went in through some high congo grass … it was sharp and tough and would cut you just like a knife. Then we moved under a road and into a ditch alongside a road that ran on the side of the camp. The road was used by the Japanese and the Filipino so they (the Japanese) were used to seeing movement.

The Ranger’s Commanding office had one more trick in his bag. At the suggestion of a Filipino guerrilla leader, the Colonel had arranged for a fly-over of American planes to distract the guards while the Rangers moved into place for the attack.

“I remember seeing those planes. They were P-61. They were kind of funny looking and as they flew over we just smiled at each other because we knew what they were doing,” Schilli said.

“At one point we were near a guard tower and I looked up. There was one of the guards leaning out of the tower looking down. He was so close I could see he had glasses on. I would have shot him right there but they had told us not to make any disturbances. I guess he didn’t see us and we slipped on past him.

“There were two pillboxes at the back and we moved past them and took up positions at the back of the camp. It took …. I’d say about an hour and a half to make our way back there.” Schilli said. The planes made their last pass and all was ready.

Schilli, looking out the window of the room in Farmington Manor, where he (lived at the time of the interview) seemed to relive for a moment those minutes before the attack. “I was looking through a fence like that one,” he said as he viewed the scene outside the window.

“I was looking into the building … 35 to 40 feet away. They had the windows open. I could see them (Japanese soldiers) talking and drinking. They were getting ready for bed and some were playing games. They were just a few, 35 to 40, feet away.”

It was up to Schilli’s Company F. Lieutenant John Murphy to fire the first shot. Murf, as he was known, “was just a few feet away from me. When he fired, we opened up and riddled the buildings with all kinds of fire. Whenever we would get some fire back we would open up in that direction and silence it.

“The buildings were on fire and you could see the Japanese against the light. It didn’t take long to put them down,” he said.

While the fighting was going on, Captain Robert Prince and his men rushed in the front gate shooting at the Japanese and at the same time running to get the Americans out of the camp.

“I never got into the camp. Our job was to cover the rear because they did not want any surprises while they were getting the prisoners out.

“I did talk to some of the guys after the raid and they said they had a hard time convincing the prisoners that this was real and that they were now free,” he said.

There are many accounts of the POWs refusing to go because they could not grasp who these invaders were. The Rangers, not dressed nor carrying weapons used by the forces in 1942, appeared to be strangers to the POWs. In addition, many of the POWs suffered from night blindness.

One story tells of a POW refusing to go until he heard a voice with a Midwest accent. “Where are you from,” he asked a Ranger. “Oklahoma,” came the answer. “Oklahoma is good enough for me. Say give me a lift, I can’t see a thing,” shouted the POW as he now rushed to freedom.

With Schilli during the entire operation was his long-time buddy Roy Sweezy. The pair would play another role in the battle.

A Japanese soldier had gotten to a knee mortar and starting firing it. The first shell hit near the gate and wounded the company doctor. He would later die of those wounds. Several other Americans were hit by flying shrapnel from the shell.

Schilli and Sweezy quickly moved into the area of the mortar and sent blasts of gun fire toward the mortar position.

“We hit him right away and silenced the mortar,” Schilli said.

The battle raged for a little more than a half hour. “They shot off a red flare and it meant we were to pull out. I was fighting the rear guard and was about the last man to leave the camp area,” he said.

The Loss of a Friend

It was then the darkest part of the raid took place for Schilli.

“We ran down through the rice field and jumped into a ditch. It was about that deep in mud and water,” he said holding his hand about two feet off the floor. “Someone yelled ‘Where is Roy?’ and I said ‘He’s right behind me!’ “

“I looked around and saw him standing on the top of the ditch.

“I can still see him there,” he said, as his mind flashed back nearly 58 years.

“There was shooting from behind us. We turned and fired back. We must have hit them because it stopped. Roy and I stood up. Then a few feet away I saw the flash of a gun and Roy fell.

“The fire came from one of our own men. He was nervous and I guess when we stood up he just fired out of reaction. I was about a foot away from Sweezy when he was hit. It could have been me.

“It was clear Roy was not going to live, but I made up my mind he was not going to die without being baptized. The other guys agreed and I poured some water over his head and said a prayer. The other guys said some prayers … I don’t know what faith they were,” Schilli, himself a devoted Catholic, remembered. You could see that even after nearly six decades, the loss of his friend still hurt him deeply.

The others took off, but Schilli stayed with his friend not wanting to leave him there for the Japanese. “There were a couple of Filipinos there. I asked them if they would get him out of there and they said they would.

“That’s the last time I saw him. I never knew what happened to him, that is until a few years ago when I saw a photo of a grave stone there with his name on it in a cemetery. I guess they kept their word and brought him out,” Schilli said, still deeply troubled, but with some closure knowing his buddy had come back.

Thursday, Part IV: The Return to Base

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