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Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016

A gathering of heroes

Monday, October 14, 2002

Former prisoners of war and their liberators from the 6th Ranger Battalion look over pictures from World War II during their reunion Friday
(photo by Scott Welton, Staff)
"They risked their lives so we could have another start in life." - John Cook

SIKESTON - It wasn't the first reunion that has gathered at Lambert's Cafe for a meal, but it was without a doubt one of the most remarkable group to dine there yet.

Every other year since 1982, members of the 6th Ranger Battalion have held a reunion. Joining them over the years have been the prisoners of war their battalion liberated from the Cabanatuan, Luzon, prisoner of war camp in the Philippines on January 31, 1945.

The trip to Lambert's was the only event scheduled away from the hotel in Cape Girardeau, according to Austin Bagby of Jackson, this reunion's president, but for most participants just sitting around wisecracking and remembering the old days was the whole reason for coming.

Survivors of the Great Depression, the Bataan Death March, and participants of one of the most daring POW rescues in history, their memories are the stuff of history.

The 6th Ranger Battalion was activated Sept. 25, 1944, at Finschafen, New Guinea, under the command of Lt. Col. Henry A. Mucci.

The battalion was deactivated Dec. 30, 1945, in Japan after serving as part of the occupation force there.

Among its actions that took place between those dates is one of the most extraordinary raids of World War II.

With Allied advances in the Philippines, it was feared the prisoners held at the Cabanatuan prison camp would be executed before they could be liberated as had already happened on Palawan Island.

A daring raid was planned to penetrate 30 miles behind enemy lines and rescue the POWs. As they prepared to depart, the Rangers took an oath they would die in combat before letting harm come to the POWs.

Led by 14 6th Army Alamo Scouts, 124 Rangers made their way to the camp aided by Air Force P-61 "Black Widow" night fighters of the 547th who buzzed the camp to distract the prison guards.

Working in concert, a Filipino guerrilla force of 284 held off a much larger Japanese force while the Rangers took out the prison guards and guided the 512 prisoners out.

"They risked their lives so we could have another start in life," said John Cook, who was among those liberated that night.

In the introduction to a booklet he produced for the dedication ceremony of a memorial plaque honoring the rescuers, Cook wrote that on that night "some very wonderful men in the strangest looking uniforms" showed up shooting and shouting at them to flee through the main gate. Asked who they were, they answered, "We are Yanks."

Not believing Americans would ever wear such an ugly uniform, Cook and many others mistook them at that time for Philippine Scouts.

Discovering 45 years later who they really were, Cook has since then done his best to convey his thanks and has been at every 6th Ranger Battalion reunion held since he attended his first in 1986. "This might be the last," said Cook, "A lot of these guys are getting up in years."

Bagby said 75 people registered for this year's reunion, among them a half dozen being the POWs who were rescued from the Cabanatuan camp.