People & Events: Juan Pajota and Filipino Contributions to the Raid
While Robert Prince was the brains and Henry Mucci the sheer force behind the Cabanatuan rescue mission, it was USAFFE guerrilla leader Captain Juan Pajota who added the finesse. Captain Pajota knew the land, had the trust of local villagers and commanded the local guerrilla forces. He prevailed upon villagers to muzzle their barking dogs the night of the raid; he came up with the clever idea of evacuating the weak and feeble prisoners on water buffalo carts; and he and his men held Japanese forces off at a bridge while the Rangers and POWs made their historic trek back to safety.
Resourceful, Organized, Imaginative
A local from Nueva Ecija, Pajota joined the USAFFE guerrillas during the retreat from Bataan. By all accounts he was a small but sure and steady man, a natural leader and a brilliant tactician. Robert Lapham, the American USAFFE guerrilla leader, called him "a very unflamboyant guy with a natural bent for leadership. He was resourceful, organized and extremely imaginative." His intimate knowledge of the terrain proved crucial the success of the raid. He had "eyes" and "hands" in every village. Ghost Soldiers author Hampton Sides writes: "He knew all the mayors of all the barrios. He was familiar with the realities on the ground, every quirk of the water buffalo paths, every river bend. Whatever men or arms might need to be mustered, Pajota had the political wherewithal to make it happen." Pajota's knowledge of the area -- as well as his tremendous confidence -- proved essential to the raid.
Pajota had the one thing Mucci lacked: information. He had intelligence on the Japanese movements within and around the camp. At their first meeting, Mucci was impatient; his men were ready, he wanted to move. Pajota was unflappable. Learning that Mucci was determined to stage the raid that very evening, Pajota clearly and simply informed Mucci, "Sir, with all due respect, that is suicide." Pajota explained that the Japanese would have large numbers of troops and trucks on the roads that evening. At first, Mucci was undeterred. However, upon receiving similar intelligence from his own Alamo Scouts, Mucci was forced to concur with Pajota. He delayed the raid 24 hours.
A Perfect Plan
In the planning stages, Pajota offered Mucci a novel tactical strategy -- one that would give the raid an element of surprise and cover at the same time. Pajota suggested using airplanes to fly over the camp and distract the Japanese guards moments before the raid. "Mucci instantly liked the sound of it," Sides writes. "The aircraft would just be up there, looping and droning and turning, flummoxing the guards, commanding attention." The plan worked to perfection. The planes provided cover for the Rangers as they made their way into position near the camp gates.
A Brilliant Solution
The biggest question in Mucci and Prince's plan to liberate Cabanatuan was how to carry the POWs to safety. Mucci and Prince were worried that transporting the nearly 500 POWs thirty miles across enemy lines was going to prove impossible. The men were weak, frail, disease-ridden; there was no way they would be able to walk the distance. Pajota had a brilliant plan -- water buffalo carts, driven by local villagers would be waiting at the Pampanga River, one mile from the camp. Mucci couldn't resist the idea. It was brilliant. And, it proved to be the POWs' salvation. Five to a cart, the men, exhausted and lame, rolled the thirty miles to safety.
While those carts rolled, Pajota and his team of guerrilla fighters held the Japanese at bay. It was an incredible battle. Squad after squad of Japanese fighters rushed the bridge in a suicidal frenzy. Pajota's men, equipped with American firepower, secure in their positions, resisted all attackers.
There is no doubt that the raid at Cabanatuan owes much of its success and a great deal of its color to Pajota's brilliance, as well as to the loyalty of the Filipino villagers and the bravery of Pajota's men. Like many of the Filipino guerrillas, Juan Pajota's life story is little-known. What we do know is that he was courageous, loyal, and very smart. After the war, Pajota moved to the U.S. He died of a heart attack in 1976 -- just days before becoming a U.S. citizen.
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