A film recalls a daring - and largely forgotten - rescue mission

A Baltimore native was among the volunteers in the 1945 Cabanatuan raid

September 24, 2005|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

In a darkened White Marsh movie theater last month, a mother and son quietly watched John Dahl's The Great Raid, a feature-length film about one of World War II's most daring and nearly forgotten rescue missions.

What brought them there was the memory of August T. Stern Jr. -- husband and father -- who as a member of the Army's elite 6th Ranger Battalion was one of 121 volunteers who embarked on a secret mission in 1945 to liberate American and a handful of British, Dutch and Norwegian POWs held by the Japanese in the notorious Cabanatuan prison camp on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Stern was born and raised in Highlandtown and attended City College. With the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in an Army artillery unit and was selected for the Rangers.

In January 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur whose forces had landed on Luzon, was informed of the prison camp and its 513 starving and mistreated POWs -- many of whom had survived the fall of Corregidor and the Bataan Death March -- and were slated to be executed.

Lt. Col. Henry Mucci and his 6th Ranger Battalion, with substantial aid from Filipino guerrilla units, was given the task of raiding the prison and freeing its inmates.

Mucci selected C Company, commanded by Capt. Robert W. Prince, of which Stern was a member, and one platoon of F Company, under the command of Lt. John F. Murphy.

Their almost impossible mission was to cross 25 miles of enemy territory and, after the two units met five miles from the prison, launch a surprise attack.

"Here are young guys, most in their 20s, looking at the end of their lives. Their making it back alive was very slim," said August T. Stern III of Forest Hill.

On Jan. 28, 1945, the Rangers entered enemy territory occupied by 3,000 Japanese soldiers.

They reached Cabanatuan at sunset Jan. 30, after crossing a river and crawling on their stomachs for the last two miles through tall kunai grass so as not to arouse the suspicion of prison guards.

"I'd glance up on occasion and could see the ... guards in the watchtowers. I said a prayer, `Please God, don't let them see us,'" Stern told William B. Breuer, author of The Great Raid on Cabanatuan, a book published in 1994.

In a burst of small-arm and machine-gun fire, the Rangers quickly took command of the camp, and then began going from hut to hut searching for POWs.

"When they got inside, Augie said they began yelling, `We're Americans, go to the main gate,'" Stern's widow said.

What they discovered was human degradation on a grand scale. Most of the POWs were so emaciated and sick that they were unable to walk.

With the Filipino guerrilla units protecting their flanks, the Rangers began evacuating the POWs by carrying them out on their backs.

Crossing what he thought was a shallow stream, Stern stumbled and fell to his knees.

"I got a whiff of the stinking odor and realized that I had fallen into a drainage ditch that carried sewage from the camp," Stern told Breuer.

"I was so angry that I started cursing and swearing. ... My POW said to me, `Please don't be angry. I'm a Catholic priest, Lt. Hugh Kennedy.' I quickly apologized for using God's name in vain. He said, `Son, you are forgiven, because there is a time and place for everything -- and this is the time and place.'"

Two Rangers and 21 Filipino guerrillas lost their lives in the raid that killed 523 Japanese soldiers.

"After we were married, Augie told me about it. He never used the word `I,' but always said `we.' For the first three months of our marriage, that's all he talked about," she said.

"And then he'd say, `I can't believe that I'm sitting with you, considering all we went through.' And I'd tell him, `Augie, the good Lord was with you.'"

The enlisted men -- including Stern -- and the Filipino guerrillas were presented Bronze Stars.

In 1945, Kennedy, whom Stern had carried to freedom, sent a letter.

"Best wishes for a happy and holy Christmas -- and thanks to yourself and your fellow Rangers for having made this my first free Christmas in three years," he wrote.

For years afterward, until they lost touch, Kennedy dedicated his Christmas Eve Mass to the man who had saved his life.

Discharged as a sergeant with three Bronze Stars, Stern returned to Baltimore and private life. He joined the city Fire Department and served 43 years with its Rescue 1 unit until retiring in 1985. He died three years ago.

"He was offered numerous promotions in the department but turned them down. He wanted to stay with Rescue 1 because he loved his rescue work," his widow said.

"I think it was 9/11 that got to him. He wanted to go to New York and help dig for the firefighters at the World Trade Center. He said, `I know I'm old in age, but I can still do my work.' He just wanted to be at Ground Zero," she said.

In 1970, while serving as a sergeant in a 101st Airborne Division rifle platoon during the Vietnam War, Stern's son made a pilgrimage to Cabanatuan during a furlough. He wanted to photograph the site for his father.

"There was nothing there. No buildings, no anything. Just a barren overgrown field," the son said.

"Even though he was not portrayed in the movie, I wish Dad had been able to see it. They did a wonderful job, and he would have been so proud."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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