Cpl. Roy F. Sweezy was born and raised in Monterey Township. He died Jan. 30, 1945, in “The Great Raid” that liberated 500 prisoners-of-war. (Photo courtesy of Find A Grave Memorial)The photo above, published in the Allegan Gazette on Feb. 8, 1945, shows the U.S. Army marching through stubble brush in Luzon on a steady march towards Manila.

Allegan Ranger was one of only two killed in ‘The Great Raid’

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

It was Jan. 30, 1945, when a group of more than 100 Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts and Filipino guerrillas traveled 30 miles behind Japanese lines to rescue over 500 emaciated POWs. To get to the brutal Cabanatuan prison camp U.S. Army Rangers low-crawled dried rice paddies of Luzon, a Japanese occupied island of the Philippines.

They lost only two Rangers in the daring rescue. One was from Allegan.

The raid was featured on the front page of the Allegan Gazette for two weeks with the headlines, “Yanks Push Through Brush in Luzon Jap hunt,” and “Rescued Yanks Registered at Hospital.”

The news coverage culminated a third week with a bittersweet story, “Allegan Ranger killed in Luzon: Was one of Rangers in Famous Rescue at Cabanatuan.”

Cpl. Roy Franklin Sweezy, 24, of Monterey Township, was the second Ranger to be killed in the raid. But not before taking out the Japanese grenade launcher that killed the first. The bold raid remains the most successful rescue mission in U.S. military history and is the subject of several books and films, including the 2005 movie, “The Great Raid,” starring Benjamin Bratt and James Franco.

The 30-minute raid was conducted at night and used a Black Widow warplane to distract Japanese forces around the camp.

Although the raid was an overwhelming tactical success, Sweezy was killed by friendly fire. He was among the last Americans fighting the rear guard and last to leave the camp. A Japanese soldier had gotten to a knee mortar (grenade launcher) and started firing. The first shell hit the company doctor who died from his wounds. The flying shrapnel wounded five others.

Sweezy and fellow Ranger Francis Schilli moved into the area of the mortar and sent blasts of gunfire toward its position.

“We hit him right away and silenced the mortar,” Schilli said in an interview published in 2005 by the Daily Journal of Park Hills, Mo.

Then shooting erupted from behind and the two Rangers turned and fired back. The shooting ceased. Both Sweezy and Schilli stood up and that’s when the darkest part of the raid took place.

“A few feet away I saw the flash of a gun and Roy fell,” Schilli said. “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.”

Schilli baptized his dying comrade by pouring canteen water over his head and saying a blessing. The last thing Sweezy said was, “One of my own men killed me!” Schilli said.

While the 6th Ranger Battalion lost two of their own, an estimated 523 Japanese were killed or wounded in the raid.

Some of the liberated 511 American and Allied POWs weighed so little, the Rangers could carry two men on their backs. At a rendezvous point, trucks and 26 wooden carts waited to carry them to safety. Villagers along the way contributed food and more carts because the Americans had little or no clothing and shoes, and it became increasingly difficult for them to walk.

By the time they reached friendly lines, fending off attacks on the 33-mile journey, 106 carts were being used and the line of POWs and soldiers was a mile long. Reaching the American lines, the Ranger’s mission was complete. Only one POW died and that was of a heart-attack before leaving camp.

When news of the rescue was released, the world began to learn about the horrors of the Bataan Death March—when the men who had surrendered at Bataan were force-marched to POW camps. Along the way they were shot, clubbed and bayoneted, buried alive or left to die alongside the road. Passing Japanese soldiers would swerve out the way to run over corpses with random cruelty. Vultures, so gorged they could no longer fly, picked at the remains.

That is what some of the 511 rescued men had endured—along with three years in a hellish POW camp knowing they were likely doomed.

As World War II neared its end, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered the rescue mission before advancing his forces, which would have caused the Japanese to either move them to Japan or, more likely, kill them.

Japanese high command sent out instructions on the circumstances under which POWs could be killed to keep them from being liberated. At one camp they were burned alive.

Sweezy’s remains were not left behind for the Japanese.

His friend, Schilli stayed with his body until a few Filipinos arrived and said they would take care of him.

“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 gravestone there with his name on it in a cemetery. I guess, they kept their word and brought him out.”

Sweezy’s grave and marker is at the Manila American Cemetery. Plot A Row 4 Grave 155. He earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

According to The Allegan Gazette news story on Feb. 22, he was one of 11 children born to George and Carrie Sweezy of Monterey Township. They had been notified of his death by the War Department on Feb. 14.

Sweezy had been in the service since September of 1941, serving in the Pacific area. Brother T/Sgt. John H. Sweezy had also been in the service since 1941, serving in the Pacific. Three other brothers, Grant, Reuben and Clifford were grade school students in Allegan. Also surviving were six sisters, Nellie Cook of Ft. Wayne; Pearl, Ethel, Ruth and Martha at home and Bessie Nowakowski of Monterey.

“Cpl. Sweezy was with the party of Rangers who made their way though Jap lines, far into the interior of Luzon to make the rescue,” the Gazette said. “After killing all the Jap guards, the Ranger company fought its way back to the invasion beachhead, bringing with it all of the 500 who were rescued from the prison camp.

“Cpl. Sweezy distinguished himself in that action.”

No mention was made of being killed by friendly fire, only that “he died from wounds received in that action.” In official “after-action reports” the death of Sweezy was attributed to a stray Japanese bullet, according to the book “Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission” from Hampton Sides.

His selfless action helped more than 500 POWs and 98 fellow Rangers return home.

Sources: “Rangers: Selected Combat Operations in World War II,” by Dr. Michael J. King for the Leavenworth Papers, published by the Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Available online, page 72.

“The War: An Intimate History,” 1941-1945 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.

The four-part series, “Schilli helped release prisoners in ‘The Great Raid,’” published in the Daily Journal, Park Hills, Mo., 2005. (Schilli died in 2008)

“Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission” from Hampton Sides.

Virginia Ransbottom can be contacted at vransbottom@allegannews.com or at (269) 673-5534.

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