Ghost Soldiers

Lt. Col. Henry Mucci
Image via Wikipedia

 

Ghost Soldiers

“Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head.” Euripides

As you enjoy your summer, you may come to drive along a Connecticut connector road, Route 25, between Bridgeport and Newtown.  If you look carefully, you will see a small sign, “Colonel Henry A Mucci Highway”.  It is a prosaic memorial and goes unnoticed by most of us who are too consumed with our daily lives to appreciate how we came to enjoy them.  It is a sacred testimonial and monument to our own Connecticut son, a Bridgeport child of Italian immigrants, a soldier who survived the attack at Pearl Harbor, and a leader of men who went on to apply discipline, relentless focus and passionate confidence to rescue over 500 souls from the jaws of Purgatory itself.

In his best selling book, Ghost Soldiers, author Hampton Sides captured and preserved the exploits of Lt Colonel Henry Mucci, Captain Robert Prince, the 6th Ranger Battalion and the guerilla fighters of the Philippines who fought alongside our troops.  It is an extraordinary story about ordinary men who risk everything to save their fellow soldiers.

In January, 1945, the Allies were driving deep inroads into the Pacific citadel of the Rising Sun and it was clear the war had irreversibly turned against Japan.  At the prisoner of war camp, Cabanatuan, some thirty miles behind enemy lines on the island of Luzon, hundreds of allied prisoners were slowly dying after three and one half years of brutal abuse and incarceration.  Allied commanders were becoming increasingly concerned from intelligence reports that the Japanese would execute prisoners as they continued to press a relentless defensive war of attrition.  A recent incident near Puerto Princessa, Philippines confirmed US leadership’s worst fears. 140 allied prisoners were herded into a building, soaked with gasoline and set afire.  No one survived.

Earlier in later 1943, Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci was assigned to organize a team of jungle Rangers – – a new unit whose training and focus would be lightening commando strikes, physical endurance and strategic support operations.  To date, the soldiers had spent their time organized as a field artillery unit – mule skinners immersed in mundane activity and manual labor.  Mucci would quickly reduce the size of the battalion by half, subjecting them to unconventional challenges in the inhospitable jungle that well beyond any endorsed army preparation.  Mucci’s brutally effective training crushed the coal of 1000 field personnel into 500 hardened and sharpened diamond fighters.  Over the course of late 1943 into 1944, the 6th Rangers became a dark flint desperate to cut against the hard side of a powerful Japanese force that was rumored to burning and razing its retreat across the plains of central Luzon.

While interned soldiers, turned pseudo homeopaths attempted in vain to arrest the accelerating death rate, the Japanese commander, Colonel Shigeji, treated the prisoners as sub human.  Firing squads were common for slight infractions and the egregious violation of escape would result in the execution of an entire cabin of prisoners who were purposely grouped together in units of ten to police one another’s activities.  The majority of Allied prisoners of Cabantuan were left to die – – too ill to assist the hard labor of the Japanese war machine and as these human mules were of no use, they would be effectively starved  to death.  However, the human will to survive is strong and prisoners found ingenious methods to hang on for another day in hopes of rescue.  A rare sympathetic guard might be bribed.  An odd concoction of scavenged roots and garbage was mixed into a strangely therapeutic beverage that would dull the excruciating pain of conditions brought on by rare tropical diseases and vitamin deficiencies.  Despite the primitive efforts to survive the camp, Death appeared more frequently running a broad scythe through the sides of young men who had aged thirty years in three.  Cabantuan was a purgatory of lost souls.

When the Sixth Army command sanctioned the top secret mission to go behind enemy lines and attempt the liberation of the camps at Cabantuan, Lt Colonel Mucci and Captain Prince, commander of the Ranger C Company, were advised of the great peril and low probability for success.  The effort would require an elite squad supported by local Filipino guerillas to penetrate heavily occupied areas and overtake a guarded camp.  This was the easy part.  Retreat would cover ten miles of hostile jungle where Japanese troops would be furiously searching to detect and destroy the interlopers, most of whom could not even walk and were so malnourished that they might die during the physical act of being liberated.  Although these details were known only to a few top brass, every one of the 500 Rangers enthusiastically volunteered to participate.

Armed with small arms – M1 Garand rifles, Thompson machine guns, 45 pound Browning Automatics and bazookas, the Rangers and Filipino guerillas moved like phantoms in broad daylight, forging rivers that had been recently impassable and avoiding detection by a series of daring feints and deeply embedded Mucci discipline. Even if the unit somehow made it undetected to the prison, they would need a benign but powerful distraction to advance the last 200 yards of open ground to be in position to attack at sundown.  The ruse came in the form of a daring US pilot who flew a new plane, a P61 black widow, which had never been seen by the enemy.  As the black falcon rose and dove toward the camp, inviting gunfire and fury from the guards, the Rangers crawled over the final open ground to get into position to assault the camp.  Everything hinged on surprise.  Mucci had trained his men for such a moment and had left nothing to chance.  His well coordinated plan required simultaneous attacks on the guard towers, tanks and key barracks of the soldiers.  If the Japanese were able to protect the front gates and communicate to local units in nearby towns, the retreat of the solders would be cut off and the entire mission group would be annihilated.

The attack began at 7:40 pm, when Captain Prince’s C Company rangers had moved into position at the gates of the camp.  It was a ballet of carefully choreographed slaughter.  The Rangers and guerillas moved with speed that took the enemy soldiers completely by surprise.  At the same time fighting was turning bitter and hand to hand, grotesque creatures were staggering into the fray – – prisoners in shock over and desperate to escape via the breached fences and gates.  In less than 30 minutes, scores of enemy soldiers lay dead with only one US casualty.  The trick was now to transport 500 skeletons – – in a line that stretched over one mile through ten miles of enemy territory, across open highways, rivers and through cutting elephant grass.  Mucci and his men carried those that could not walk.  The liberated were a horrifying sideshow of freak medical conditions and latter stage infections.  The Rangers were outraged and more determined than ever.  “Buddy, you are Marine again” one Ranger whispered as he lifted an emaciated POW over his shoulders.

The Rangers would miraculously complete their mission with only one casualty.  A major factor in their success was Filipino Guerilla leader, Juan Pajota, would enlist his men to form a protective wall insulating the US retreat.  As the stunned Japanese reengaged, they launched a series of savage counter attacks attempting to overtake the retreating prisoners at the edge of the Cabu River.  Pajota and his Filipinos detonated mines on the river’s bridge while emptying enfilading fire into waves of bonsai attacks launched by their pursuers.  The Filipinos were exacting revenge for years of brutal subjugation and at the same time protecting the liberators they had come to admire and respect – – among them the larger than life 5’7” Lt Colonel Mucci who had led the mission with such precision, confidence and bravery.

 

 

The Gold Standard

The Gold Standard

 

In Colonial New England, the objects that would adorn one’s home said much about the person and their social standing.  When a family would entertain, they would proudly display their unique possessions – – furniture from France and England, imported tableware of Wedgwood china and crystal, and various works of art.  Paintings might depict a particular historical event or a famous ancestor whose exploits would spice the  evening with rich conversation.  When one entered an affluent home, one was certain to be surrounded with silver – – cutlery, plates, tankards, candle sticks …

 

Silver was a precious commodity.  In eighteenth century America, limited access, high demand and a distrust of a fragile monetary system maintained commodities such as silver and gold at intoxicating heights and elevated the status of those owned or traded in the precious metals. Present day silver trades for nearly $ 20 an ounce and is steadily rising in value over the last year as a result of economic uncertainty.  In 1775, silver traded for a present day equivalent of over $175 an ounce.  Aristocracy and a rising middle class coveted the fine work of master silversmiths.  Owning silver meant social and political affluence.

 

Historians and antique dealers such as UK silver trader Brian Douglas share how Britain established the silver hallmark to protect the public against fraud.  The wardens of the London Assaye office were charged with ensuring purity of silver and its value.  This oversight by the artisans and the government ensured a basis for quality.  In 1400, the English passed a law to fix the purity of silver by stamping any object with at 925 parts silver to 1000 as Sterling.   An even higher standard, “Britannia”, was established in the 1600s to distinguish purer silver, 958/1000 parts, from the Sterling that was often fashioned out of melted coins.  The markings on any silver item allowed someone to determine year of manufacturing, content, maker and town of assay. This basis of ensuring quality established British silver products as a world standard.

 

The silversmith was a respected and influential individual.  In England, smiths belonged to powerful guilds which controlled much of the manufacturing and distribution of silver products.  The art of melting silver in a graphite crucible, forging the molten liquid into tallow greased molds and then shaping the malleable material against anvils and stakes to achieve the desired shape was a process requiring great patience and skill. When a wealthy citizen would petition a silver piece to be manufactured, the silversmith would have to take possession of quantities of silver and fashion the requested artwork.  The ability to safely store large quantities of silver as well as ensure the quality of the work required that a successful smith be viewed as trustworthy beyond reproach.  In Colonial America, silversmiths often moonlighted as ombudsmen to resolve community disputes.  If neighbors were fighting over a property line, a smith might be co-opted to help resolve the issue.  John Hull was perhaps the most widely known early American silversmith in Boston in the late 1600s.  He was a pillar of society and a highly successful merchant.

 

A century later, Hull would be supplanted by another Boston silversmith who achieved similar business, social and community standing.  He was the son of a French Huguenot silversmith.  He apprenticed under his father and eventually built a thriving business in North End Boston.  He served in the military in 1754 fighting the French in upstate New York and later married, fathering eight children.  Over his lifetime, he outlived two wives, siring 16 children, eleven of which lived to adulthood.  He quickly became established with the wealthy and the genteel of Boston for his neoclassical tea pots, tankards, cups, urns and sugar bowls.    While some silversmiths created production lines where much of their output was created by apprentice workers, he insisted on creating every one of his pieces.

 

He was also a covert revolutionary.  He was a Freemason and belonged to secret patriot societies.  He was an expert rider and shuttled messages between patriot groups.  In 1770, the tension was rising between British troops and colonists resulting in mob attacking British soldiers with five colonists killed by English troops defending themselves.  In response, he produced an engraving which contributed to the groundswell of colonial propaganda igniting anger and anti-British sentiment.  He secretly participated in the Boston Tea Party dumping hundreds of pounds of tax levied tea into Boston Harbor. He never revealed that he took part in the attack as it would have violated the sacred oath that he took to not disclose his participation in revolutionary activities.  Other Tea party revolutionaries would admit their participation and be hailed as heroes.  The understated Boston silversmith eschewed this sort of notoriety insisting to the day he died that he was not there – – although many would later identify him as a participant.

 

As a messenger for the Committees of Correspondence and the Sons Of Liberty, he was teamed with a young cobbler, John Dawes, to provide vital advance information on British activities in and around Boston.  In 1774, the British blockaded Boston Harbor further heightening tensions.  The silversmith rode to Philadelphia to convey the news to other members of the Sons of Liberty that Boston was under martial law.  While many patriot leaders fled Boston, a few key business and medical professionals remained behind to spy on the British – among them, the local silversmith whose shop remained open for business and whose eyes studied every movement of the British.

 

On April 18th, the Sons of Liberty were acting on good authority that the British may be moving by land or by sea against the town of Concord, home to the Provincial Congress and a cache of local militia powder, shot and guns.  The silversmith was on alert that evening and was later signaled by two lanterns in the belfry of the Old North Church that the British had elected to move by sea in an effort to advance undercover. With Dawes and additional riders taking different routes to Concord, the Boston smith rang out a call for freedom and warned the colonial inhabitants along the great Boston Post road that war was marching toward them in the night. No one questioned his word.  He was, after all, the most trusted man in the community, Paul Revere, the silversmith. 

 

This story of Paul Revere was recounted to me by an antique dealer in New Orleans as my daughter and I held a simple sterling silver sugar urn with the inscription: “R”.  The man who fashioned this exquisite piece was witness to the ”shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord.  He survived the revolutionary war and started a successful copper business.  He helped fashion a new country out of the most precious metals of all: courage and thirst for freedom.  Revere’s silver work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and privately in the treasured inventory of select antique silver dealers and collectors.  His designs embody simple, elegant curves and exude understated perfection.  When asked, most dealers will cite Revere along with England’s Paul de Lamerie as the two most influential artisans of their time. Craftsman, community leader, father and Patriot, Revere was the gold standard in silver.     

 

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

 

       Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere