“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.