A Solid Piece of Wood

Master Sergeant rank insignia for the United S...
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A Solid Piece of Wood

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being. -Thornton Wilder, Our Town

I met the man they call “Woody” in the gym as I was struggling to finish the final repetition of an overly ambitious bench press.  A wry, sarcastic voice cascaded down from above and asked, “you need a little help there, young lady? Looks like you are a going a bit light today?”

I stared upside down past folded muscular arms to a silver moustached face.

The former Marine wearing a “Semper Fi” work out shirt with a twinkle in his eye smirked and sighed.  “Ok, I will bail you out but only this once.”. With a grunt, Steve Wood easily hoisted the 225lb weights off my chest and liberated me from my humiliation.

Over the next few years, we became friends swapping insults, stories and political punches as the world around us shifted and changed. I was surprised to see him in uniform one day – learning that he was the senior shift lieutenant for the New Canaan Police.  I had pegged Woody for a football coach, ex-Secret Service or prison warden. He exuded authority but had learned to speak only when spoken to and had that quiet ability to endure moronic people.  I was not sure if he looked more intimidating in his uniform or in his cut-off Harley Davidson shirt, tossing up bench-presses and shaking his head as Congress and ultimately the White House took a hard left turn in November.   Woody would only stiffen to attention when his wife, Pat would walk by – tipping us off that he was not the ranking officer at home.

I quickly gathered that he was a tough man, extremely candid and consistent.

If he were anything other than human, he would be the granite face of a Sierra Nevada mountain.  As I got to know some of the other officers in town, I learned of the great respect that was afforded this 32-year veteran by the entire force.  ” He had enormous integrity,” one officer shared. ” He was the most consistent and disciplined person I have ever met.  Even when he was sick from chemo, he was showing up to work every day.”

He initially did not let his tribe of gym buddies in on the fact that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As he endured chemotherapy and a nine-hour surgery, he astounded his friends and family – barely slowing down at work, on the bench press or at his cabin in the Catskills where he hunted and rode his Harley, “hunting down liberals” he used to joke.

His oncologists referred to him as the ” iron man”.  As an ex-Marine, he had utter contempt for his cancer cells calling them “terrorists”. He would wander into the gym on a Saturday morning a day after chemotherapy and chip in that” we laid a good round of napalm on the bad guys yesterday in the chemo session”.  Woody’s advice to anyone fighting illness was attitude is everything.  “If only a small percentage survive, you have to believe you are going to be one of them.  Also, have a good support system – doctors, cops, gym nuts, family, and exercise.  If I had been a couch potato I wouldn’t be have lived so far beyond the initial prognosis. “

Anyone who knew him, watched in absolute amazement as he showed no fatigue and inspired everyone around him to focus on what was important as the stock market was crashing and jobs were being lost.  In the darkest moments of his hand to hand battle with cancer, he showed us that courage and patience were the building blocks of any life well lived.

As a father of a teenager, I asked Woody to describe today’s teenagers versus those he encountered as an officer in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  He smiled and quickly pointed out that kids today expect too much and do not always understand the value of knowing how to work hard for what you want. He shakes his head once again with that world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket  disgust that I witnessed a thousand times growing up in my father’s home.  I could see it in his eyes – the teens of the 60’s are running the country now and the teens of the 70’s – the same teens he used to hustle out of the woods that were now parents of the children that were trying to find their way in a world filled with conflicting messages and an absence of role models.  He believed parents make or break a kid –and often jokes that “ the apple never falls far from the tree.”

Woody quickly pointed out that he was proud of how some kids have learned to work together on teams – in sports, in the community and socially.  He was intensely proud of his daughters Kim and Kelly, their husbands and his grandchildren.  In his own way, he felt he imparted by example rather than fiat, the Corps principles – the value of teamwork and the fact that a team of four people can defeat a much larger force of less cohesive individuals.

Woody’s daughters loved and admired their Dad and savored the way he interacted with his grandchildren offering a lightly sandpapered love that only a tough older generation grandfather could provide.  He and Pat, were  a perfect blend of leather and lace and the perfect guardrails for their growing families.

Steve Wood protected and served our community for 32 years – in sickness and in health.  He commuted to a town he admired for its small town charm and its ability to resist the changes that turned smaller communities into commercial cardboard cutouts.  As he drove the streets and patrolled the neighborhoods, he investigated robberies, collared drunk drivers and intervened in domestic disputes.

On April 19, 1989, Sgt Steve Wood received a call regarding a shooting that resulted from a drug deal that went bad resulting in nine wounded people.  Four armed and dangerous “bad guys” (as Woody calls them) fled the scene in a car and were racing at breakneck speeds through residential neighborhoods.  The suspects eluded officers from Darien, Stamford and Norwalk and turned onto Old Stamford Rd to make their escape.  Waiting for them was a police roadblock at Talmadge Hill and Old Stamford manned by Sgt Wood and another officer.  Woody could see the vehicle racing up the road followed by twenty police cars.  “There was no way out for these guys” he shared. “I thought of my family and then remembered the general rule of force, understood what I needed to do and did it.”  The gunmen decided to drive straight into the police roadblock and the officers.

“I had the shotgun and it was obvious that they were not going to stop. Just then my cell rang and for some reason I picked it up. It was the wife wanting me to bring home some milk.  I told her I would call her later.  Moments later I was leveling the shotgun at the car and firing several rounds.  We stopped the bad guys in their tracks preventing them from carrying on into New Canaan. I slept like a baby that night.”  For his role in apprehending the criminals, officer Steve Wood received a medal and two meritorious days off as did the other officers who risked their lives.  Woody shared with me that his definition of a hero is someone who knowingly puts themselves in harm’s way, risking death or injury to protect another person.   Ironically, he did not consider himself a hero but he admired and respected any fellow officers, the military and individuals who put their service to their community ahead of themselves.  He believed the term hero is used too loosely.

As we spotted one another on weights over the years, he spoke economically — except when the topics drifted left of gun control, lack of personal responsibility or entitlement programs. Two years ago, I received an invitation to Waveny House to honor Lieutenant Steve Wood, who was retiring after 32 years of service.  I knew he would not want a big party and instead prefer like MacArthur to just fade away – always the old soldier.   But it was not to be.  It seemed according to New Canaan police and their chief, Ed Nadriczny, had other plans.  Friends, family, fellow officers, fire fighters, city officials and people who knew and understood Steve Wood as a fine man and great leader were there to honor him.  There was a slide show and given that this is a family newspaper, I cannot share the exact contents but suffice to say, those that roasted the man, paid him his due.

Woody will be missed by anyone who ever crossed his path.  He was 100%, genuine American and never spent a day apologizing for his nation. When someone suggested he write a letter to his more ” liberal” Congressman when it looked as if his insurance coverage would not pay for an experimental procedure late in his cancer treatment, he shared he would rather jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than enlist a Nancy Pelosi-lover for a handout.  In the end, Woody did his own homework and made a business case as to why and how his treatment should be covered.  He succeeded in convincing his insurer that he was worth the investment.

For all his insistence on personal responsibility, Woody cared for people — putting himself at risk – often for those he did not even know. It was a thankless task at times, especially helping those who viewed him as a cardboard cut-out with a badge.  He just chuckled at their lack of consideration. He confided to me that he hoped New Canaan will someday offer affordable housing for those that work and help serve this community.  He then proceeded to bend my ear about the chaotic parking.  In Heaven, he won’t miss the accidents, suicides and personal injuries but will smile when the bad guys gets caught.  Above all, he showed us how to live, love and fight and what a hell of a fighter he was – – taking on the cancer terrorists and savoring every final day with his family.  If you had asked him what he wanted most, it was not recovery or even to be free of his pain, it was for the Republicans to take back the White House and sort out the mess.”

I can’t think of a finer man or better companion one could hope to meet should you find yourself in a foxhole, tracking a 12 point buck or waiting behind a road block to take on a speeding car full of heavily armed bad guys.  Woody’s legacy is all around us – in his stalwart spouse, his daughters, their husbands, their children and those of us who knew him.  You can see him every day in the attitudes and commitment of the police officers and Marines he now leaves behind.

A community like our town is built out of many things – brick, mortar, people, commitment, history and a shared set of values.  Any structure can withstand the ravages of time if it is forged out of the right material.  I can’t think of a better piece of New Canaan than Lieutenant Steve Wood – as solid a piece of wood as you will ever find.

Vaya Con Dios, My Friend!

Ghost Soldiers

Lt. Col. Henry Mucci
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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.