The Search for Peter Starr

A photo of mountaineer Norman Clyde taken in t...
Image via Wikipedia

“I sort of went off on a tangent from civilization and never got back.” – Norman Clyde

August 24, 1933 – There was a sudden chill as the first rays of a brilliant morning sun were interrupted by a stray cloud. Norman Clyde stretched his arms and glanced up the narrow talus shelf that he would use as a base to climb Michael’s Minaret.  The degree of difficulty to ascend this lonely dagger of granite could not be underestimated.  It was vertical on all four sides and rose narrowly through jagged chutes that eventually gave way to an impossible hourglass summit. For the last five days, he had scoured every inch of this isolated range looking for clues. Clyde had pieced together small bits of information and returned to this particular minaret. How someone could attempt to conquer this serrated spine with no rope and only tennis shoes was beyond him.  Clyde rubbed his hands together to prepare for the climb.  He was 40 years old and beginning to feel the strain of failing in his mission.

Earlier in the month, Walter Starr Sr. had made an emotional appeal to Clyde and other members of the Sierra Club to help search for his son, Walter “Pete” Starr Jr. who had was last seen climbing toward Lake Ediza along the John Muir Trail.  Peter Starr was an athlete, Stanford graduate, promising attorney at the prestigious law firm of Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro and an accomplished mountain climber at the age of 26. Having been raised in the rarified air of San Francisco wealth, Starr had enjoyed the privilege of education and travel.  With his money, he was able to circumnavigate the globe and climb some of Europe’s tallest mountains.  His father was among the first to join the fledgling Sierra Club, and was on a first name basis with the famed photographer Ansel Adams.  He had instilled in his son a deep love of the timeless peaks that served as California’s crooked Eastern spine.

A rare combination of the physical and cerebral, young Starr was a success in every aspect of his young life.  He had a great ambition to be first in life and focused his personal passions on completing what he hoped would become the preeminent mountaineering guide for the John Muir Trail and Eastern Sierra.  For the past few months, Starr had been in the final stages of completing his manuscript.  After attending a wedding of a Stanford fraternity brother, he had taken advantage of a three week summer window when clear skies, dry conditions and melting snows allowed for access to the Sierra’s highest passes and most difficult peaks. Starr loved the solitude of the Sierras. In the mountains, the seasons established a harsh but predictable cadence that forced each and every living thing to conform to the inevitable certainty of change.  Starr would keep a journal and would often reference the defiant permanence of these mountains – grand monuments to a reassuring sense of immortality and a belief that something within each one of us might endure long after our physical lives have ceased.

Clyde arched his back and considered the route up the spire.  He was now the only person still searching for Starr.  He had never met the young climber but was familiar with his journal and efforts to detail the entire John Muir Trail and the peaks and valleys of the Eastern Sierra.  He had heard through friends that Starr had even made reference to him in describing Clyde’s ascent of the last unclimbed 14,000 ft peak in California, a difficult Middle Palisade, named Thunderbolt. With typical humility, Clyde had dismissed this “first ascent” of the “last 14’er”- – one of 82 first ascents of mountains for which Clyde would become famous – as difficult but manageable.  Starr had been amused by the stories of taciturn Clyde and his itinerant lifestyle of guiding, camping and living year round as the self-anointed caretaker of his beloved Sierras.

This area of the John Muir Trail was a rugged strand of great peaks and hidden lakes that sat silently like a string of black pearls along basins clawed out of limestone and granite across five million years of evolution.  Great silver fingers of glacial streams coursed like capillaries down the mountain sides ultimately feeding into the San Joaquin River which would flow steadily west and down into the fertile Central Valley of California.  These mountains had always served as a final gateway to the Pacific Ocean. For two centuries, settlers and damaged souls seeking new beginnings would attempt to cross or skirt these 14,000 foot peaks – choosing between an inferno of desert or frozen, precarious mountain trails to reach the proverbial land of milk and honey in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley.

In the case of Norman Clyde, he had come to live in these mountains after the premature death of his 24 year-old wife from tuberculosis. Clyde was devastated by the loss and sought to shut out a frenetic urban America by accepting a position as a high school principal in Independence, California. His catharsis was climbing and he quickly distinguished himself at a mere 160 pounds as a unique physical specimen.  He could climb for a dozen straight hours into the highest of elevations carrying a 90lbs packs.  He once hiked over from the top of Mount Whitney at 14,995 to the lowest point in Death Valley at – 295 feet in less than twelve hours.

Clyde was becoming a free spirit, loner and an iconoclast who had less and less use for people who were not interested in those things for which he held great passion. Clyde would be called on dozens of times in his career to find missing persons, downed planes and trapped climbers.  He was highly respected and was a local and national celebrity in climbing and naturalist circles – known through his first ascent records, his ardent environmentalism and his pragmatic journals.

Walter “Peter” Starr Jr’s disappearance haunted Norman Clyde.  While equally capable climbers, including his close friend Jules Eichorn, had finally surrendered to the fact that young Starr had been mysteriously swallowed up by this untamed maw of wilderness, Clyde was unconvinced.  He had reconstructed the climber’s last few days through a discovered journal and a series of cold camps that led him to the base of the Ritter Range.  “It was here”, he thought, “that Starr had tried to summit one of the spires.”

A ledge worked its way to the west and stopped suddenly at the foot of a chute.  Working his way up the narrow passage, Clyde reached the third chock stone in a shoulder-width gap – slowly making his way to the top.  He was exhausted and perplexed.  He should have uncovered some evidence – a cigarette butt, a scuff mark, displaced rocks or a trace of trash.  As he turned to warm himself in the afternoon sun, Clyde noticed a fly.

Author, mountaineer and Clyde biographer, William Alsup describes Clyde’s next few moments, “As I carefully and deliberately made my way down toward the notch, I scanned and re-scanned the northwestern face. Much of it was concealed by irregularities. Suddenly a fly droned past, then another, and another. . . . I began to follow a ledge running in a northwesterly direction. When I had gone along it but a few yards, turning about, I looked upward and across the chute to the northwestern face. There, lying on a ledge not more than fifty yards distant, were the earthly remains of Walter A. Starr, Jr. He had obviously fallen, perhaps several hundred feet, to instantaneous death.’

It was a poignant first meeting of two Sierra legends: Clyde, peering out from under his broad-brimmed campaign hat, rope coiled about his chest, standing among the ruins of the ancient range as a storm gathered; Starr, the debonair “club man,” clad in khaki trousers and white undershirt, arms outstretched, lying on his back on a narrow ledge, facing the heavens.”

For Clyde, it was a bittersweet conclusion to a great mystery.  To those who had sponsored the expedition to find Peter Starr – his father, famed photographer Ansel Adams, Sierra Club President Francis Farquhar and dozens of the day’s most expert climbers, it was devastating closure.  A week later, Clyde, along with his friend Eichorn, returned to bury the young man at the base of the spires that had seduced and ultimately killed him.

Norman Clyde continued to climb his way into the folklore and grey granite roster of local California heroes and regional treasures.  In High Sierra camps, he was given the nickname, “the pack that walks like a man”. He was a modern day John Muir – – gently seeking to understand and trace every crevasse, couloir, peak and high alpine meadow that made up the broken rows of jagged teeth known as the Sierra.  He continued to lead hikers and climbers into his mountains well into his sixties.  At the age of 80, Norman Clyde still preferred to sleep outside his home in a sleeping bag. His body finally failed him at 87 years old when he passed away in Bishop, California just 50 miles south of where Walter Peter Starr’s cairn rests at the base of the Michael Minaret.

If you find your way to the eastern fringe of the Sierra Nevada, you can follow the Owens River as it winds through the high desert towards the scabrous, fortressed turrets of Mt Banner and Mt Ritter joined by the parapets of the Minarets. If you happen into a local bookstore, you will find Starr’s Guide to the John Muir Trail – a primer still considered by many to be the most comprehensive overview of this section of California. Turning to the section on the Ritter Range, you will find a description of the Minarets including “Michael’s Minaret.”  Adjacent to this infamous soaring tower of stone, you will find the description of an equally magnificent obelisk that was formed in the same mid-cretaceous period.

It is simply named, “Clyde Minaret”.

Is It A Shoe Decision

Deutsch: Ausstellung Materielle Beweise der Gr...
Deutsch: Ausstellung Materielle Beweise der Gräueltaten in Auschwitz I English: Exhibition Material Proofs of Crimes at Auschwitz I Polski: Wystawa Materialne Dowody Zbrodni w Auschwitz I Español: Exibicion de Pruebas Materiales de los Crimenes en Auschwitz I (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often find myself listening to my children as they lament their challenges of the day and remind them of the differences between problems arising out of affluence and melodrama of the real world.

Prior to living in New Canaan, we spent several years in London where we received a baptism of fire in international living and in life. Our close family friends, Kathy and Ross, were Australian ex-pats whose children lined up perfectly with our own and whose ability to live in the moment made each day an adventure and every dinner a life lesson.  One evening I was complaining over dinner about a particularly difficult decision at work and Ross smiled and asked “ Well, mate, is it a shoe decision ? “  I was stumped and assumed this yet another of his Aussie colloquialisms.

Ross shared that his boss and mentor, Frank, was an Auschwitz survivor.  Frank was 48 when he emigrated penniless from the former Czechoslovakia.  His philosophy of living catapulted him to become CEO of one of the world’s multinational corporations.  Frank would often ask Ross “ is it a shoe decision ? “ when chiding Ross on taking life too seriously.

Frank shared that when he was a teenager, they were rounding up Jews and taking them to the camps.  The stress was unbelievable as each night Frank and an increasingly shrinking ghetto of survivors would wait for the pounding at the door.  ‘They always came at night and gave you no time to gather your things.  Off people went ‘( Most never returned ).

‘The night they came for me, for some reason, I did not expect it.  I was tired and was counting on a good nights sleep.  It was bitterly cold that winter and I had fortunately dressed in heavier winter pajamas.  They Nazis burst in, and I could only grab one thing.  I chose for some reason to grab two pairs of shoes.  I put on one pair and sliped the others inside my bedclothes.  The train was horrific – hours standing with no place to sit or use the toilet, people dying all the way over the several hour train ride to Birkenau -( Auschwitz )

‘It became clear to me that my extra pair of shoes would mean life for someone.  We were forced to stand for hours in freezing rain and snow. People’s feet would get frost bite and gangrenous.  Once the gangrene set in, they were whisked off to the gas chambers. I had two friends with me from home – both without shoes.  I knew that the person I gave the shoes to would live and the one without the shoes would most likely die. The night of my decision, I agonized until morning, a more tortured soul you could not find.  The next day, I gave the shoes to one friend, while the other watched.  He bore me no ill will.  The friend without shoes died in the gas chambers weeks later with infected feet.  My other friend ? He is an Auschwitz survivor today. ‘

‘ So you see, Ross’ he shared, ‘ here’s the way I look at it: Is it a shoe decision ?  Is it life or death ? Because if it is, you must take the time to be sure you search every corner of your soul for the truth.  Pray for guidance.  If it is not life or death.  Think.  Decide.  Act and never look back.  If it is wrong you can change your mind.  Be a good man.  Do the right thing.  But, agonizing over little problems that do not decide life or death is a waste of your life.  Leave worry for the other man.’

I think back many times on that dinner in London.  I think of the safety, security and affluence we enjoy and remind my children that none of our problems are “ shoe decisions”.  Words to live by, particularly these days when the world outside our cocoon seems so beset with conflict and hatred.

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.