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.
“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.