March 4, 2014

Colonel Henry A. Mucci: A Warrior’s Tale

Colonel Henry A. Mucci
By Niccolò Graffio
“At daybreak, when loathe to rise, have this thought in thy mind: I am rising for a man’s work.” – Marcus Aurelius: “Meditations”: v, c. 170 AD
War is a strange phenomenon, to say the least.  It is during wartime that humans can both reach the greatest heights of heroism and go down to the lowest depths of bestiality.  I believe it was no less than Gen. George S. Patton Jr. who once exclaimed “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” He was probably correct.  Ironic, isn’t it though, the times when our species’ actions are most memorable are also when we’re the most destructive.
Yet memorable many of them are, indeed.  Memorable enough that libraries and film archives are filled with them. Before the public fool system in this country was basically hijacked by bioegalitarian leftists (“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” – Jesse Jackson) who hadn’t learned about the legendary exploits of men like Alexander of Macedon, Julius Caesar, Charles Martel and George Washington? 
What is it about war, in spite of all the death and destruction it generates, that continues to fascinate so many people?  Does its appeal lie perhaps in a genetic need for hero worship?  On the other hand, could it be it taps into a more primitive part of our brains that has survived the millennia since our ancestors first learned to throw rocks at one another?  If the latter is true, really, what makes those who sit in front of the television every night watching war movies (or bloody sports such as boxing or MMA) any different from the throngs who screamed for blood in Rome’s Coliseum so many centuries ago?
Ignore my admittedly rudimentary philosophical musings. The fact is war has been an integral part of our species’ evolution from the beginning, and despite the wishful thinking of so many utopian socialists it will undoubtedly continue to be so for quite some time, maybe forever.
So what does this have to do with Southern Italians?  Plenty, actually.  A common stereotype that has plagued our people in this country (with plenty of help from the mainstream media) is that Italians are basically a cowardly people.  That this flies in the face of history (as does so many other ethnic stereotypes) is irrelevant.
Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone
Factoid: During World War II about 10% of America’s estimated 12 million military personnel were Italians and Ellis Island records show about 80% of those Italians were people from or descended from Southern Italians.  Bigotry against “ethnic Whites” (i.e. Southern and Eastern Europeans) was openly and unapologetically practiced.  As a result, few of our people made it to the rank of senior officer in the American military.  In spite of this, many of them made more than a worthy show of themselves and our people.  For example, the man who today is acknowledged by many (including the U.S. Postal Service!) as being one of the greatest enlisted Marines in U.S. military history is Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone of Raritan, NJ!
Some Southern Italians, in spite of the obstacles of bigotry, were able to ascend to higher ranks.  Perhaps the WASP-powers-that-be threw our people a bone to help perpetuate the myth that “anyone can grow up to become President of the United States.”  I, on the other hand, still vividly recall being told by my mother when I was 12-years-old “You’ll see a black man in the White House before you’ll see an Italian.”
As a child I was raised to look up to heroes of only ‘approved’ ethnicities.  Today it’s still the same only the approved ethnicities have changed.  At no time was I ever told that MY people produced heroes!  I had to learn that on my own.  War is all hell but if war and its personages are to be remembered then what is wrong with remembering the fact that WE produced war heroes as well?  Here was one of them.
Henry Andrews Mucci was born on March 4th, 1909 in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  His parents had immigrated to this country from Campobasso, the capital city of Molise, Italy.  After settling in this country his father worked as a horse seller in the Bridgeport area.  
Growing up young Henry Mucci’s grades were good enough that he was able to enroll in the famed U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY.  As a result of his background with horses he made it to the school’s equestrian team.
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
Henry Mucci was an officer stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 when the installation came under Japanese attack.  Thankfully he survived the assault.  Mucci came from a large family and his brothers also served in the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II.  Even his sisters did their patriotic duty by dividing their time working for VFW and in factories manufacturing armaments.
Though Col. Mucci served with honor during the attack on Pearl Harbor and during the Second Battle of the Philippines (1944-45) his page in the history books would be prepared for him almost at the end of the Second World War.  In February of 1943 US Sixth Army Command chose Mucci to head the 98th Field Artillery Battalion.  
The Battalion had previously been a mule-drawn pack artillery unit but it was decided that Mucci would convert it to Rangers.  Mucci started by downsizing the unit from 1,000 to only 500 men.  Next he relocated them to a special Army training camp in New Guinea where for the next year he rigorously trained (some would later say brutalized) his men into learning commando-style techniques.  As a result he created a new type of Army Ranger – one specialized in jungle commando and guerrilla warfare. 
As John Richardson, one of Col. Mucci’s 6th Army Rangers would later recall: "I thought he was going to kill us. He called us rats, he called us everything but a child of God. And he told us, "I'm going to make you so damn mean, you will kill your own grandmother.... I wondered why he was putting us through so much, but before it was over, there was no question about it, I knew why. And once he got us trained and picked out, he loved us to death. And there wasn't anything too good for us.... He knew what he was doing when he was training us."
Australian POW executed 
at Aitape, New Guinea
As of the time of World War II Japan had not signed any of the Geneva Conventions which among other things guaranteed the humane treatment of enemy POWs.  As a result the Japanese did not feel bound by its rules of conduct.  Though modern technologically, culturally Japan was in many ways still existing in the pre-Meiji period (1868-1912).  POWs could thus expect to be treated (at best) brutally by their Japanese captors who regarded anyone who allowed themselves to be taken alive as worthy of only the utmost contempt.   POWs who weren’t murdered outright were frequently worked to death as slaves in forced labor camps not only in the Philippines but in China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan itself. 
As victorious American and Filipino forces raced across the Philippines the High Command of the Imperial Japanese Army made the decision to massacre all POWs so that none might be liberated.  On December 14, 1944 units of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army staged a mock air raid at Camp 10-A on the island of Palawan near the town of Puerto Princesa.  After herding 150 American POWs into their shelters 50 to 60 Japanese soldiers under the command of 1st. Lt. Yoshikazu Sato doused the shelters with gasoline then torched them and threw grenades into them.  Any American soldiers who tried to escape were either machine gunned bayoneted or clubbed to death!  To their credit, several GI’s were able to close in on their Japanese tormenters and kill them in hand-to-hand combat before being killed themselves.
A handful of Americans were able to escape the deathtrap and make their way back to civilization.  When word reached the liberating forces of the massacre at Camp 10-A senior Army officials feared for the safety of the few remaining Allied POWs in the Philippines still under Japanese control. The decision was then made to conduct a series of rescue operations.
The Cabanatuan Prison Camp near Cabanatuan City in the province of Nueva Ecija still housed a little over 500 POWs when the decision was made to liberate it.  Responsibility for the operation fell to General Walter Krueger of U.S. Sixth Army.  The remoteness of the camp and the difficulty of the terrain (plus the presence of large numbers of enemy soldiers in the area) would make such a rescue operation very difficult at best, impossible at worst.  After butting heads with one of his top men, Col. Horton White, Gen. Krueger decided that Lt. Col. Henry Mucci would spearhead the operation.
It was now the Fates decreed that Mucci, son of an immigrant horse salesman, would join the ranks of history’s greatest warriors!  Even before this monumental event came to fruition he earned for himself a footnote in the pages of the history of World War II.  Three days before General Douglas MacArthur strolled up out of the surf to proudly announce his return to “his Philippines” Mucci and a small contingent of Rangers had been sent to that very spot to clear the way.  Angered and frustrated at finding little enemy resistance he sent this memorable communiqué back to Army HQ:
“Here we are with all these goddamned bullets and no japs.”
Mucci and his men would soon get the opportunity to face the enemy.  As Japan’s impending defeat in the Philippines became abundantly clearer the situation of the remaining Allied POWs in Japanese hands became direr.  To be sure, they were never good in the first place.  Prisoners at the Cabanatuan Camp ate only two meals a day, this was usually steamed rice that was occasionally supplemented with a piece of fruit or on even rarer occasions – a piece of meat.  
Prisoners were forced to supplement their diet by capturing and eating any animals that had the misfortune to wander into the camp.  These included (but were not limited to) snakes, ducks, mice and even stray dogs.  Filipino resistance fighters operating in the area were able to smuggle thousands of quinine tablets into the camp (by bribing the guards who were notoriously corrupt) thus saving scores who otherwise would have died of malaria.  One of the prisoners had smuggled a camera into the camp which he used to document the deplorable living conditions there.
As one would expect, men forced to live under such conditions were bound to try to escape. The Japanese dealt very harshly with them.  In one instance, four men who tried and failed to escape were forced to dig their own graves before being murdered.  After this the camp commander instituted the “Rule of 10” – any future attempt at escape would result in the murders of 10 soldiers for every man who tried to escape.  A week after instituting this rule it was put into draconian use when the Japanese murdered 18 men along with two others who had tried to escape.
On January 6th, 1945 all of the Japanese guards abandoned the camp, leaving the prisoners with strict instructions not to leave or else they would be killed.  The prisoners obeyed, fearing the guards were lurking outside for the chance to kill them all!  Nevertheless, the prisoners looted the guards’ side of the camp for food and other supplies.  Over the next few days roving bands of Japanese soldiers would periodically enter the camp.  They would otherwise ignore the prisoners except sometimes asking them for food!
Freed from the brutality of their erstwhile guards and with plenty of food in their bellies, the prisoners slowly regained their strength.  Their good fortune would soon end, however.  By mid-January a large group of Japanese soldiers entered the camp and forced the prisoners to return to their side of the camp once again.  Rumors soon swirled among their ranks they were all about to be murdered!
While all this was going on Major Robert Lapham, senior guerilla chief for USAFFE (United States Armed Forces in the Far East) and Captain Juan Pajota (also of USAFFE) coordinated with Colonel Horton White a plan for the rescue of the POWs still holed up in Cabanatuan.  Pajota was a Filipino local who had been recruited into the USAFFE when he joined that group during the retreat from Bataan.  
Capt. Pajota's guerrillas
It was Capt. Pajota who had recruited local Filipino guerillas to escort U.S. forces to the area (and later join in the rescue attempt).  He also sagaciously advised local villagers ahead of time to muzzle their dogs so they would not bark when the Americans arrived.  This prevented the Japanese from being tipped off.  
In addition, he advised Mucci to move back the rescue attempt 24 hours due to heavy Japanese activity in the area.  It was his idea to send an American plane into the area to divert the attention of the Japanese during the rescue attempt.  He also led an assault on Japanese troops to prevent them from crossing the Cabu Bridge and attacking the rescuers and POWs.  Finally, he procured 50 carabao (water buffalo) carts to transport the sick and malnourished POWs to safety.  This latter action alone saved countless lives!  His actions were every bit as crucial to the success of this mission as were those of Lt. Col. Henry Mucci and for that reason I felt he was deserving of special mention.
The rescuers consisted of the following: Lt. Col. Henry Mucci in charge of 90 Rangers from C Company and 30 more from F Company (6th Ranger Battalion) along with 14 Alamo Scouts (divided into two teams).  The Scouts would leave 24 hours ahead of the main force to survey the perimeter of the camp.  The main force would surround the camp, attack and kill the guards and then escort the liberated POWs to safety.  In addition, a team of 80 Filipino guerillas would serve as guides and then join in attacking the camp.
There was no room for error; the Scouts and Rangers came loaded for bear!  Each Scout was armed with a .45 pistol, three hand grenades, a knife, a rifle or M1 carbine and extra ammunition.  The Rangers were armed with assorted Thompson submachine guns, BARs, M1 Garands, pistols, grenades, knives, extra ammo and even several bazookas!  Each combat photographer carried a pistol and even the accompanying medical personnel were armed (though that was a violation of the Geneva Protocols).
Midday on January 30th a small group of Scouts managed to hole up in a shack about 300 yards from the camp.  From here they prepared a reconnaissance report about the size and capabilities of the Japanese troops in the camp.  The report was quickly forwarded to Col. Mucci.
Capt. Robert Prince of the 6th Ranger Battalion had estimated, based on reports, the entire raid could be accomplished successfully in as little as 30 minutes (if all went well, of course).  The main problem was the flatness of the land surrounding the camp which the Japanese had defoliated to prevent sneak attacks by the enemy.  Unbeknownst to the Allies, however, the Japanese in the camp had no searchlights to scour the outer perimeter of the camp.  It was then that Capt. Pajota had suggested the use of a plane to distract the guards just before the attack.
Capt. Prince later admitted he never expected the use of a plane to divert the attention of the guards would work, but work it did.  As the plane buzzed the camp a group of Filipino guerillas led by Lt. Carlos Tombo accompanied by a small group of Rangers cut the telephone lines leaving the camp to prevent anyone inside from communicating with the outside world.  All hell was ready to bust loose.
At 7:40 PM Camp Cabanatuan came under attack!  The assault started with small arms fire on the guard towers and pillboxes ringing the camp which in 15 seconds were completely destroyed!  Next Sgt. Ted Richardson shot off a padlock on the main gate using his .45 pistol.  Rangers at the main gate then rushed in and immediately began firing on the guard barracks and officer quarters.  Simultaneously, those at the rear of the camp eliminated any enemy soldiers there, taking control of the area around the prisoners’ huts and then proceeded to evacuate the occupants.
US Army Rangers and Filipino 
guerrillas advance on Cabanatuan
The raid, which was entirely unexpected by both guards and prisoners alike, came with such lightening efficiency that at first the prisoners thought the gunfire they heard was that of Japanese soldiers murdering the POWs!  Further complicating the rescue operation was the fact the Rangers were dressed nothing like the POWs had remembered them from just a few years earlier.  As a result, many of the prisoners resisted their liberators who had to use physical force to get them out of their huts!  
Seconds after hearing the small arms fire that meant the attack had begun, Capt. Pajota ordered his men to fire upon the Japanese soldiers stationed along the Cabu River.  Five minutes after the attack had begun the bridge over the river was shaken by a large explosion; a bomb had been planted by the Filipino guerillas!  Though the explosion did not destroy the bridge it left a hole large enough to prevent any tanks or trucks from crossing it and thereby aid the guards in the camp. 
Japanese soldiers rushed to cross the bridge but each attempt was repulsed by gunfire from the guerillas.  One Filipino who just several hours earlier had been trained by Rangers in the use of a bazooka used one to destroy four enemy tanks!
By 8:15 PM the camp was secured.  Capt. Prince fired a flare to signal the end of the assault.  At 8:40 PM, once Prince had determined that everyone had crossed the Pampanga River to safety, he fired a second flare to signal to the Filipinos they could withdraw.  Capt. Pajota and his men, though, continued to fight off attempts by the Japanese to advance until 11 PM when it was finally safe for them to leave. 
During the rescue operation only two men were lost – Cpl. Roy Sweezy who was ironically shot by ‘friendly fire’ and Battalion surgeon Capt. James Fisher who was mortally wounded in the stomach.  He was transported to the village of Balincari where he later died.  Other than several other men who were wounded there were no Allied casualties!
It must be noted the returning Allies faced one final obstacle on the long road back to safety.  While traveling back they were stopped at one point by members of the Hukbalahap – Filipino Communist guerillas who hated both the Americans as well as the Japanese.  They also hated Pajota’s men.  At first they refused to allow Mucci & co. to pass through the village.  An agitated Mucci informed them the Japanese were right behind them.  The Communists then consented to allow only Americans to pass through, but Pajota and his men were forbidden.  The stalemate finally ended when an enraged Mucci had the Commies informed if they didn’t’ allow everyone to pass through he would personally call in an artillery barrage to level their entire village!   The ruse worked – point of fact, his radio was broken.
The raid was a success!  489 POWs were rescued along with 33 civilians.  Of the total 492 were Americans.  That same day Camp O’Donnell was likewise captured from the Japanese and its captives liberated.  The returning POWs were thus able to tell the world of Japanese atrocities at Bataan and Corregidor.  This filled the Allies with the resolve to destroy the Japanese Empire once and for all!
Sadly, several of the captives at Cabanatuan, emaciated and sickened by their experiences there, died as a result.  The vast majority of those held captive, however, were rescued and sent back home.  The number of Japanese soldiers killed has been estimated at anywhere from 530 to over 1,000!  
Liberated POWs
News of the raid was made available to the American public on February 2nd.  It was greeted with exhilaration!  For a time Col. Mucci and his men were media celebrities.  Events in the Pacific were moving quickly, however, and soon the memory of the raid was overshadowed by other events including the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theatre during the war.
America’s legendary Gen. Douglas MacArthur described the mission as “…brilliantly successful.”  On March 3rd, 1945 he presented awards to the soldiers who took part in the raid.  Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci was promoted to full Colonel.  He was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor but instead both he and Capt. Prince were presented with the Distinguished Service Cross.  It was later reported that Mucci actually preferred this over the CMH because he wanted to have his medal given to him by Gen. MacArthur, his friend.  
After the war ended he returned to his home in Bridgeport, CT where he was treated as a national hero.  A year after the war ended he unsuccessfully ran for Congress.  In 1947 he married Marion Fountain with whom he had three children.  
In his later years he became a representative for a Canadian oil company in Thailand.  He also became the President of Bridgeport Lincoln Mercury.  To honor their native son, in 1974 the city fathers of Bridgeport named the part of Route 25 between Bridgeport and Newtown the Col. Henry A. Mucci Highway.
When he retired he and his wife moved to Melbourne, Florida.  When he was 86 he sustained a hip fracture.  True to his Ranger background, the old warrior suffered the fracture while swimming in rough surf near his Melbourne home.  Two years later, on April 20th 1997, Col. Henry Andrews Mucci, the hero of Cabanatuan, the man initially turned down by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for being ‘short’, passed away at the age of 88.
Further reading:
• Sides, Hampton: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission; Anchor Publishing, 2002