Thirty miles behind enemy lines, 133 U.S. soldiers from the Army’s 6th Ranger Battalion crawled as silently as they could toward Japan’s infamous Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines.
It was Jan. 30, 1945, and as evening set in, the Rangers were in the midst of one of the most audacious rescue missions in the history of special operations. The leader of the raid was Col. Henry Mucci, a native of Bridgeport who was as colorful and heroic a figure as any celebrated this Veterans Day.
Born in 1909 to parents who emigrated from Sicily, he was a graduate of West Point. During World War II, Mucci, who survived Pearl Harbor in 1941, is credited with transforming an unspectacular field artillery unit into the elite 6th Ranger Battalion.
A natural leader, Mucci’s men adored him “in large part because anything he asked them to do and anywhere he asked them to go he was right alongside them,” Hampton Sides writes in Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission. “Mucci was a fitness enthusiast who could outrun and outmarch most subordinates ten years his junior. Thirty-three years old, he was a short, sinewy man with a pencil mustache.”
In 1942, more than 70,000 U.S. soldiers serving in the Philippines were taken prisoner by the Japanese. These soldiers were subjected to the Bataan Death March, in which hundreds of U.S. prisoners perished. Life did not get much better after the march, as about one out of every four prisoners of the Japanese died during the war.
By 1944, U.S. forces were advancing across the Philippines. More than 500 survivors of the Bataan Death March were still held at the prisoner camp at Cabanatuan, and the U.S. movement put their lives in danger. In December, on an island to the south, more than 125 prisoners of war were massacred at a prisoner camp in Puerto Princesa. A survivor’s horrific account led U.S. military officials to conclude that other prisoners would be killed as the U.S. reclaimed the Philippines. Efforts were quickly made to organize raids to rescue the prisoners.
The first camp targeted for rescue was Cabanatuan. In early 1945, Mucci was chosen as the man to lead the raid. Three days before it took place, he gathered his men and asked them to volunteer for the mission.
“It’s going to be extremely dangerous,” he said. “Some of you might not make it back.”
He urged married men to withdraw from the assignment and told his troops he didn’t want any atheists. When no one dropped out, he ordered everyone to pray. “I want you to swear an oath before God; swear that you’ll die fighting rather than let any harm come to those prisoners,” he said.
Mucci traveled with his men behind enemy lines but delegated the planning of the raid to Capt. Robert Prince, a Seattle native and Stanford University graduate. After trekking into enemy territory, Mucci and Prince received intelligence reports about the camp from the Alamo Scouts, an Army reconnaissance unit operating behind enemy lines. They also coordinated with Filipino guerrillas, who would provide vital cover for the raid. One of these leaders, Juan Pajota, also played a key role in its strategy, suggesting they use carts pulled by carabao, or water buffalo, to carry prisoners too weak to walk.
The enterprising guerrilla leader also helped Mucci and Prince maintain the element of surprise. The area around the camp was clear of vegetation, so even crawling on their stomachs it would be difficult for the Rangers to get within firing range of the camp without being noticed. The raid depended on overwhelming the Japanese before they had the chance to mount a defense. Pajota suggested they distract the sentries as the Rangers approached by flying a U.S. plane low over the camp. Mucci liked the idea and radioed the request.
As the troops crawled toward the camp from multiple directions, the plane zipped low overhead, causing the guards to lift their gaze skyward, away from the threat creeping across the earth toward them. In unison, the Rangers unleashed a violent burst of artillery fire, destroying all the camp’s guard towers and pillboxes in a 15-second barrage. Having crippled its defenses, the Rangers moved through the camp and informed the prisoners they were freed. Many were shocked and had to be cajoled and prodded, not believing at first the rescue was real.
More than 500 men were saved. Amazingly, during the entire action, only two Rangers died, though 20 of Pajota’s guerrillas were wounded.
After the war, Mucci ran for Congress as a Democrat with a fervent anti-war platform. In his speech accepting the nomination, he said he left the Army because “the next war may very well end civilization itself.” (Through the years, he was guarded about his wartime experiences, refusing to grant interviews to journalists and not cooperating with authors of two books on the raid.) He lost the 1946 election to Republican John Davis Lodge, an actor who would later become governor.
Mucci later worked for a Canadian oil company in Singapore and Saigon, where it was rumored he was really working for the CIA. He died in 1997 at the age of 88.
The operation inspired the 2005 film The Great Raid. And in Connecticut, a portion of Route 25 between Newtown and Bridgeport is named for Mucci. It’s a small but important tribute to a hero of World War II.