On this day in 1945, Bridgeport native Lt. Col. Henry Mucci led a coalition of U.S. Rangers and Filipino allies in a daring raid into heavily-occupied enemy territory to rescue over 500 Allied prisoners of war from a Japanese concentration camp. The mission, known as the Raid on Cabanatuan or simply “The Great Raid,” ended up being the most successful rescue operation in U.S. military history, instantly transforming Mucci into one of Connecticut’s most famous World War II heroes.
Born in 1909 to Italian immigrants living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Henry Andrew Mucci’s first military experience was with the Connecticut National Guard, which he joined at the age of 20. A few years later, after he was initially rejected for being “too short,” Mucci was accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduated with a commission in 1936. With an extensive infantry background, Mucci was placed in charge of the 98th Field Artillery Batallion in 1943 and promptly began transforming it into an elite Special Forces group. After a year of intense training in the Pacific islands, Mucci was ready to lead the men of the newly-created 6th Ranger Battalion into action.
In 1944, as Allied forces fought their way across the Philippines in a campaign to liberate the islands from Japanese control, troubling reports emerged that the Japanese intended to execute prisoners of war in response to the Allies’ advance. With General Douglas MacArthur’s blessing, and logistical help from 250 Filipino guerillas, Lt. Col. Mucci led 121 Rangers on an incredibly dangerous mission to rescue Allied POWs from the heavily-guarded Cabanatuan camp, thirty miles deep into enemy-held territory. With only 48 hours’ worth of planning, Mucci’s small coalition trekked through thick tropical jungle, and with help from their Filipino guides, were able to completely overwhelm the Japanese guards at Cabanatuan (who outnumbered them at least 2 to 1) and liberate over 500 prisoners, most of whom were American soldiers who had survived the brutal Bataan Death March of 1942 — all with the loss of only two Rangers killed in action.
News of Mucci’s successful rescue operation spread like wildfire throughout the United States, and after the war’s end, Mucci was welcomed back to Connecticut as a war hero. He received a number of citations, awards, and other accolades for his heroism and leadership, but perhaps none were dearer to him than the effusive praise of the men who served under his command, who described him as “so charismatic you couldn’t believe it” and swore to follow him into any situation, no matter how dangerous. Captain Robert Prince summed up the thoughts of many when he later said, “[Mucci] made a Ranger battalion out of a bunch of mule skinners, and he inspired us and trained us… Any success we had belongs to Colonel Mucci.” Thanks to Henry Mucci, not a single POW was left behind, today in Connecticut history.
“Bataan Rescue: Henry Mucci and the Rangers,” PBS American Experience
Mike Perry, “Remembering the Great Raid,” NewsRep
Robert Thomas Jr., “Henry A. Mucci; Rescued Survivors of Bataan,” New York Times
Erik Ofgang, “One of the Most Successful P.O.W. Rescues in U.S. History Was Led by a Legendary Connecticut Ranger,” Connecticut Magazine