New England has given countless military heroes to the United States of America over its history. Their heroism took many different forms. It includes Henry Mucci’s bravery during the great raid on a Japanese POW camp or John Stark’s leadership at the Battle of Bennington. It includes George Luz keeping up the morale of his Band of Brothers during the invasion of Normandy and Red Cross nurse Jane Jeffrey tending the wounded in a hospital tent while injured herself. And it includes such unlikely heroes as an 11-year-old drummer boy from Vermont and a Harvard-trained sculptor who battled off Rhode Island.
Here, then, are just a dozen stories about New England’s military heroes in recognition of all of their service.
Henry Mucci Launches the Most Daring Rescue of Our Time
In October 1944, more than 500 mostly American survivors of the Bataan Death March were held in the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines while the 6th Army marched toward Manila to liberate it from the Japanese. The American prisoners were in imminent danger of being massacred by the Japanese before their countrymen could save them.
Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion, was ordered to infiltrate Japanese-held territory, rescue the POWs at Cabanatuan and bring them back to the American lines. On Jan. 28, 1945, Mucci led a strike force on a march 30 miles through Japanese territory and rendezvoused with two companies of Filipino guerillas near the POW camp. They learned a Japanese column was heading along the main highway away from Cabanatuan, and they decided to wait 24 hours so there would be fewer Japanese to defend the camp. By the next day, there were 3,000 Japanese in the vicinity against Mucci’s 128 Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts and 250 Filipino guerillas, some unarmed.
At dusk on January 30, the guerrillas set up ambushes along the highway. The American strike force crawled nearly a half mile from the woods across an open field to a ditch outside the camp fence. Mucci joined the attack on the ground, unusual for a colonel. An Army Air Force night fighter buzzed the POW camp to distract the Japanese.
The attack took the Japanese by such surprise it lasted but half an hour. None of the Japanese troops or tanks got past the guerrillas along the highway or survived the strafing by P-61s from the 547th Night Fighter Squadron. All but one of the 513 prisoners were liberated from the camp. The remaining prisoner, either English or Canadian, had lost his hearing and part of his sight during his imprisonment. He was in a latrine during the fighting and didn’t notice until dawn that he was the only living person left in the camp. The Filipino guerillas found him and took him to safety.
More than 500 Japanese troops were killed or wounded, 21 Filipino guerillas were wounded and only two Rangers were killed in the action. Some of the prisoners were so weak from disease and starvation they couldn’t walk, and the Rangers carried them — sometimes two at a time — out of the camp. They were carried in carts drawn by water buffalos to hospitals behind American lines. (Watch a short video here.)
The mission is considered the largest and most successful rescue mission in the history of the U.S. military. Henry Mucci was treated as a welcoming hero in his hometown of Bridgeport, Conn. He received the Distinguished Service Cross from his friend Gen. Douglas MacArthur. A section of Route 25 between Bridgeport and Newtown, Conn., was named the Col. Henry A. Mucci Highway in his honor, and a film called The Great Raid about the rescue was released in 2005.
(To see a short video of the American strike force behind enemy lines on the way to Cabanatuan, click here. For more photos of the liberation of Cabanatuan, click here.)
Willie Johnston Earns Medal of Honor at 11 Years Old
Willie Johnston of Salem (now Derby), Vt., is the youngest person to receive the Medal of Honor.
When his father enlisted in the Union Army in December 1861, 11-year-old Willie begged to go with him. He was mustered into the 3d Vermont Infantry Regiment on May 1, 1862, and soon saw action.
During the Seven Days Battles near Richmond, Va., the Confederate Army drove the Union Army into a retreat down the Virginia peninsula. Many of the men threw away their guns to lighten their load while retreating. Willie hung on to his drum and brought it safely to Harrison’s Landing.
Since he was the only drummer boy left with a drum, he was given the honor of drumming for the division parade. President Abraham Lincoln heard the story and recommended the boy be given a medal. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton presented the Medal of Honor on Feb. 15, 1864, when Willie was 13 years old – for something he did when he was 11.
It was the second Medal of Honor ever given. Johnston was mustered out of the army on Dec. 30, 1864. His drumsticks and a photograph of him are on display at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, there is a statue of him in Santa Clarita, Calif., and a book, Mr. Lincoln’s Drummer, was written about him in 1995.
John Stark, Hero and Quote Machine
Gen. John Stark is now best known for coining New Hampshire’s motto, “Live Free or Die,” but in his day he was hailed as the Hero of Bennington.
As a young man, Stark impressed the Abenaki Indians who had taken him captive. He fought back against the young Indians who forced him to run the gauntlet. Later, he led daring raids as second in command of Roger’s Rangers. And as soon as he heard about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, he marched his New Hampshire Militia to Boston. They fought valiantly in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and it may (or may not) have been Stark who said, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
As a general in the Continental Army he led untrained men into battle at Bennington, where they mauled the British forces. There, Stark ordered the attack, rallying his men with the cry, “We’ll beat them before night or Molly Stark’s a widow.”
The battle boosted American morale, prevented the British from taking supplies and helped make possible the crucial victory of the Battle of Saratoga by thinning British forces.
After the war, Stark spent the rest of his life in Manchester, N.H. (then Derryfield). He declined an invitation to attend a reunion of the Battle of Bennington in 1809. He was 81 and too frail to attend, but he wrote a letter to his comrades that closed with the words, “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”
Jane Jeffrey, From the Battle of the Marne to Maine
Jane Jeffrey (also spelled Jeffery), a registered nurse caring for a sick relative in Dorchester, Mass., volunteered for the American Red Cross during World War I. In July 1918 she was serving at a military hospital at Jouy-sur-Marne in France, where the overwhelmed staff treated wounded soldiers in tents with no plumbing. The hospital came under attack during the second battle of the Marne. Jane Jeffrey received the the Distinguished Service Cross for her actions during the air raid. Her citation reads:
For extraordinary heroism in action at Jouy-sur-Morin (Seine-et-Marne), France, on July 15, 1918. While she was on duty at American Red Cross Hospital No. 107, Miss Jeffrey was severely wounded by an exploding bomb during an air raid. She showed utter disregard for her own safety by refusing to leave her post, thought suffering great pain from her wounds. Her courageous attitude and devotion to the task of helping others was inspiring to all her associates.
While convalescing in America, Jane Jeffrey was offered a job as a nurse at the Poland Spring House in Poland, Maine, by its proprietor, E.P. Ricker. While at Poland Spring, she met and married his brother, Alvan Bolster Ricker. She left in her will a bequest to build the Alvan Bolster Ricker Memorial Library in Poland.
John Mihalowski, an Extraordinary Hero
When Worcester, Mass., native John Mihalowski enlisted in the Navy in 1927, he couldn’t have known he would play a key role in the greatest submarine rescue in history.
During his naval career, Mihalowski trained as a diver and rose to the rank of chief torpedoman. As the U.S. entry into World War II loomed, he was assigned to the crew of the U.S.S. Falcon.
On May 23, 1939, the Falcon was urgently summoned from New London, Conn., to rescue of the U.S.S. Squalus. The submarine had sunk during a test dive from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Some of the men had survived, but it was unlikely they would get out alive. There was little time before their air would run out, and no one had ever been rescued from a submarine that sank.
Once they reached the coast of New Hampshire, Mihalowski and several other divers managed to make four trips to the sub in an experimental diving ball. It was with great risk to their own lives that they carried all 33 survivors to the surface.
John Mihalowski received the Medal of Honor ‘for extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession.’ Read more about the dramatic story of the greatest submarine rescue ever here.
Nathan Hale, the Only Volunteer
In September 1776, Gen. George Washington moved his army to New York City to prevent the British from invading. He was desperate to know where the British planned their attack, and he thought the only way to find out was to send a spy behind enemy lines.
Only one man volunteered: Lt. Nathan Hale. He was a 21-year-old former schoolteacher, born in Coventry, Conn., and trained at Yale College. He moved with the 7th Connecticut Regiment to Manhattan in 1776.
Hale was ferried behind enemy lines and discovered by the British as a spy in Lower Manhattan — how is unclear. He was questioned, found to have incriminating evidence on him and sentenced to hang. His exact last words may or may not have been, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Several witnesses, though, said he behaved with dignity and composure. He was hanged at what is now 66th Street and 3rd Avenue in New York City. Today Nathan Hale is remembered as Connecticut’s state hero.
William Harvey Carney Never Let the Flag Touch the Ground
Sgt. William Harvey Carney was one of the many African-American men who volunteered for the the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It was a proud African-American unit of the Union Army established during the Civil War in 1863. Col. Robert Gould Shaw and 28 other white officers led the regiment.
So many men volunteered the recruiters could be selective, resulting in what the surgeon general called the most “robust, strong and healthy set of men” ever mustered into service in the United States.
In July 1863 they saw their first action on James Island in South Carolina, where they stopped a Confederate assault. Shortly afterward they led an attack on Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C. Shaw was killed in the battle; 271 of the 600 who charged the fort were killed, wounded or captured. During the battle, Sgt. Carney grabbed the U.S. flag as the bearer fell, carried it to the ramparts and back, singing, “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground.”
Union forces couldn’t take and hold the fort, but the 54th was heralded for its bravery. That acclaim encouraged enlistment of African-American troops. Thirty-seven years later, Sgt. William Harvey Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation reads,
When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.
The battle was dramatized in the film Glory, and the 54th is memorialized in a bronze monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens facing the Massachusetts Statehouse.
The Band of Brothers’ Morale Booster
George Luz belonged to the famed Band of Brothers with Easy Company during World War II. Born in Fall River, Mass., he grew up in Warwick, R.I. He had nine biological siblings. Of Portuguese descent, he had a knack for mimicry and an impish sense of humor.
Luz enlisted in the U.S. Army in August 1942 and became a technician fourth grade in the 101st Airborne Division. He jumped into Normandy on D-Day, finding himself alone on the battlefield. Luz later said he ducked behind a hedgerow and watched his fellow paratroopers shot by tracer rounds.
He regrouped with his company, and saw further action in Europe. At the Battle of the Bulge Luz lost several friends. After the war he married and settled down in West Warwick, R.I., where he worked as a maintenance consultant. He died in an accident when an industrial dryer fell on him. During his wake, 1,600 people lined up outside the funeral home to pay their respects.
Actor Rick Gomez portrayed Luz in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. He is credited with boosting Easy Company’s morale with his lighthearted wit during difficult times.
Esek Hopkins, Not One To Obey Orders
Esek Hopkins was the controversial – and only – commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War. Born in Scituate, R.I., in 1718, he had sailed to nearly every part of the globe by the time war broke out.
On Dec. 22, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed him to head America’s infant navy to protect commerce. Ordered to head to the Chesapeake Bay, he instead took eight merchant ships outfitted for war to the Caribbean. He decided he risked annihilation of his small fleet in the Chesapeake. He wanted to divert the British Navy from the American coast and capture a prize rather than see his small fleet destroyed.
On March 3, 1776 he launched the Battle of Nassau in the first U.S. amphibious landing. Sailors and marines captured munitions and two ships, while severely injuring another. Hopkins was lauded by some, condemned by others for the bold stroke. He was relieved of his command in July 1778. The National Register of Historic Places now lists his home in Providence.
Donald Skidgel Gave His Life for Others in Vietnam
Sgt. Donald Skidgel of Bangor, Maine, gave his life at the age of 20 to save others on a battleground in Vietnam.
He joined the Army in 1968 and soon rose to sergeant. On Sept. 14, 1969, his unit was guarding a convoy near Song Be when it came under fire from the enemy concealed in tall grass and bunkers along the road. Skidgel maneuvered off the road and began firing, silencing one enemy position. Then he ran across 60 meters of bullet-raked ground and fired at other enemy positions. He then saw the command group of the convoy coming under intense attack. Skidgel tried to draw the enemy’s attention away from it by manning a machine gun in his vehicle while his driver steered through the hostile fire.
An exploding grenade knocked him onto the rear fender. He staggered to his feet and continued firing until small arms fire killed him. He had saved the convoy command and inspired his fellow soldiers to defeat the enemy.
Donald Skidgel earned the Medal of Honor posthumously. On Oct. 15, 2011, the replacement bridge on Route 2 spanning the Sebasticook River in Newport Maine was dedicated as ‘The Donald Sidney Skidgel Memorial Bridge.’
John Lonergan: “Fall Out, Every Damned One of You!”
Capt. John Lonergan came to Vermont in 1848 as a refugee from famine and political oppression in Ireland. He worked as a cooper with his father in Winooski, but in 1862 formed a company of Vermont Irishmen who volunteered to fight for the Union Army.
Lonergan had ulterior motives: He wanted to develop military skills for the cause of Irish freedom.
He earned the Medal of Honor for his valor at the Battle of Gettysburg. During that battle, his company captured Confederate artillery. As the men moved the gun carriages to a better position, Lonergan realized they took heavy fire from the Codories House in front of them. Lonergan ordered his men to charge it. They surrounded the house and Lonergan knocked in the front door, bellowing, ‘’Surrender! Fall out here, every damned one of you!’ The Confederates tumbled out of the house, and Lonergan’s company took 83 of them captive.
After the war, Lonergan headed the Vermont branch of the Fenian Brotherhood and organized two failed raids into Canada from St. Albans. He wanted to pressure Britain to leave Ireland.
He died in 1902. In 2013 his great-granddaughter unveiled a memorial marker to honor him in Burlington’s City Hall Park.
Norman Cota, D-Day’s Overlooked Hero
Norman Cota, a native of Chelsea, Mass., graduated two months early from West Point in April 1917 when America entered World War I. At West Point, Cota and Dwight Eisenhower became good friends playing football.
By D-Day he was a 51-year-old brigadier general, assistant commander of the 29th division. He was also one of the highest ranking officers on Omaha Beach that day and possibly the oldest person.
Cota warned his men of the terrible confusion they’d encounter that day. He got it right. Troops landed in the wrong places and the German defenses were stronger than anticipated. The Allies couldn’t get a foothold on the beach under intense enemy fire and around obstacles and mines.
About one hour after the invasion started, Norman Cota rode a landing craft into a crossfire of bullets, artillery and mortar. He strode upright across the beach toward a group of Rangers pinned next to a sand dune by enemy fire. It was then that he may have uttered his most famous words: “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.”
Into the Breach
He asked the commander of the unit, “What outfit is this?” When told it was the 5th Ranger Battalion, he replied, “Well, God damn it then, Rangers, lead the way!” That elite unit now uses Cota’s “Rangers lead the way!” as its official motto, but Norman Cota led the way that day.
Wire fences obstructed the soldiers’ path up the cliffs off the beach. A soldier placed a Bangalore torpedo – a tube filled with high explosives – under one fence and blew it away. The first soldier through the breach was killed by sniper fire. The men following him froze.
Cota raced into the breach. He led the soldiers who’d survived the invasion through the gap in the fence and up a steep bluff to overtake a German gun embankment. At one point he got ahead of his men and stood waiting for them, twirling his .45 on his finger.
Opening the gap allowed men and equipment to move off the beach to safer places inland. Norman Cota earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his leadership that day. An effort is underway to upgrade his decoration to the Medal of Honor.
This story about New England heroes updated in 2022.