James Vesely / Times editorial page editor
Reflecting on the life of World War II hero Robert Prince and the "Great Raid"
Seattle Times editorial page editor Jim Vesely reflects on the death of World War II hero Robert Prince of Kirkland and his role in "the Great Raid" when some 120 Army Rangers along with a swashblucking outfit known as the Alamo Scouts and determined Filipino guerrillas rescued 570 imprisoned souls, the remnants of the Bataan Death March.
Times editorial page editor
"Ghost Soldiers, the Epic Assault of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission," by Hampton Sides, (Doubleday, 2001).
THE death of Robert Prince on New Year's Day should remind us why we are here and what the world is about.
Prince, the famous Army Ranger captain who led a raid during World War II to rescue American and other Allied prisoners of war in the Philippines, lived in Kirkland for many years and died near his family in Port Townsend. He was 80.
A visit to his home, before the 2005 movie of the raid was released, showed a man of great humility and heart. Asked why he looked so stern in a photo of him during the Philippine campaign, Prince told me, "I think my feet hurt."
Yet is was Prince and some 120 Army Rangers along with a swashblucking outfit known as the Alamo Scouts and determined Filipino guerrillas who rescued 570 imprisoned souls, the remnants of the Bataan Death March, in that long-ago time of true world war.
I went to see Prince, and he greeted me among his plants and flowers on a hillside in Kirkland. Sitting in the living room, he eventually, almost shyly, brought out a box, with its gold major leaf and the black beret of the Army Ranger. Prince had been inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Ga. The black beret was his — before incoming Veterans Affairs Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki took the black beret away from the Rangers and distributed it to the whole Army.
Prince's epic, told magnificently in the nonfiction work "Ghost Soldiers," by Hampton Sides, and related in the movie "The Great Raid," became a huge public event in Seattle and the nation in the mid-1940s. Prince was a Garfield grad and a Stanford grad, although he told me in later years he had drifted away from Stanford "because of its politics."
Yet nothing about the mild-mannered man sitting in a Kirkland living room gave hint to the determination and ferocity that must have guided him those days and nights living on the edge of valor or sorrow.
The names of those times are almost lost in fog. Lt. Col. Henry Mucci of the 6th Ranger Battalion, who ended up a businessman in Thailand, but not without constant rumors he was CIA. Prince remembered a fabulous dinner held in Bangkok in the postwar world of Mucci and some of the Asian traders who came from the raiders.
No matter, it all comes back to Bob Prince. How did America produce such men? They are still working their jobs in the Rangers and the infantry, still in the Marines and flying the aircrews, but Prince was that mystery of the accidental soldier who accounted for great things.
A man who spent his life marketing Washington apples and raising a family was not a killer for a moment, but a patriot for all time. Time was the thing that brought him to World War II, as surely as my father faced the Depression and an uncle drove a tank in North Africa. They were all destiny's children, back then, men and women with lives so cluttered by the debris of depression and war that it is hard to conceive it in today's remote-controlled world.
So, now, I leave him go. I was honored to have talked with him, glad to hear the story from the man himself, felt shadowed in the penumbra of that major's leaf on a real black beret, conflicted by the world he fought for and the world we have made.
Prince lost a son in Vietnam. Others have lost sons and daughters in Iraq, Afghanistan and who knows what other hellholes.
The hero of his time endures.
James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: email@example.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at www.seattletimes.com/edcetera
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