He was a combat veteran of World War II. Reason enough to honor him. But this Marine was a little different. This Marine was Mitchell Paige.
It’s hard today to envision -- or, for the dwindling few, to remember -- what the world looked like on Oct. 26, 1942.
The U.S. Navy was not the most powerful fighting force in the Pacific. Not by a long shot. So the Navy basically dumped a few thousand lonely American Marines on the beach on Guadalcanal and high-tailed it out of there.
You Navy guys can hold those letters. Of course Nimitz, Fletcher and Halsey had to ration what few ships they had. I’ve written separately about the way Bull Halsey rolled the dice on the night of Nov. 13, 1942, violating the stern War College edict against committing capital ships in restricted waters and instead dispatching into the Slot his last two remaining fast battleships, the South Dakota and the Washington, escorted by the only four destroyers with enough fuel in their bunkers to get them there and back.
Those American destroyer captains need not have worried about carrying enough fuel to get home. By 11 p.m., outnumbered better than three-to-one by a massive Japanese task force driving down from the northwest, every one of those four American destroyers had been shot up, sunk, or set aflame. And while the South Dakota -- known throughout the fleet as a jinx ship -- had damaged some lesser Japanese vessels, she continued to be plagued with electrical and fire control problems.
“Washington was now the only intact ship left in the force,” writes naval historian David Lippman. “In fact, at that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet. She was the only barrier between (Admiral) Kondo’s ships and Guadalcanal. If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war. ...”
On Washington’s bridge, Lieutenant Ray Hunter had the conn. He had just seen the destroyers Walke and Preston “blown sky high.” Dead ahead lay their burning wreckage. Hundreds of men were swimming in the water and the Japanese ships racing in.
“Hunter had to do something. The course he took now could decide the war,” Lippman writes. “‘Come left,’ he said. ... Washington’s rudder change put the burning destroyers between her and the enemy, preventing her from being silhouetted by their fires.
“The move made the Japanese momentarily cease fire. Lacking radar, they could not spot Washington behind the fires. ...” Washington raced through burning seas. Dozens of destroyer men were in the water clinging to floating wreckage. “Get after them, Washington!” one shouted.
Sacrificing their ships by maneuvering into the path of torpedoes intended for the Washington, the captains of the American destroyers had given China Lee one final chance.
Blinded by the smoke and flames, the Japanese battleship Kirishima turned on her searchlights, illuminating the helpless South Dakota, and opened fire. Finally, as her own muzzle blasts illuminated her in the darkness, Admiral Lee and Captain Glenn Davis could positively identify an enemy target.
The Washington’s main batteries opened fire at 12 midnight precisely. Her radar fire control system functioned perfectly. During the first seven minutes of Nov. 14, 1942, the “last ship in the U.S. Pacific Fleet” fired 75 of her 16-inch shells at the battleship Kirishima. Aboard Kirishima, it rained steel. At 3:25 a.m., her burning hulk officially became the first enemy sunk by an American battleship since the Spanish-American War. Stunned, the Japanese withdrew. Within days, Japanese commander Isoroku Yamamoto recommended the unthinkable to the emperor -- withdrawal from Guadalcanal.
But that was still weeks in the future. We were still with Mitchell Paige back on the god-forsaken malarial jungle island of Guadalcanal, placed like a speed bump at the end of the long blue-water slot between New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago ... the very route the Japanese Navy would have to take to reach Australia.
On Guadalcanal the Marines struggled to complete an airfield. Yamamoto knew what that meant. No effort would be spared to dislodge these upstart Yanks from a position that could endanger his ships. Before long, relentless Japanese counterattacks had driven supporting U.S. Navy from inshore waters. The Marines were on their own.
As Platoon Sgt. Mitchell Paige and his 33 riflemen set about carefully emplacing their four water-cooled .30-caliber Brownings, manning their section of the thin khaki line which was expected to defend Henderson Field against the assault of the night of Oct. 25, 1942, it’s unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide the definitive answer to that most desperate of questions: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against 2,000 desperate and motivated attackers?
Nor did the commanders of the mighty Japanese Army, who had swept all before them for decades, expect their advance to be halted on some God-forsaken jungle ridge manned by one thin line of Yanks in khaki in October of 1942.
But by the time the night was over, “The 29th (Japanese) Infantry Regiment has lost 553 killed or missing and 479 wounded among its 2,554 men,” historian Lippman reports. “The 16th (Japanese) Regiment’s losses are uncounted, but the 164th’s burial parties handled 975 Japanese bodies. ... The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low.”
You’ve already figured out where the Japanese focused their attack, haven’t you? Among the 90 American dead and seriously wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige’s platoon. Every one. As the night of endless attacks wore on, Paige moved up and down his line, pulling his dead and wounded comrades back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn, convincing the Japanese forces down the hill that the positions were still manned.
The citation for Paige’s Congressional Medal of Honor picks up the tale: “When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. Paige, commanding a machinegun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire.”
In the end, Sgt. Paige picked up the last of the 40-pound, belt-fed Brownings -- the same design which John Moses Browning famously fired for a continuous 25 minutes until it ran out of ammunition, glowing cherry red, at its first U.S. Army trial -- and did something for which the weapon was never designed. Sgt. Paige walked down the hill toward the place where he could hear the last Japanese survivors rallying to move around his flank, the belt-fed gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went.
And the weapon did not fail.
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Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley was first to discover the answer to our question: How many able-bodied Marines does it take to hold a hill against two regiments of motivated, combat-hardened infantrymen who have never known defeat?
On a hill where the bodies were piled like cordwood, Mitchell Paige alone sat upright behind his 30-caliber Browning, waiting to see what the dawn would bring.
One hill: one Marine.
But “In the early morning light, the enemy could be seen a few yards off, and vapor from the barrels of their machine guns was clearly visible,” reports historian Lippman. “It was decided to try to rush the position.”
For the task, Major Conoley gathered together “three enlisted communication personnel, several riflemen, a few company runners who were at the point, together with a cook and a few messmen who had brought food to the position the evening before.”
Joined by Paige, this ad hoc force of 17 Marines counterattacked at 5:40 a.m., discovering that “the extremely short range allowed the optimum use of grenades.” They cleared the ridge.
And that’s where the unstoppable wave of Japanese conquest finally crested, broke, and began to recede. On an unnamed jungle ridge on an insignificant island no one had ever heard of, called Guadalcanal.
But who remembers, today, how close-run a thing it was -- the ridge held by a single Marine, in the autumn of 1942?
When the Hasbro Toy Co. called some years back, asking permission to put the retired colonel’s face on some kid’s doll, Mitchell Paige thought they must be joking.
But they weren’t. That’s his mug, on the little Marine they call “G.I. Joe.”
And now you know.