It came down to one Marine

It’s hard to envision — or, for the dwindling few, to remember — what the world looked like on Oct. 26, 1942, when a few thousand United States Marines stood essentially stranded on the God-forsaken 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 most likely route for the Japanese Navy to take if they hoped to reach Australia.

On Guadalcanal the Marines struggled to complete an airfield. Admiral Isoroku 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 vessels 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 everyone expected on the night of Oct. 25, 1942, it’s unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide the definitive answer to what had previously been a mainly theoretical question: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against desperate attacking force of 2,000?

Nor did the commanders of the mighty Japanese Army, who had swept all before them for decades — OK, they decided not to push Marshall Zhukov any further in Manchuria — 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,” writes naval historian David Lippman. “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. 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.

#

Coming up at dawn, battalion exec Major Odell M. Conoley was first to discover the answer to our question.

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. Sixty-seven years ago, 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 — or why we found ourselves in such desperate straits in 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 issued as part of the “branches of the service” series by the makers of “G.I. Joe.”

#

On Nov. 15, 2003 — a few years after I published the first version of this column — 85-year-old retired Marine Corps Col. Mitchell Paige died of congestive heart failure at his home in La Quinta, Calif., southeast of Palm Springs.

A dwindling number of the boys who fought in the Pacific — or in Europe or North Africa — are still with us. When they are gone, will the lessons they learned vanish with them? For those who cannot remember the past, recall, are condemned to have people quote George Santayana at them forever.

Is the lesson that we should fund an expensive worldwide empire of permanent military occupation? I don’t think so — doesn’t seem compatible, somehow, with a republican government of limited powers. Overstretched empires have a tendency to collapse from the center, anyway. In fact, our forces were pretty far-flung, as it was, in 1941 — though their apparent strength, in places like the Philippines, proved hollow.

But once, 85 long years ago, the arrogant victorious allies quibbled about whether bankrupt Germany should be made to pay them $4 billion or $10 billion in reparations over the next 60 years, as frustrated German veterans in Bavaria grew fed up and marched down to join the German Workers’ Party, an outfit that promised them a re-birth of Aryan glory, a “New Deal,” if you will.

Once, those who sought “peace, peace at any price” sold scrap steel to the Japanese, stood by and hoped for the best as Hitler re-militarized the Rhineland and then grabbed Austria and the Sudentenland in what we now know were a series of huge bluffs — he started out using “tanks” that would barely have stood up to a cap pistol.

We gave away our advantages, one by one, based on our trust in the goodwill of man. Till it came down to one Marine.

Shall we cut it that close, again?

6 Comments to “It came down to one Marine”

  1. Rich Says:

    Thanks for posting this each year at the appropriate time. I can’t help but get a little choked up reading of Paige’s actions that night.

  2. John Brook Says:

    The saga is truly humbling (even for a careerist). Do we have men cut from this cloth living and serving today? Yes, thank God. Remember them on Veterans’ Day.

  3. Vin Suprynowicz » Blog Archive » ‘What’s that you got hidden there, Jew boy. A book?’ Says:

    […] How gratifying to hear from so many veterans in response to my Oct. 25 column on Mitchell Paige and Guadalcanal. […]

  4. DAN E. HUBBELL Says:

    The liberal media today is gutless, you could not expect them to brint something that is this worthwile.

  5. Jablonski Says:

    “And the weapon did not fail.”

    Indeed. And neither did the machine gun.

  6. Sharron Thames Says:

    Thank you for sharing this! Semper Fi

Comment:

RSS 2.0" title="Subscribe to this posts comments via RSS 2.0">RSS subscribe