How many U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill?

I had meant to re-post this yesterday, Oct. 25 -– as I used to do, every couple of years. (Have six years really sped by?) But of course our friends at GoDaddy chose the evening of Oct. 24, this year, to shut us down for 44 hours as they “migrated this site to a new server.” Anyhow -– as we now seem to be “up” again, and despite the fact there are unfortunately fewer and fewer each year who actually remember the dark days of 1942 — here it is, largely unchanged from the last time I posted it, on or about Oct. 25, 2011 . . .

I see where Paramount has announced an Aug. 10, 2012, release date for their upcoming sequel to 2009’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” Stephen Sommers has reportedly bowed out; Jon Chu will direct the follow-up special effects extravaganza.

I reported back in 2007 that Hollywood had already decided a movie based on the Hasbro toy couldn’t be sold in the international market if the heroes were seen as, you know, “Americans.” So Paramount simply turned Joe’s name into an acronym, the show biz newspaper Variety reported: “G.I. Joe is now a Brussels-based outfit that stands for Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity, an international co-ed force of operatives who use hi-tech equipment to battle Cobra, an evil organization headed by a double-crossing Scottish arms dealer.”

Well, thank goodness the villain -– no need to offend anyone by making our villains Arabs, Muslims, or foreign dictators of any stripe these days, though apparently Presbyterians who talk like Scottie on “Star Trek” are still OK -– is a “double-crossing” arms dealer. Otherwise one might be tempted to conclude the geniuses at Paramount believe arms dealing itself is evil.

(Just for the record, what did the quintessential American hero, Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in “Casablanca,” do before he opened his eponymous cafe? And for what noble contribution to the nation’s independence is the late Hank Greenspun still honored, to this day, in Israel?)

According to reports in Variety and IGN, the producers explained international marketing would simply prove too difficult for a film about a heroic U.S. soldier. Thus the need to “eliminate Joe’s connection to the U.S. military.”

Well, who cares. G.I. Joe is just a toy, right? He was never real. Right?

On Nov. 15, 2003, an 85-year-old retired Marine Corps colonel died of congestive heart failure at his home in La Quinta, Calif., southeast of Palm Springs. He was a combat veteran of World War II. His name was Mitchell Paige.

It’s hard today to envision -– or, for the dwindling few, to remember — what the world looked like on Oct. 25, 1942 — 75 years ago.

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 at Guadalcanal and high-tailed it out of there.

You old swabbies can hold the letters. I’ve written elsewhere 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 . . . FOR A NIGHT ACTION, at which the Japanese were reputed to excel.

By 11 p.m., the fire control systems on the South Dakota were malfunctioning, and the crews of two of those American destroyers could be heard cheering the Washington as Admiral “Ching Chong China” Lee drove her past them — the unlikely cheers of men treading water in an inky sea full of flaming wreckage as the huge, blacked-out battleship surged past them, you understand.

For the job of the destroyers had been to screen the two battlewagons, absorbing hits from the Japanese “Long Lance” torpedoes meant for the capital ships. And that’s exactly what they did. USS Walke (DD-416) and USS Preston (DD-377) took numerous hits of all calibers and promptly sank; the Benham and the Gwin were both heavily damaged. (Those Yanks, what a bunch of cringing softies.)

“At that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet,” writes naval historian David Lippman. “If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war. . . .”

Minutes after midnight, facing those odds, the battleship Washington opened up with her radar-controlled 16-inch guns. For seven minutes, on the battleship Kirishima, it rained steel, including 40 hits from Washington’s 5-inch secondaries, and nine direct hits (out of 75 fired) from her main armament -– that is to say, the Kirishima shuddered and became a flaming tomb under the impact of nine armor-piercing projectiles weighing a ton apiece.

If you’re reading this in English, you should be able to figure how that battle ended.

But the Washington’s one-sided battle with the Kirishima was still weeks in the future. On Oct. 25, Mitchell Paige was back on the God-forsaken malarial jungle island of Guadalcanal.

On Guadalcanal, the Marines struggled to complete an airfield that could threaten the Japanese route to Australia. Admiral Yamamoto knew how dangerous that was. Before long, relentless Japanese counterattacks had driven the 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 on that hillside, 75 years ago this week — manning their section of the thin khaki line that 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 armed and motivated attackers?

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 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 machine gun 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, water-cooled, belt-fed Brownings 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.

Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley was the first to discover how many able-bodied United States Marines it takes 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.

The hill had held, because on the hill remained the minimum number of able-bodied United States Marines necessary to hold the position.

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 ever heard of, called Guadalcanal.

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 Marine version of the action figure they call “G.I. Joe.” At least, it has been up till now.

But don’t worry. Far more important for our new movies not to offend anyone in Cairo or Karachi or Paris or Palembang.

After all, it’s only a toy. It doesn’t mean anything.

3 Comments to “How many U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill?”

  1. David Bradley Says:

    For Paige it’s definitely a medal of Honor story. For Hasbro it’s a conviction of criminal greed and a poor set of unethical choices. It seems like the same set of unethical decisions our current regime in Washington is afflicted with.

  2. Georgiaboy61 Says:

    Thanks for the article remembering that long-ago time of valor in the Solomon Islands during the years 1942-1943. Mitchell Paige was indeed, as they say, “one hell of a Marine” and the prototype for what a good Marine should be – but he wasn’t the only one wearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor to win the Medal of Honor on the ridges above Henderson Field. Have you forgotten about Sgt. “Manila John” Basilone?

    Sgt. Basilone enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1934 and served a three-year hitch in the Philippines, where he won a boxing championship. After his term of service ended and a brief stint as a civilian, Basilone found he missed military life and re-enlisted, this time in the Marine Corps. Because of his prior service in the islands, he was known as “Manila John.”

    In October, 1942, Basilone headed a machine-gun section on the ridges overlooking Henderson Field. On October 24, troops of the Japanese Sendai Division launched a frontal attack intended to take the air field. Basilone’s position was hit by a regimental-strength force of 3,000 men. After two days of nearly-continuous fighting – much of it at close-range or hand-to-hand – only Basilone and two of his men remained; all of the others had been killed or wounded too-severely to fight.
    At dawn on the second day of the attack, when it finally broke and reinforcements arrived, Basilone had run out of machine-gun ammunition and was fighting with his pistol and a machete. For his uncommon valor, Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor.

    Gunnery Sergeant Basilone went home, did war bond drives and met his future wife and got married. But he hated not being with his men, and so requested assignment to a Marine combat unit. Before re-enlisting in the Marine Corps in July, 1944, he received assurances that he would be assigned to a combat unit – which turned out to be C Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Regiment, 5th Marine Division. Basilone went ashore with his Marines, in charge of a machine-gun section, on the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima. There, Basilone was killed in action. He received a posthumous Navy Cross, the second-highest award for valor that is bestowed upon Marines.

    Like Mitchell Paige, the name “John Basilone” has entered Marine Corps legend and lore as the ideal towards which all combat Marines should strive.

  3. Vin Says:

    Right you are, Georgia. See Charles W. Tatum’s “Red Blood, Black Sand” (1995.) Tatum, a Marine machine-gunner, went ashore with G/Sgt. Basilone in the first wave. — V.S.

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