By Vin Suprynowicz (Written in the year 2000)
Oct. 26 falls on a Thursday this year. Ask the significance of the date, and you’re likely to draw some puzzled looks — five more days to stock up for Halloween?
It’s a measure of men like Col. Mitchell Paige that they wouldn’t have had it any other way. What he did 58 years ago, he did precisely so his grandchildren could live in a land of peace and plenty.
Whether we’ve properly safeguarded the freedoms he and his kind fought to leave us as their legacy, may be a discussion better left for another day. Today we struggle to envision — or, for a few of us, to remember — how the world must have looked on Oct. 26, 1942. A few thousand lonely American Marines had been put ashore on Guadalcanal, a god-forsaken jungle island which just happened to lie 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 built an airfield. And Japanese commander Isoroku Yamamoto immediately grasped what that meant. No effort would be spared to dislodge these upstart Yanks from a position that could endanger his ships during any future operations to the south. Before long, relentless Japanese counterattacks had driven the U.S. Navy from inshore waters. The Marines were on their own.
World War Two is generally calculated from Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But that’s a Eurocentric view. The Japanese had been limbering up in Korea and Manchuria as early as 1931, and in China by 1934. By late 1942 they’d devastated every major Pacific military force or stronghold of the great pre-war powers: Britain, Holland, France, and the United States. The bulk of America’s proud Pacific fleet lay beached or rusting on the floor of Pearl Harbor.
As Mitchell Paige — then a platoon sergeant — and his men set about establishing their last defensive line on a ridge southwest of the tiny American bridgehead at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal on Oct. 25, it’s unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide a 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?
The Japanese Army had not failed in an attempt to seize any major objective since the Russo-Japanese War of 1895. But in preceding days, Marine commander Vandegrift had defied War College doctrine, “dangling” his men in exposed positions to draw Japanese attacks, then springing his traps “with the steel vise of firepower and artillery,” in the words of Naval historian David Lippman.
The Japanese regiments had been chewed up, good. Still, American commanders had so little to work with that Paige’s men had only four 30-caliber Browning machine guns on the one ridge through which the Japanese opted to launch their final assault against Henderson Field, that fateful night of Oct. 25.
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 handle 975 Japanese bodies. … The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low.”
Among the 90 American dead and seriously wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige’s platoon. Every one. As the night 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 adds: “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, belt-fed Brownings — the same design which John Moses Browning famously fired for a continuous 25 minutes until it ran out of ammunition in 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 gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went.
The weapon did not fail.
Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley first discovered the answer to our question: How many able-bodied U.S. 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 that was the second problem. Part of the American line had fallen to the last Japanese attack. “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 mess men 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.” In the end, “The element of surprise permitted the small force to clear the crest.”
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. Because of a handful of U.S. Marines, one of whom, now 82, lives out a quiet retirement with his wife Marilyn in La Quinta, California.
On Oct. 26, 1942.
When the Hasbro Toy Co. called up 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 “GI Joe.” And now you know.
Note: Colonel Mitchell Paige passed away on 15 November 2003.