A Firebrand Commander

There are quite a number of famous people who have served as United States Marines. The list includes Hollywood actors, sons of presidents, athletes, politicians, musicians, and astronauts. A number of Marines have become legends —I have written about several here— some of those in their own time … and some, perhaps, in their own mind. I personally enjoyed researching “Handsome Jack” Myers, who was the real deal “Old Corps” Leatherneck. I would have enjoyed listening to him recount some of his adventures.

I recently uncovered another interesting old breed (pre-World War II) Marine. I can’t say that his career was extraordinary because his was a professional pattern shared with many other Marines. But what makes this fellow stand out is that he was a bona fide hero of the Battle of Tarawa. I am astonished that more people do not even know his name.

Before we get to that, however, let me offer a summary of what happened at Tarawa —and why.

2ndMarDiv PatchTarawa is an atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, part of the Gilbert’s Islands and now part of the Republic of Kirbati. A wide reef and a large lagoon of over 500 square kilometers characterize the atoll. The battle fought there lasted four days (20 November to 24 November 1943), and it was one of the bloodiest campaigns in Marine Corps history. The code name for the engagement was Operation Galvanic. It involved the 2nd Marine Division and its subordinate regiments: 2nd Marines, 6th Marines, 8th Marines, and 10th Marines and the target of the Marine’s attentions was the island named Betio.

Betio Island is located about 2,400 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; it is the largest island within the Tarawa Atoll. It is two miles long and about 800 yards wide at its widest point. Before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Tarawa Atoll was a British Commonwealth territory; it was the British who constructed the unusually long pier along the north shore into the lagoon. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese seized Tarawa and executed its occidental occupants. The northern coast of Betio Island faces into the lagoon, while the southern and western shore face the deep waters of the open ocean.

After the end of the Solomon Islands campaign (Battle for Guadalcanal in the Southern Pacific), Washington military planners decided that it was time to begin an offensive into the Central Pacific region. The strategy was to capture Japanese held islands, establish advanced air bases, and use these bases as stepping-stones to move the US military ever closer to the Philippines and the main islands of Japan. They called it island hopping and it was a strategy that made sense.

Betio Island Map 1943Tarawa Atoll became the first step in the so-called island hopping campaign —a strategy devised to offset the fact that the United States had a limited number of aircraft carriers in the Pacific. Advanced air bases would allow the United States to move across the Central Pacific toward the Philippines and Japan. But, before that could happen, the US needed to capture the Mariana’s Islands. Before they could do that, the US had to seize the Marshall Islands. They could not take the Marshall Islands until the first pacified the Gilbert Islands … which brings us to the Tarawa Atoll. The enemy garrison and airfield at Betio interfered with US intentions and so it became necessary to remove them.

The Japanese garrison consisted of about 4,700 Imperial troops; half of these were members of the 7th Sasebo Special Naval Landing Force (Japanese Marines) —and they weren’t known for running away from a fight. Also present were men of the 111th Pioneer Battalion (similar to Seabees), the 4th Fleet Construction Battalion, the 3rd Special Base Defense Force, all of who were commanded by Admiral Keiji Shibazaki and Commander Takeo Sugai. Their mission was to inflict as much damage upon the American military as possible. They did their best.

Betio Island was the first time the U. S. Marines conducted an amphibious assault against a heavily defended, well-fortified objective. There were many hard lessons learned at Tarawa and the cost of these lessons was very high. Still, there was no way around it; either these lessons had to be learned at Tarawa, or they would have to be learned at some other location. They involved how to load ships for amphibious operations (last on, first off), important lessons about naval preparatory fires, and vital lessons about close air support. The Marines learned about tides.

A submerged reef surrounded Betio Island approximately 500 yards into the lagoon, which was the reason why the British constructed such a long pier in the island’s center. British experts [1] that had direct knowledge of the atoll informed the Marines that the tide tables used to plan the operation were notoriously inaccurate. These tide tables suggested that the Marines could expect five feet of water over the surrounding reefs at neap tide —high enough to get landing boats from the deep-water lagoon into the beach. They did not take into account the dodging tides [2]. The submerged reef and the irresolute tides restricted the continuous movement of troops, supplies, and equipment from ship to shore. Beyond this, naval preparatory fires were poorly executed and inadequate; air support was ineffective. These were some reasons the fighting was so desperate, why there were so many Marine casualties, and why the battle lasted 72 grueling hours. The ordeal that unfolded here caused ordinary men to perform extraordinary feats.

His name was Henry Pierson Crowe. He was born into an average family in Boston, Kentucky in 1899. He left school before graduation to join the Marine Corps in 1918. Serving briefly in France, he was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1919; three years later, he reenlisted. He spent the 1920s on expeditionary duty in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, and he also participated in national shooting competition. He was awarded the Distinguished Marksman Medal in 1927.

The Marine Corps appointed Crowe to Marine Gunner in 1934 —a warrant officer designation aimed at promoting to junior officer grades certain enlisted Marines with specialized knowledge and skill. From 1936 to 1939, Crowe served at the United States Embassy in Peiping, China. He was subsequently assigned to the 6th Marine Regiment, and the 8th Marine Regiment. He was promoted to Chief Master Gunner in February 1941.

Following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December, the 8th Marines embarked to Samoa in the following month. Crowe received a commission to Captain in February 1942 and assumed command of Weapons Company, 8th Marines. On Guadalcanal, Captain Crowe’s heroism under fire earned him both the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals.

After the Solomon Islands campaign, the 2nd Marine Division was withdrawn to New Zealand for rest, replacements, refitting, and further training. Captain Crowe was promoted to Major in March 1943 and assigned to command the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8).

The initial assault force at Betio Island consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines (2/2) (Landing designation Red 2) Commanded by LtCol Herbert R. Amery, Jr., the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) (Red 1), Commanded by Major John F. Schoettel, and Crowe’s 2/8 (Red 3). The 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines would be held in reserve.

The landing force began debarkation into assault vehicles at 0320 on 20 November 1943. Things started going wrong almost immediately; troop transports were lined up incorrectly, amphibian vehicles weren’t sure where they were supposed to be during the loading phase, rough sea made cross-deck loading dangerous and slow, and carrier support was delayed by more than 30-minutes. When air support did arrive, it was ineffective. Through all this chaos, Marines designated for the amphibious assault remained in the lagoon, bobbing up and down in their amphibian vehicles and landing craft for more than five hours.

2-8 001The Marines began heading for Betio Island at 0917 hours. The first wave slammed in to the reef, crawled over it, and headed to the shoreline … and that’s where everything came to a painful, devastating halt. Well-directed defensive fires cut into the Marines; the assault faltered when senior leaders were killed, and entire platoons were wiped out. There was no way the first wave could make it beyond a small log-abutted seawall. A Japanese officer was seen standing atop a concrete bunker waving to the Marines with his pistol, “Come on … come on.” As additional waves of Marines headed toward Betio, the tiny beachhead, if that’s what you could call it, began piling up with dead and wounded Marines.

Then the dodge tide took horrendous effect; as landing craft ground to a halt on the reefs 500 yards off shore, Marines began to abandon them, crawled over the side, and began wading ashore into intense machine gun fire directed at them by the Japanese. Not many made it, but one that did was Major Jim Crowe. When his landing craft impaled itself on the submerged reef, Crowe shouted “Damn it to hell! Alright Marines … follow me.” Over the side he went. 2/8’s commander arrived on the hostile shore within scant moments of the first wave.

The battle was not shaping up very well. It was so bad that Division Commander decided to commit his reserve forces after only one hour.

Holding the American beachhead on Betio Island rested in good measure with fiery, redheaded mustang commander of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, Henry P. Crowe. There were a couple of reasons for this. Most of 2/8 landed in organized formation and without sustaining massive casualties. In contrast, 2/2 and 3/2 both sustained a considerable number of killed and wounded, including Colonel Amey. The commander of troops ashore, Colonel David M. Shoup [3], turned to Major Crowe to become the crutch upon which the landing operation could proceed. Shoup needed Crowe to not only maintain his position on Red 3 —he needed him to expand it. But the Japanese were now paying attention to Major Crowe’s battalion and 2/8 started taking heavy casualties, too. As Marines waded ashore from left of the pier into Major Crowe’s section of the beach, he plugged them in to 2/8 units as replacements for the killed and injured. Throughout this horrific battle, Major Crowe was a tower of strength. One must wonder how many Marines were saved from certain death by Major Crowe’s calm demeanor and his command presence under the most adverse conditions.

Today there is a diorama depicting the Battle of Tarawa, and Major Crowe, at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

The slugfest continued for four days. Ultimately, the Japanese were overwhelmed —and while they were willing to fight to the death, they soon became too tired, too thirsty, and too disorganized to continue a coordinated defense. Yes, they did have courage and determination, but it was no substitute for cohesive action, and there is no stopping American Marines, no matter how many casualties it takes, from achieving their combat objectives. Marine casualties included 1,696 killed in action; 2,101 wounded in action. Only 17 Japanese Marines were taken alive.

For his extraordinary leadership at Tarawa, Major Crowe received the Navy Cross.

Crowe HP 001Major Crowe also participated in the Battle of Saipan; his entire World War II service was with the 8th Marine regiment. After the war, LtCol Crowe served with the 29th Marines in China, and after returning to the United States, completed professional military education appropriate to his rank.

Returning once more to California, LtCol Crowe served as a battalion executive officer and, while at Camp Pendleton, California, along with Colonel David M. Shoup, 1st Lieutenant Harold Schrier, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley appeared in a cameo role as himself in the John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima.

In 1950, Crowe was dispatched to Japan and assumed command of the 1st Shore Party Battalion and participated in the amphibious landing at Inchon, the Inchon-Seoul Campaign, and the landing at Wonsan.

Promoted to Colonel in 1951, Crowe served at the Amphibious Training Command at Coronado, California, commanded H&S Battalion at MCRD San Diego, and additionally served as the Marine Corps technical advisor in the making of the film Battle Cry—a story written by former Marine Leon Uris, who during World War II served in the 6th Marines.

Having completed 41 years of active service, Colonel Crowe retired from active duty on 1 March 1960. Subsequent to his retirement, he served as the Chief of Police in Portsmouth, Virginia until 1969. Colonel Crowe passed away on 27 June 1991 at the age of 92. Colonel Crowe’s personal decorations include the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit with combat “V” device, Bronze Star Medal (three awards), with combat “V” device, and the Purple Heart Medal (two awards).

We must not forget such men as these.



[1] Major F. L. G. Holland, Royal Army and Captain Warnham, Royal Navy

[2] Dodge tide is a term for a neap tide with minimal rise and fall over the course of a day or two.

[3] 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps

[4] It was my privilege and honor to serve in Company E, 2/8 from 1963 to 1964.

Enduring Grief

EB Sledge 001“Johnny Marmet came striding down the incline of the valley to meet us as we started up. Even before I could see his face clearly, I knew from the way he was walking that something was dreadfully amiss. He lurched up to us nervously clutching the web strap of the submachine gun slung over his shoulder. I have never seen Johnny nervous before, even under the thickest fire, which he seemed to regard as a nuisance that interfered with his carrying out his job.”

“His tired face was contorted with emotion, his brow was knitted tightly, and his bloodshot eyes appeared moist. It was obvious that he had something fearful to tell us. We shuffled to a halt.”

“My first thought was that the Japanese had slipped in thousands of troops from the northern Palaus and that we would never get off the island. No, maybe the enemy had bombed some American city or chased off the navy as they had done at Guadalcanal. My imagination went wild, but none of us was prepared for what we were about to hear.”

“’Howdy Johnny,’ someone said as he came up to us.”

“’All right, you guys, let’s get squared away here,’ he said looking in every direction but us. (This was strange, because Johnny wasn’t the least reluctant to make eye contact with death, destiny, or the general himself.) ‘Okay you guys—Okay you guys,’ he repeated, obviously flustered. A couple of the men exchanged quizzical glances.”

“’The skipper is dead. Ack Ack has been killed,’ Johnny finally blurted out, and then looked quickly away from us.”

“I was stunned and sickened. Throwing my ammo bag down, I turned away from the others, sat on my helmet, and sobbed quietly.”

“’Those goddamn slant-eyed sonsabitches,’ someone behind me groaned.”

“Never in my wildest imagination had I contemplated Captain Haldane’s death. We had a steady stream of killed and wounded leaving us, but somehow I assumed Ack Ack was immortal. Our company commander represented stability and direction in a world of violence, death, and destruction. Now his life had been snuffed out. We felt forlorn and lost. It was the worst grief I endured during the entire war. The intervening years have not lessened it any.”

E. B. Sledge
From With the Old Breed at Pelélieu and Okinawa

Eugene B. Sledge passed away in 2001.  The above picture was taken of him during the war in the Pacific.

All about honor

TPhoenix 001ed Kobayashi was tall for a Japanese, typically thin, gray haired, a bit stooped over, and one thing that really stood out was the fact that his English was flawless.  He worked in the Manpower Management section of the Personnel Department at Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan.  I was privileged to serve as Assistant Director.

The Manpower Management section had undertaken a study of the efficiency of several of our air station support departments, and so I hardly ever saw Ted except when he was en route to, or returning from one of his assessments.  One day I asked him to tell me what he was doing, and he just looked at me with a slight smile and said, “Well, of course I am a Japanese employee of the Marine Corps Air Station, and so my primary purpose here is to make the American civil service employee—my boss, look good.  If I do that, then I can work here for one thousand years.

I laughed because I knew right away that Ted was a straight shooter.  I’ve always appreciated people who weren’t full of their own importance.  I have to say that insofar as most cultures are concerned, I only met a few Japanese who were full of self.  They are mostly down to earth people, humble, and yet —proud at the same time.

Ted helped to extract me from a problem that I created for myself.  I had been working on a report that needed to be completed and forwarded up the chain of command and my Japanese secretary was giving me fits; too many typographical errors.  So when they were corrected, she brought the report back and we discovered new errors.  This went on for a while and then, in frustration, I looked at her and said, Now Fumiko-san … if we cannot fix these errors without making new ones, I may have to order you to commit seppuku.  She bowed as low as I had ever seen her bow before the rushed out of my office.

A few minutes later, Ted came over and said, “May I sit down?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Major, the one thing you have to know about your Japanese secretary is that she is not entitled to have a sense of humor.  Your secretary is convinced that you will order her to commit seppuku if she brings in one more mistake.”

“I was only kidding, Ted.”

“Yes, I told her that … but please, no more joking because you know, she might go and do it, and then how would you feel?”

I could feel the color drain from my face.  “I would feel like shit.”

“Exactly right.  Okay problem solved.  Thank you for offering me coffee …” he was smiling when he left my office.  In one morning, I learned that the Japanese did not understand the American concept of situational humor, or joking, and also that I was a terrible host.  I never joked with Fumiko-san again, and I always made a point of asking Ted if I could get him a cup of coffee.  He never accepted, of course … it was all about being polite.

One day I caught Ted sitting in his office and so I took two cups of coffee and helped myself to a chair next to his desk.  As I set one of the cups in front of him, he smiled and said, “For me?  How nice.”

He sat next to a large window that overlooked the front of the headquarters building.  He’d worked at the Air Station for over 40 years.  He was then in his 60’s and I asked him about retirement.  Most Japanese employees retired at age 55.  He told me he had pulled strings to stay on past his normal retirement age.  He wasn’t interested in retirement.

I think Ted liked the attention I gave him.  Or maybe it was the respect.  He really was a nice man.  He was intelligent, had a dry sense of humor, even if somewhat sarcastic, and an encyclopedia of information; all one had to do to get that information was ask politely.  So when I asked him how in the world he spoke such flawless English, he looked at me for a long moment and he said, “In 40 years, you are the first officer to ask me that.  If you want to know, I’ll tell you.”

I wanted to know.

Ted was born and raised in Southern California.  When he graduated from high school in the summer of 1941, and as he was getting mentally prepared to attend university there, his parents, who had migrated to the United States in the early 1900s, decided that it would be best for Ted to travel back to Japan and pay respect to his grandparents, whom he had not seen in many years.  “I was not too happy with this request, but I had no choice but to do as my parents wanted,” he said.

Once in Japan, however, the Kempeitai would not allow him to leave.  Japan was preparing for war.  Ted was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army.  “I could have refused,” he told me.  “But it would have been a self imposed death sentence after much suffering.”

I was stunned.  He smiled at me and said, “Close your mouth, major.”

Because he was well educated, Ted was put to work in the supply corps.  “I never once fired my weapon at an American,” he said.  But they did send him to one of the Pacific islands: Guam.  That’s where he was captured and interned as a POW.

“I kept my mouth real shut during those days,” he told me.  “I never revealed that I could speak English or understood what was being said around me.  I just smiled a lot, and bowed a lot.  Eventually, I was sent back to Japan after the war was over.”

Art by Lua Sieryu
Art by Lua Sieryu

He told me, “I could not return to America —I had served in the Army that was the enemy of my countrymen.”  I noticed that his eyes were watery.  “No,” he continued, “I could not go back to America.  I have been here ever since.  I never saw my parents again.  Of course, they were interned during the war.  I never revealed my English speaking ability to any American until I was looking for work at the Air Station.  I’ve been here ever since.  And now, I have married and had children here, and grand children … and I have this excellent job working for Americans.

Ted Kobayashi’s story was one of the saddest tales I have ever heard in my life.  I could not imagine being placed in a similar predicament.  Ted was also one of the most honorable men I ever knew.  I respected him, and I enjoyed his friendship.

We Call Him Chesty

In my younger years, conventional parents and teachers encouraged boys and girls to read stories written about famous Americans.  I recall reading about William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, George Custer, Ulysses Grant, and Robert E. Lee.  They weren’t academically vetted manuscripts, of course —they were intended for elementary aged children, after all.  It is also true that some of these stories contained as much myth as fact, but it was the reading of these stories that gave children heroes —people who were, according to pre-communist educators, worthy of emulation.

VMI 1917I am not alone, apparently.  Another young man was exposed to these kinds of stories.  His name was Lewis Burwell Puller.  He was born in West Point, Virginia on 26 June 1898 —making him a little more than 8 years younger than my grandfather.  He grew up reading the same kinds of stories as I did more than 50 years later, but he also grew up listening to the tales of civil war veterans as they recalled the great confederate generals: Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart.  Puller attempted to join the Army in 1916 to fight in the border war with Mexico, but he was too young and his mother refused to sign his enlistment papers.

In 1917, Puller attended the Virginia Military Institute, but left at the end of his first year because World War I was still going on; he said he wanted to go to the sound of the guns.  By this time, the tales of the 5th Marine Regiment at Belleau Wood had inspired Puller to enlist in the U. S. Marine Corps, which he did in 1918.  Private Puller was shipped off to boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.

Puller never saw combat during World War I, but the Marine Corps was expanding; not long after graduating from boot camp, Puller was sent to NCO School and subsequently, Officers Candidate School (OCS).  On 16 June 1919, Puller received a commission to Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve.  A year later, large-scale military deactivations led to his release from active duty.  Puller was placed on inactive status and assigned the rank of corporal.

Banana Wars 001During the years progressives refer to as the banana wars, Marine Corps Noncommissioned Officers were often commissioned as officers in the military of public safety services of foreign countries.  It was thus that Corporal Puller received orders to serve in the Gendarmerie d’Haiti in the rank of lieutenant.  US occupation of Haiti began in 1915 and lasted until 1934.  Woodrow Wilson first sent the Marines to Haiti resulting from a series of political assassinations carried out by peasant brigands called Cacos.  For more than five years, Puller participated in 40 operations against the Cacos and in 1922, served as an adjutant to Major Alexander Vandegrift.  Major General Vandegrift would later command the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, win the Medal of Honor, and accept appointment as Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Puller CaptainPuller was re-commissioned a second lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1924.  After attending service schools and two assignments at Marine security barracks, Puller was assigned in 1928 to duty with the Nicaraguan National Guard detachment.  During his service in Nicaragua, Puller was awarded two Navy Cross medals, representing the nations second highest award for valor.

By the time Puller was promoted to major, he had additionally served with the American Legation in China on two occasions, two sea duty tours aboard USS Augusta, and instructor duty at the Marine Corps basic school for officers.  In August 1941, Puller was assigned to command the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, which was at the time stationed at New River, North Carolina.  The base was later renamed Camp Lejeune.

x-defaultDuring World War II, Puller commanded Marines on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, New Britain, Pelélieu, and various elements of the 7th Marines, 5th Marines, and 1st Marines.  During the Pacific Campaign, Puller received a Bronze Star Medal, his third and fourth award of the Navy Cross, the Legion of Merit, and a promotion to Colonel.

At the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Puller was again assigned to command the 1st Marine Regiment.  He participated in the landing at Inchon, the 1st Marine Division’s advance to the Chosin Reservoir, and its retrograde below the 38th parallel.  During this period, Puller was awarded the Silver Star medal, a second Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Cross, and an unprecedented fifth award of the Navy Cross.  It was during this time that Puller is quoted as saying, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now.  We’ve finally found him.  We’re surrounded.  That simplifies things.”

Puller 001Puller was promoted to Brigadier General in January 1951 and was assigned as Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Marine Division.  Although promoted successively to Lieutenant General, Puller’s health forced him to retire in 1955 with 37 years of service.  In addition to the awards already mentioned, Puller received the Purple Heart Medal, and three awards of the Air Medal.  It is believed that General Puller remains the most highly decorated Marine in the history of the United States Marine Corps.

General Puller passed away in 1971.

The Last Man

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.

Paige 002Whether 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.”

Paige 001And 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.


During World War II, a British army captain injured his knee during parachute training. He was rushed to the nearest hospital, which happened to be at an adjacent military clinic run by the Royal Air Force. After x-rays, the captain was rushed to the emergency clinic where he was treated and retained overnight. The next morning, two officers from his training unit went to visit him, and dutifully checked in with the RAF medical staff attendant at the front desk.

“I beg your pardon, we have come to see Captain Crouchback.”

“Right. Well, d’you know where to find him?”

“Actually, no; perhaps you can tell us.”

“I’m sure I don’t know. Did you say ‘Captain’? Well, there you go … we don’t take army blokes here.”

“He came yesterday for an emergency x-ray.”

The End of Battle
Evelyn Waugh
The End of Battle

“Right. Well, I suppose you can try radiology, then.”“Where’s that?”

“Check the board out front; it should tell you,” said the airman.

Captain Freemantle turned to his companion and said, “I suppose it would be no good putting that man on a charge for insolence.”

“Not in the smallest,” said Captain de Souza. “Insubordinate behavior isn’t an offense in the air service.”