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.”

Frozen Chosin

The Big Picture

The Korean War was not only significant because it was the opening conflict of the Cold War, nor even because of the numbers of American and allied forces who were killed or wounded during the conflict (1950-1953); it was also significant because it was largely the result of two factors: aggressive Soviet policies under Joseph Stalin, and incompetent leadership in the administration of Harry S. Truman, beginning with the heavy handed policies of the United States Army Military Government in Korea, and the incomprehensible stupidity of Secretary of State Dean Acheson—who not only gave us the Korean War, but the Vietnam War as well.

By April 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung had lost his patience with the US-USSR Joint Commission on the Korean peninsula. He flew to Moscow to ask for Joseph Stalin’s permission to unify Korea by military force. Stalin not only granted his permission, he also provided the war plans to accomplish it.

Thus, on 25 June 1950, the North Korean Army launched an overwhelming invasion of the Republic of South Korea, forcing President Syngman Rhee to evacuate the South Korean capital. The onslaught of North Korean forces surprised everyone on our side of this equation, from the Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, Douglas MacArthur, and President Harry Truman, to Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his inept counterpart, Defense Secretary Louis A. Johnson.

By September 1950, the North Korean Army successfully pushed remnants of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army (numbering 60,000 combat troops) and the 8th U. S. Army, which was poorly led, under strength, and under equipped, into what we today refer to as the Pusan perimeter. Louis Johnson cut the personnel strength of the armed services and reduced equipment strength to the point where our military was only marginally effective. As an example, the 1st Marine Division located at Camp Pendleton, California only consisted of two regiments, rather than three. Infantry regiments consisted of only two battalions, each battalion had only two rifle companies, and rifle companies consisted on only two rifle platoons and a weapons platoon. What the Marine Corps did have, however, was an abundance of company and field grade officers and NCOs who were members of the Old Breed … veterans of World War II.

General MacArthur formed X Corps around the 1st Marine Division, 7th Infantry Division, and various other Army support units. After landing the 1st Marine Division at Inchon, MacArthur used X Corps to deny resupply of the North Korean Army (NKA) operating south of Inchon. MacArthur then directed a campaign designed to destroy the NKA, who rapidly withdrew back across the 38th parallel. He employed the 8th US Army to pursue the NKA on the western side of the peninsula, but split X Corps away from the 8th Army to pursue NKA forces along the eastern area of operations under the command of Major General Ned Almond, who answered directly to MacArthur.

The Snapshot

By November 1950, American Marines were moving north from Wonsan toward the Chosen Reservoir. The 7th Infantry Division moved northward, to the right of the Marines albeit separated by mountainous terrain. MajGen Almond was nothing if not demonstrably incompetent and always at loggerheads with Major General O. P. Smith and Major General David G. Barr, who respectively commanded the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division. MacArthur ordered X Corps to pursue the retreating North Korean Army northward to the Yalu River.

Barber 001The primary route to the Yalu River was a narrow dirt road cut into the base of steep mountainous terrain located in a harsh and frigid land; it was the only road from Hungnam to Yudam-ni, the main supply route (MSR) for both the Marines and the 7th Infantry Division. It was up to the Marines to secure that road. The company charged with securing the MSR near the Toktong Pass was Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. The officer commanding Fox Company was Captain William E. Barber.

Arctic conditions worsened daily. By Thanksgiving, the mercury averaged twenty below zero at night and the temperatures dropped even lower thanks to the unceasing sharp winds. No amount of clothing protected the Marines from bone-chilling cold. Climate conditions made the Marines lethargic; the mind-numbing cold neutralized as many Marines as enemy bullets.

After performing a reconnaissance of the area with his battalion commander, Captain Barber selected a small, flat-topped rise near the road on the southern shoulder of Toktong-san (highest mountain) between Hagaru to the south, and Yudam-ni to the north. Afterwards, Barber and his battalion commander encountered a Marine Corps warrant officer who remarked how odd it was that ever-present civilian refugees had suddenly disappeared. Worse, the wildlife also seemed to evaporate. This information did not give Captain Barber a warm and fuzzy feeling.

At about this time, the commander of the Ninth Chinese Army (Chinese People’s Volunteers) decided to launch major counterattack against the X Corps from the Chosen Reservoir to Wonsan. His plan called for the destruction of the 1st Marine Division’s two regiments along a line from Yudam-ni to Sinhung-ni (Toktong Pass) and Hagaru-ri. Once this was accomplished, the Ninth Army would destroy the U.S. Army elements (31st Regimental Combat Team of the 7th Infantry Division) and the remainder of the 1st Marine Division on the eastern side of the reservoir. The task of closing the MSR and isolating the Marines along the Yudam-ni road, and preventing the Marines from escape fell to the Chinese 59th Division. Whoever controlled the Toktong pass would control the MSR in both directions.

Facing the Chinese 59th Infantry Division was one company of 240 Marines. Upon arrival at the selected defense site, Captain Barber behaved as if he expected an attack at any moment. He quickly conducted an area orientation with his platoon leaders, issued his operations order while NCOs distributed munitions throughout the company and the weapons platoon registered their mortars. Friendly vehicle traffic along the MSR prevented registering the regiment’s artillery.

Marines developed a defensive perimeter; entrenching activity went on into the night as Marines hacked and chipped at the frozen earth to prepare fighting positions. By 9 PM (2100), half of Fox Company’s Marines settled into sleeping bags; the other half remained on watch.

The Chinese assault came at 0230 the next morning. In its initial assault, the Chinese split the Marines in the mountains, cutting the MSR in numerous places between Hagaru and Yudam-ni. There was only one cork in the bottle: Fox Company’s position overlooking the Toktong Pass.

The first assault was a battalion sized thrust intending to overwhelm Marines manning outposts and forward positions. The Chinese killed fifteen of these thirty-five Marines outright, wounding another nine Marines within the first few minutes. Showers of grenades and all sorts of small arms crashed down among the Marine positions.

In addition, both company mortar positions received a great deal of attention from the Chinese. Within a matter of minutes, enemy fire decimated the 60-mm Mortar section, leaving a private first class in charge. The 81-mm section was likewise fighting for its life; savage hand-to-hand fighting raged all along the company’s 270-degree northward arc.

Barber rallied his Marines. He first brought his mortars in on the attacking Chinese. Then, continuously exposing himself to small arms fire, he consolidated and led his troops in several counterattacks, restoring the company perimeter. Eventually, the Chinese attacks subsided and the attackers withdrew with approaching dawn. Daylight revealed the cost of the night’s battle: Fox Company had twenty dead, fifty-four wounded, three missing; the Chinese left 450 bodies within and in front of the Marine perimeter.

Barber’s post-assault assessment was that his company was critically short of ammunition. Grenades and mortar ammunition were almost nonexistent. He directed his Marines to collect weapons and ammunition from Chinese and Marine dead to supplement their meager supply and requested a supply airdrop. Many Chinese weapons were of American manufacture, supplied to China as part of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program during World War II.

Captain Barber next requested an air strike on key terrain northwest of Fox Hill where the Chinese had placed snipers to harass the company. Barber’s attached forward artillery observer then managed to register the regiment’s howitzer battery from Hagaru. Meanwhile, Barber organized combat patrols in order to get a better picture of what the company was facing and to predict where the enemy might attack in the coming night. Later in the afternoon, an airdrop resupplied the Marines with ammunition, rations, and medical supplies.

Caring for the wounded was a major problem. Evacuation helicopters were inviting targets for Chinese snipers, so U. S. Navy hospital corpsmen performed miracles with only morphine and field dressings. Working day and night, they tended the wounded at the center of the company position, warming morphine secretes in their mouths. They also kept men from freezing and provided all-important moral support to their patients. Captain Barber constantly reassured his wounded Marines: he would leave no one behind.

As night approached, Marines piled Chinese forward of their fighting positions, using them as sandbags for protection from enemy fire. Again, at 0215, the Chinese began round two. This time, they preceded their assault with a mortar barrage, but the Marines were ready. Marines killed over 100 Chinese during the initial assault alone, but in spite of this, Chinese troops broke through the Marine perimeter. In response, Barber zeroed in his mortars and long-range artillery with deadly effect. He then rushed forward with his reserves, killing or ejecting fifty Chinese. Barber’s Marines confused the enemy by blowing captured Chinese whistles and bugles. Two Chinese companies pressed hard against Barber’s center platoon. Barber rushed to stabilize the line; during this counter-assault, Barber received a bullet wound to the groin. He plugged his wound with a handkerchief, but unable to stand he continued to direct his Marines on hands and knees, encouraging his men to keep the Chinese at bay.

Fox Company held their position for a second night. Several hundred more Chinese died trying to force the Marines from what everyone was calling Fox Hill. But Barber now had five more dead Marines and another twenty-nine wounded to care for. Elsewhere, the two forward regiments of the 1st Marine Division were also in trouble; twelve Chinese divisions were attacking the 5th and 7th Infantry Regiments around Yudam-ni and the division headquarters at Hagaru-ri. The situation for the Marines was critical: the only way out was to attack south along the MSR to reunite the division at Hagaru. Further, someone had to rescue Barber’s company. On the other side of the mountain, ten more Chinese divisions assaulted the 7th Infantry Division.

The final horror was yet to come.

The Marine withdrawal plan hinged on one critical factor: how long Fox Company could hold out in Toktong Pass. At around 0900 on 29 November, Barber was contacted by radio; initially instructed to fight his way back to Hagaru, Barber argued that if he didn’t retain possession, the Marines would have to retake it in order to secure the road below Toktong Pass. “We can do a good job,” he told the battalion commander.

Barber’s decision to stay the course determined the fate of more than 10,000 Marines trapped on the west side of the Chosen Reservoir. With Fox Company holding Toktong Pass, the Marines decided to move overland to Fox Hill, link up with Barber’s men, clear the dominating terrain astride the MSR, and then move to Hagaru. From there, they would push south to the port of Hungnam for evacuation.

Later that evening, Barber gathered his platoon leaders and confided with them. He told them that higher headquarters planned on relief, but when it would happen was anybody’s guess. He described the situation facing both the 5th and 7th Regiments at Yudam-ni and the division main body. “They’re completely surrounded,” he said. “They’re going to have to fight their way out.” Pointing at the MSR, he flatly stated, “That’s the only way out. If we don’t hold the hill, they haven’t got a chance.”

Fox Company’s third night was going to be crucial. Sensing this, Barber paired up the wounded who could shoot with those still in one piece and then issued as much ammunition as each team could store in their fighting positions. Fully armed and more determined than ever, Barber’s Marines huddled in their holes and waited.

Like clockwork, the Chinese attacked at 0200. Marine outposts reported movement and requested mortar illumination. Flares revealed hundreds of Chinese infantry, bayonets fixed and resembling a cattle stampede, surged toward the perimeter. Fox Company responded with a chorus of red-hot steel. Mortars, artillery from Hagaru (seven miles away), concentrated small arms fire, and hand grenades were directed against wave after wave of Chinese infantry.

That night, Fox Company slaughtered a Chinese regiment. Captain Barber, limping and crawling due to his wounds, continued to inspire his men. Whenever the Chinese seemed about to break through his position, Captain Barber appeared from out of nowhere with a reinforcing squad of Marines. Just before dawn, Barber was wounded a second time, in the leg, and forced to command from a stretcher. For the third straight night, Barber’s Marines withstood Chinese assaults.

At first light, three complete Chinese companies lay dead on the south perimeter. Incredibly, only one Marine beside Barber received a wound and he refused medical treatment. Air strikes and airdrops continued to reinforce Fox Company throughout the day on 30 November. Aside from occasional sniper fire, the Chinese were content to lick their wounds. An entire division had spent itself against a mere 240 Marines.

The following night on Fox Hill was relatively quiet; daylight on 1 December brought good news: the breakout from Yudam-ni was under way. Barber was now more determined than ever to stay in his position until relieved. The relief attack, led by First Lieutenant Kurt Lee and LtCol Raymond G. Davis, was itself a story of profound courage. Attacking throughout that day and through the night in twenty-five below zero weather, 1/7’s relief column reached Fox Company’s perimeter shortly after 1000 on 2 December. After Barber called in a final air strike Davis’ 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, fought its way into the perimeter, crossing through the outposts at 1130. Fox Company remained “King of the Hill.”

Medal of Honor“Captain William E. Barber, United States Marine Corps, is awarded the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of Company F, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea from 28 November to 2 December 1950. Assigned to defend a three-mile mountain pass along the division’s main supply line and commanding the only route of approach in the march from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri, Captain Barber took position with his battle weary troops and , before nightfall, had dug in and set up a defense along the frozen snow-covered hillside. When a force of estimated regimental strength savagely attacked during the night, inflicting heavy casualties and finally surrounding his position following a bitterly fought seven-hour conflict, Captain Barber, after repulsing the enemy, gave assurance that he could hold if supplied by air drops and requested permission to stand fast when orders were received by radio to fight his way back to a relieving force after two reinforcing units had been driven back under fierce resistance in their attempts to reach the isolated troops. Aware that leaving the position would sever contact with the 8,000 Marines trapped at Yudam-ni and jeopardize their chances of joining the 3,000 more awaiting their arrival in Hagaru-ri for the continued drive to the sea, he chose to risk loss of his command rather than sacrifice more men if the enemy seized control and forced a renewed battle to regain the position, or abandon his many wounded who were unable to walk. Although severely wounded in the leg the early morning of the 29th, Captain Barber continued to maintain personal control, often moving up and down the lines on a stretcher to direct the defense and consistently encouraging and inspiring his men to supreme efforts despite the staggering opposition. Waging desperate battle throughout five days and six nights of repeated onslaughts launched by the fanatical aggressors, he and his heroic command accounted for approximately 1,000 enemy dead in this epic stand in bitter sub-zero weather, and when the company was relieved, only 82 of his original 220 men were able to walk away from the position so valiantly defended against insuperable odds. His profound faith and courage, great personal valor and unwavering fortitude were decisive factors in the successful withdrawal of the division from the deathtrap in the Chosen Reservoir sector and reflect the highest credit upon Captain Barber, his intrepid officers and men and the United States Naval Service.”

/s/ Harry S. Truman
President of the United States

My friend, Henry

Years ago I had the privilege of meeting an elderly gentleman who I will call Henry. Henry lived alone in a modest Air Stream trailer in Central Florida. He needed the company, and I enjoyed hearing his stories from his younger days. He spent most of his adult life working on the railroad, although I can no longer remember which one—it was up north, though. I found his stories fascinating because when I was a youngster, I loved trains and thought that perhaps one day I would become a train engineer.

WW I USMC 002Apparently, Henry and my grandfather had something in common. Both were U. S. Army veterans of World War I. As I never knew my grandfather, Henry’s stories fascinated me. My grandfather was a regular soldier; Henry had been drafted into the Army in early 1917. In those days, not too many people volunteered for military service. Listening to Henry describe his experiences in basic training took me back to my own experience at Parris Island, South Carolina 46-years later. How many hours did we sit on buckets and clean our weapons? It seemed like thousands of hours … and it seemed like that to Henry, too.

Suddenly, basic training was over. The United States was gearing up to enter the war, but there was some confusion about how to do that. The allied powers had to come to some agreement about whose flag American troops would fight under, and under whose command. Since the battlefields were in France, the French wanted all allied forces fighting under their command. This makes perfect sense: economy of force and unity of command are important concepts, but no American politician was going to send in an American to fight under some other country’s flag. As the heavyweights dickered back and forth, the foot soldier performed close order drill, and he sat on his bucket and cleaned his piece.

Henry told me, “One day this fella approached our sergeant, who was not an altogether friendly sort, and after a few moments the sergeant ordered us to ‘listen up’ to what this fellow had to say. Well, this fellow was a major, so we all paid attention. He told us the Army was moving away from using horses in combat to those new-fangled automobiles. Called them trucks, but the way he explained it, they was automobiles that the Army was converting to vehicles that could carry cargo, including men. He was looking for soldiers who wanted to learn about these trucks.

“Well, I raised my hand because I was tired of sitting on my damn bucket. The sergeant gave me this dirty look, but the major was happy to have me and one other fella. Shortly after that, we got orders and found ourselves on the other side of the base at Fort Monmouth and we were learning about trucks. For two full weeks, we learned about how these machines worked, then we drove them for another week, and then finally we were designated motor transportation men.

Ford Runabout“Come time to leave for Europe and we all crowded on transport ships. This was no fancy cruise. They had us stacked on that ship, and as soon as one fella got seasick, so did a few more and let me tell you, it was a mess. In any case, in due time, we arrived in France and we went through several days of fooling around trying to figure out which way was which … and then finally a sergeant told me to report over to this captain who was in charge of transportation. So that’s what I did.

“I reported to the top sergeant and he said to wait to see the captain. So I waited around until the captain was ready to see me and then I reported to him. And he asked me, ‘Well son, what can you do?’

‘I know about trucks,’ I told him.


‘Yes sir, I can drive ‘em, and I can fix ‘em, if it don’t take much.’

‘Well, what in the hell is a truck?’

“So I explained that they was automobiles that could carry cargo and such. He laughed and said, ‘Well okay young man … we don’t have any of those trucks, but I’ll tell you want we do have. We have mules. You go on over to see Sergeant McKinley, and you tell him that you know how to fix trucks.’

EGA Grunt“So that’s what I did. And during the Great War, Sergeant McKinley had me shoveling mule shit. But I’ll tell you, it was a damn sight better than that hell that was the front line war.”

Of course, the amazing thing about Henry’s story is that the personnel classification and assignment policies of the modern day military in the early 1960s were not much different from what he experienced. If you’re out there Henry, I remember and relish the memory of our time together.

Semper Fi …

Courage Under Fire

WW I USMC 001I came across a story not long ago that I thought worthy of recounting here.  The author is a World War I Marine by the name of Elton Mackin (1898-1974).  This is his story, contained in a book entitled, Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die, Presidio Press, 1996.

“The skipper [1] made it a practice to travel well supplied with good cigars, and when things were hot we’d see him with a strong cheroot clamped in the corner of his mouth, barking orders like the noncom [2] he had been in other days.

“Walking but a few steps away, I was with him when he first was hit.  He had just finished saying, ‘Bring a Hotchkiss [3] over here.’

“The bullet caught him in the muscles of his neck and scarcely made him stagger.  I swear he didn’t even stop puffing on that big old black cigar.  He stood there flat-footed and serene, as though it were a matter of everyday occurrence, while the rest of us sought shelter.  He reached up to unsnap the collar of his blouse, opened his shirt, and turned the collar down, thrusting an exploratory finger into the wound along the side of his neck.  After a little prodding, he flipped the blood from his fingertips and gingerly took apart his first-aid kid, then wrapped the bandage in it ‘round and round’ his throat, reminding me of a man having difficulty with his necktie.  Finishing that, he buttoned up his blouse again and went on being the skipper.

“Following men like these is what makes tradition for the fighting men.  In the Marine Corps, for the most part, we followed real soldiers.  There are a few advantages in serving with the Marines in time of trouble, most of them having to do with the type of men you soldier with and take orders from.  The vast majority of our line officers came from the ranks.  They understood the soldier kind because in their day, their time, they had worn the harness and felt the lash—the harness being the burden of the pack equipment carried, the lash being the harsh discipline meted out and the unquestioning response expected.

“We didn’t ordinarily have to soldier under the rich man’s son for whom father or some handy politician wangled a commission on account of the family, although there were and are rich men’s sons wearing the Marine Corps’ forest green.  But the man in the ranks has the advantage of knowing that, rich or poor, gentleman or otherwise, the man who leads him out to die, for the most part, has a code of his own—apart of the tradition that says he shall not send men where he dares not go himself.  The skipper and most of the officers I soldiered under were men who adhered strictly to that code.

“Later that same day a bit of shrapnel hit him where it hurt a bit, in such a way as to bother him and interfere with sitting down.  Neither of these wounds was serious, but according to all the rules of the game he should have gone immediately to the rear when first wounded.  Now, with the second wound, and remaining very much the company commander, he made himself as comfortable as possible, lying on his side beneath a tree and trusting to his noncoms and runners to keep him posed as to the goings on of the day.

“When morning came, he was still on duty and suffering—and not only from his hurts.  He had a small pad and on it, sheet by sheet, was entering the names of men gone down in action.  I watched him grow older as he wrote.

“Later than day a shell exploded near him, a fragment penetrated the muscles at the back of his shoulder, and he lost a lot of blood.  After getting bandaged he proceeded to make himself comfortable again, insofar as possible, showing no intention of going to the rear.

“A half-spent machine gun bullet got the captain’s runner through the fleshy portion of the thigh and seemed to break his nerve.  He whined and cried and didn’t take it as the other wounded lying nearby were trying to do.

“It is probable that the skipper’s nerves were worn somewhat thin by then, because in all his pain he fished around and took a bar of chocolate from his pack and tossed it over to the wounded runner, saying, ‘Here, son, suck on this.  Maybe it will stop your damn noise.’

“At about the same time, stretcher bearers showed up at the captain’s side.  These were escorted by First Lieutenant Gear, the second in command [4].  On seeing them, the skipper said, ‘I’ll not be hauled away on that damn thing, lieutenant.’

“I shall always remember Gear’s reply.  ‘I’m running this show now,’ he said.  ‘You can’t fight this whole damn war alone.  Now, climb on that stretcher or I’ll throw you on it—you’re going out!’

“Resignedly, with the grimness of the grim, the skipper crawled aboard the stretcher and the twenty-odd of us who were left of his old company felt lost and left alone.”

Although the book indicates that Macklin became “a sergeant of battalion runners,” his rank at the time of his discharge from the Marine Corps is unclear.  For his service in World War I, Macklin received the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and two awards of the Silver Star.


[1] In the Navy and Marine Corps, an officer serving in the rank of captain

[2] Noncommissioned Officer (NCO)

[3] Hotchkiss Machinegun

[4] Also known as the Executive Officer, Exec, or XO

Three-mile fall

A true story, told by Cliff Judkins

Jud, you’re on fire, get out of there!

F-8 Crusader 001Needless to say that startling command got my attention. As you will read in this report, this was just the beginning of my problems! It had all started in the brilliant sunlight 20,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean as I nudged my F-8 Crusader jet into position behind the lumbering, deep-bellied refueling plane. After a moment of jockeying for position, I made the connection and matched my speed to that of the slowpoke tanker. I made the graceful task of plugging into the trailing fuel conduit so they could pump fuel into my tanks.

This in-flight refueling process was necessary, and routine, because the F-8 could not hold enough fuel to fly from California to Hawaii. This routine mission was labeled Trans-Pac, meaning Flying Airplanes across the Pacific. This had been going on for years. Soon, after plugging-in to the tanker, my fuel gauges stirred, showing that all was well. In my cockpit, I was relaxed and confident. As I was looking around, I was struck for an instant by the eeriness of the scene: here I was, attached, like an unwanted child, by an umbilicus to a gargantuan mother who was fleeing across the sky at 200 knots as though from some unnamed danger. Far below us was a broken layer of clouds that filtered the sun glare bouncing off the Pacific.

In my earphones, I heard Major Van Campen, our flight leader, chatting with Major D.K. Tooker who was on the deck of a Navy destroyer down below. The day before, Major Tooker had ejected from his aircraft, in this same area, when his Crusader mysteriously flamed out during refueling. At that time, no one knew why. We all supposed it had been some freak accident that sometimes happens with no explanation. One thing we knew for sure, it was not pilot error. This accident had to be some kind of mechanical malfunction, but what? Our squadron had a perfect safety record and we were very disturbed because of the loss of an F-8 Crusader the day before.

“Eleven minutes to mandatory disconnect point,” the tanker commander said. I checked my fuel gauges again, everything appeared normal. My thoughts were, in a few hours we’d all be having dinner at the Kaneohe Officers Club on Oahu, Hawaii. Then after a short rest, we’d continue our 6,000-mile trek to Atsugi, Japan, via Midway and Wake Island. Marine All Weather Fighter Squadron (VMF)(AW) 323 was being transferred to the Far East for a one-year period of operations.

“Nine minutes to a mandatory refueling disconnect.”

My fuel gauges indicated that the tanks were almost full. I noticed that my throttle lever was sticking a little. That was unusual, because the friction lock was holding it in place and was loose enough. But now grew tighter as I tried to manipulate it gently.

Then – thud! I heard the crack of an explosion. I could see the RPM gauge unwinding and the tailpipe temperature dropping. The aircraft had lost power; the F-8’s engine had quit. I punched the mike button: ” This is Jud. I’ve got a flameout!”

Unfortunately, my radio was already dead; I was neither sending nor receiving anything via my radio. I quickly disconnected from the tanker and nosed the Crusader over, into a shallow dive, to pick up some flying speed to help re-start the engine. That gave me a few seconds to think. I yanked the handle to extend the air-driven emergency generator, called the Ram Air Turbine (RAT), into the slipstream, hoping to get a spark of ignition for an air start. The spark igniters clicked gamely, and the RPM indicator started to climb slowly, as did the tailpipe temperature. This was a positive indication that a re-start was beginning.

For one tantalizing moment I thought everything would be all right. But the RPM indicator hung uncertainly at 30 percent of capacity and refused to go any faster. This is not nearly enough power to maintain flight. The fire warning light (pilots call it the panic light) blinked RED. Raw jet fuel poured over the canopy like water from a bucket. At the same instant, my dead radio came back on, powered by the emergency RAM generator. A great babble of voices burst into my earphones. 

” Jud, you’re on fire, get out of there!”

Fuel was pouring out of my aircraft from its tailpipe; its intake duct, from under the wings, and then the whole mess of fuel ignited behind the Crusader in an eye-popping trail of fire and smoke. The suddenness of the disaster nearly overwhelmed me. This can’t be happening to me! And various voices in my ears kept urging me to fire the ejection seat and abandon the aircraft.

I pressed my mike button and told the flight leader: “I’m getting out!”

I took my hands off the flight controls and reached above my head for the canvas curtain that would start the ejection sequence. I pulled it down hard over my face and waited for the tremendous kick in the pants to send me rocketing upward, free of the aircraft.

Nothing happened! The canopy, which was designed to jettison in the first part of the ejection sequence, did not move at all. It was still in place.

My surprise lasted only a second. Then, I reached down between my knees for the alternate ejection-firing handle, and gave it a vigorous pull. Again, nothing happened. Both, the primary, and the secondary ejection procedures had failed. Now I was trapped in the cockpit of the burning aircraft.

The plane was now in a steep 60-degree dive. For the first time, I felt panic softening the edges of my determination. I knew that I had to do something or I was going to die in this bad airplane. There was no way out of it. With great effort, I pulled my thoughts together and tried to focus on some solution.

I heard a voice in my earphones screaming: “Ditch the plane! Ditch it in the ocean!”

But that’s probable suicide. That lousy suggestion must have come from the tanker skipper or one of the destroyer commanders down below because every jet pilot knows you can’t ditch a jet aircraft and survive. The plane would hit the water at a very high a speed, flip over and sink like a stone. More typically it would explode on impact with an ocean swell.

I grabbed the control stick and leveled the aircraft. Then, I yanked the alternate ejection handle again in an attempt to fire the canopy to begin the ejection sequence. Nothing happened. That left me with only one imaginable way out, which was to jettison the canopy manually and try to jump from the aircraft without using the ejection seat. But was such a thing even survivable in a sophisticated fast-moving jet fighter?

I was not aware of any Crusader pilot who had ever used this World War II tactic to get out of a fast flying jet. I had been told that this procedure, of bailing out of a jet, was almost impossible. Yes, the pilot may get out of the airplane … but the massive 20-foot high tail section is almost certain to strike the pilot’s body and kill him before he falls free. My desperation was growing, and any scheme that offered a shred of success seemed better than riding that aircraft into the sea, which would surely be fatal.

With my hands, I disconnected the canopy and with a great whoosh it disappeared from over my head never to be seen again. Before trying to get out of my confined quarters, I trimmed the aircraft to fly in a kind of sidelong skid: nose high and with the tail swung around slightly to the right. Then I stood up in my seat and crossed both arms in front of my face.

I was sucked out harshly from the airplane. I cringed as I tumbled outside the bird, expecting the tail to cut me in half, but thank goodness that never happened! In an instant, I knew I was out of there and uninjured.

I waited —and waited— until my body, hurtling through space, with the 225 knots of momentum started to decelerate. I manually pulled the D-ring on my parachute and braced myself for the shock. I heard a loud pop above me, and I looked up to see the small pilot chute had deployed (to keep the pilot from flailing around until the main chute opens).

But, I also noticed a sight that made me shiver with disbelief and horror because the 24-foot main parachute was just flapping around in the breeze . . . tangled among its own shroud lines. I could see the white folds neatly arranged, feebly fluttering around in the free-fall’s relative wind. I shook the risers in an attempt to possibly balloon chute open the fouled parachute. It didn’t work.

With my hands and arms, I pulled the bundle down toward me then wrestled with the unsymmetrically twisted shrouds. It was an unforgiving mess … but I worked on it while trying not to think about free falling toward the ocean. I looked down hurriedly. There was still plenty of altitude remaining. I quickly developed a frustrating and sickening feeling. I wanted everything to halt while I collected my thoughts, but my fall appeared to accelerate.

I noticed a ring of turbulence in the ocean. It looked like a big stone had been thrown in the water. It had white froth at its center; I finally realized this is where my airplane had crashed into the Pacific. Would I be next to smack into the water now … coming up … Fast?

Again, I shook the parachute risers and shroud lines, but the relative wind was holding my chute embraced in a bundle. I had done all I could reasonably do to open the chute and it was not going to open. I was just along for a brutal ride that may kill or severely injure me.

I descended rapidly through the low clouds. Now there was only clear sky between the ocean and me. This may be my last view of the living. I have no recollection of positioning myself properly or even bracing for the impact. In fact, I don’t remember hitting the water at all. At one instant I was falling very fast toward the ocean, then, the next thing I remember is hearing a shrill, high-pitched whistle that hurt my ears.

Suddenly, I was very cold. In that eerie half-world of consciousness, I thought, am I alive? I finally decided [but not all at once] “Yes, I THINK I am . . . I’M ALIVE!”

The water helped clear my senses. But as I struggled around in the water I began coughing and retching. The Mae West around my waist had inflated. I concluded that the shrill whistling sound that I had heard was the gas leaving the CO2 cylinders and filling the life vest.

A sense of urgency gripped me, as though there were some task I ought to be performing. Then it dawned on me what it was. The parachute was tugging at me from under the water. Finally, it had billowed out (much too late) like some Portuguese man-of-war. I tried reaching down for my hunting knife located in the knee pocket of my flight suit. I had to cut the shroud lines of the chute before it might have pulled head under water for good. This is when I first discovered that I was injured severely.

The pain was excruciating. Was my back broken? I tried to arch it slightly and felt the pain again. I tried moving my feet, but that too was impossible. My feet were immobile and I could feel my feet’s bones … grating against each other.

There was no chance of getting that hunting knife. But I had another, smaller one in the upper torso of my flight suit. With difficulty, I extracted it and began slashing feebly at the spaghetti-like shroud line mess surrounding me. Once free of the parachute, I began a tentative search for the survival pack. It contained a one-man life raft, some canned water, food, fishing gear, and dye markers. The dye markers colored the water around the pilot to aid the rescue team in finding a down airman. All of this survival equipment should have been strapped to my hips. It was not there. On contact with the water, the equipment had been mightily physically ripped off my body.

“How long will this Mae West preserver hold me up? ” I wondered.

In any case, I knew I needed a hand: fast. The salt water that I had swallowed felt like an enormous rock in the pit of my gut. But worst of all, I was completely on my own, 600 miles from shore, lolling in the deep troughs and crests of the Pacific Ocean, and my Crusader aircraft, upon which I’d lavished such affectionate attention, was sinking thousands of feet to the bottom of the ocean.

At that moment, I was struck by the incredible series of coincidences that had just befallen me. I knew that my misfortune and survival had been a one-in-a-million occurrence. In review, I noted that the explosion aloft should not have happened. The ejection mechanism should have worked. The parachute should have opened. None of these incidents should have happened. I had just experienced three major catastrophes in one flight. My squadron had a perfect safety record. Why was all of this happening?

In about ten minutes I heard the drone of a propeller-driven plane. The pot-bellied, four-engine tanker came into view, flying very low. They dropped several green dye markers near me, and some smoke flares a short distance from my position. They circled over-head and dropped an inflated life raft about 50 yards from me. I was so pleased and tried to swim toward the raft. When I took two strokes, I all most blacked out due to the intense pain in my body.

The tanker circled again and dropped another raft closer to me, but there was no way for me to get to it, or in it, in my condition. The water seemed to be getting colder, and a chill gripped me.

I looked at my watch —but the so-called unbreakable crystal was shattered and the hands torn away. I tried to relax and surrender to the Pacific Ocean swells. I could almost have enjoyed being buoyed up to the crest of one swell and gently sliding into the trough of the next, but I was in excruciating pain. I remembered the words W.C. Fields had chosen for his epitaph: ” On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

In about an hour, a Coast Guard amphibian plane flew over and circled me as though deciding whether or not to land. But the seas were high and I knew he couldn’t make it. He came in very low and dropped another raft; this one had a 200-foot lanyard attached to it. The end of the lanyard landed barely ten feet from me. I paddled gently backward using only my arms. I caught hold of it and pulled the raft to me. Even before trying, I knew I couldn’t crawl into the raft due to my physical condition. I was able to get a good grip on its side and hold on, and this gave me a little security.

The Coast Guard amphibian gained altitude and flew off. (I learned later that he headed for a squadron of mine- sweepers that was returning to the United States from a tour of the Western Pacific. He was unable to tune to their radio frequency for communications, but this ingenious pilot lowered a wire from his aircraft and dragged it across the bow of the minesweeper, the USS Embattle. The minesweeper captain understood the plea, and veered off at top speed in my direction).

I was fully conscious during the two and a half hours it took the ship to reach me. I spotted the minesweeper while teetering at the crest of a wave. Soon, its great bow was pushing in toward me and I could see sailors in orange life jackets crowding its lifelines.

A bearded man in a black rubber suit jumped into the water and swam to me. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “my legs and back.”

I was now very cold and worried about the growing numbness in my legs. Perhaps the imminence of rescue made me light-headed, for I only vaguely remember being hoisted aboard the ship. I was laid out on the ship’s deck as they cut away my flight suit.

“Don’t touch my legs! DON’T TOUCH MY LEGS!” I screamed.

I don’t remember it. Somebody gave me a shot of morphine and this erased part of my extreme pain. An hour or so later a man was bending over me and asking questions. It was a doctor who had been high-lined over from the USS Los Angeles, a cruiser that had been operating in the area).

He said, “You have a long scar on your abdomen. How did it get there?”

I told him about a serious auto accident I’d had four years earlier in Texas, and that my spleen had been removed at that time. He grunted, and asked more questions while he continued examining me. Then he said, “You and I are going to take a little trip over to the USS Los Angeles; its steaming alongside.”

Somehow they got me into a wire stretcher, and hauled me, dangling and dipping, across the watery interval between the Embattle and the cruiser. In the Los Angeles’s sickbay, they gave me another shot of morphine, thank God, and started thrusting all sorts of hoses into my body. I could tell from all the activity, and from the intense, hushed voices, that they were very worried about my condition. My body temperature was down to 94 degrees; my intestines and kidneys were in shock.

The doctors never left my side during the night. They took my blood pressure every 15 minutes. I was unable to sleep. Finally, I threw-up about a quart or more of seawater. After this my nausea was relieved a bit.

By listening to the medical team, who was working on me, I was able to piece together the nature of my injuries. This is what I heard them saying. My left ankle was broken in five places. My right ankle was broken in three places. A tendon in my left foot was cut. My right pelvis was fractured. My number 7 vertebra was fractured. My left lung had partially collapsed. There were many cuts and bruises all over my face and body, and, my intestines and kidneys had been shaken into complete inactivity.

The next morning Dr. Valentine Rhodes told me that the Los Angeles was steaming at flank speed to a rendezvous with a helicopter 100 miles from Long Beach, California. At 3:30 that afternoon, I was hoisted into the belly of a Marine helicopter from the USS Los Angeles’s fantail, and we whirred off to a hospital ship, the USS Haven, docked in Long Beach, CA.

Once aboard the Haven, doctors came at me from all sides with more needles, tubes, and X-ray machines. Their reaction to my condition was so much more optimistic than I had expected. I finally broke down and let go a few tears of relief, exhaustion, and thanks to all hands, and to God.

Within a few months I was “all systems go” again. My ankles were put back in place with the help of steel pins. The partially collapsed left lung re-inflated and my kidneys and intestines were working again without the need for prodding.

VMFA 323 001The Marine Corps discovered that the cause of my flameout [and that of Major Tooker, the previous day] was the failure of an automatic cut-off switch in the refueling system. The aircraft’s main fuel tank was made of heavy reinforced rubber. When the cut-off switch failed, this allowed the tank to overfill and it burst like a balloon. This then caused the fire and flameout.

We will never know why the ejection seat failed to work since it is in the bottom of the ocean. The parachute failure is a mystery also. Like they say, “Some days you are the dog and others you are the fire-plug.”

Do I feel lucky? That word doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. To survive a 15,000-foot fall with an unopened chute is a fair enough feat. My mind keeps running back to something Dr. Rhodes told me in the sickbay of the Los Angeles during those grim and desperate hours. He said that if I had had a spleen, it almost certainly would have ruptured when I hit the water, and I would have bled to death. Of the 25 pilots in our fighter squadron, I am the only one without a spleen.

It gives me something to think about. Maybe it does you as well.


Mustang’s note: I originally encountered this story in a Reader’s Digest about 30 years ago. I shuttered to think of falling three miles into the Pacific Ocean. I thought then, and I think now … Cliff Judkins’ survival is nothing short of a miracle. Now one might argue that his survival was just pure luck. But for me, Judkins didn’t simply survive a mind-boggling fall —he survived other calamities, each of which should have killed him. Do I believe in God? I most assuredly do.