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Cover Story June 26th, 2008

  Untitled Document

Ken Kramer

by lyle e davis

(From an article appearing in American Legion Post 139 and forwarded to us by Gene Adams, Major, USMC, Retired)

On Nov. 15, 2003, an 85-year-old retired Marine Corps colonel died of congestive heart failure at his home in La Quinta, Calif., southeast of Palm Springs. He was a combat veteran of World War II. Reason enough to honor him. But this Marine was a little different. This Marine was Mitchell Paige.

It's hard today to envision -- or, for the dwindling few, to remember -- what the world looked like on Oct. 26, 1942. The U.S. Navy was not the most powerful fighting force in the Pacific. Not by a long shot. So the Navy basically dumped Mitchell Paige and a few thousand other lonely American Marines on the beach on Guadalcanal and high-tailed it out of there.

You Navy guys can hold those letters. Of course Nimitz, Fletcher and Halsey had to ration what few ships they had. I've written separately about the way Bull Halsey rolled the dice on the night of Nov. 13, 1942, violating the stern War College edict against committing capital ships in restricted waters and instead dispatching into the Slot his last two remaining fast battleships, the South Dakota and the Washington, escorted by the only four destroyers with only enough fuel in their bunkers to get them there and back.

Those American destroyer captains need not have worried about carrying enough fuel to get home. By 11 p.m., outnumbered better than three-to-one by a massive Japanese task force driving down from the northwest, every one of those four American destroyers had been shot up, sunk, or set aflame. And while the South Dakota (known throughout the fleet as a jinx ship) had damaged some lesser Japanese vessels, she continued to be plagued with electrical and fire control problems.

"The USS Washington was now the only intact ship left in the force," writes naval historian David Lippman. "In fact, at that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet. She was the only barrier between (Admiral) Kondo's ships and Guadalcanal. If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war."

On Washington's bridge, Lieutenant Ray Hunter had the conn. He had just seen the destroyers Walke and Preston blown sky high. Dead ahead lay their burning wreckage. Hundreds of men were swimming in the water and the Japanese ships racing in.

"Hunter had to do something. The course he took now could decide the war," Lippman writes. "Come left," he said. The Washington's rudder change put the burning destroyers between her and the enemy, preventing her from being silhouetted by their fires. "The move made the Japanese momentarily cease fire. Lacking radar, they could not spot Washington behind the fires." Washington raced through burning seas. Dozens of destroyer men were in the water clinging to floating wreckage. "Get after them, Washington!" one shouted.

Sacrificing their ships by maneuvering into the path of torpedoes intended for the Washington, the captains of the American destroyers had given Admiral China Lee (in charge of the US Battle Group) one final chance. Blinded by the smoke and flames, the Japanese battleship Kirishima turned on her searchlights, illuminating the helpless South Dakota, and opened fire. Finally, as the Kirishima's own muzzle blasts illuminated her in the darkness, Admiral Lee and Captain Glenn Davis (CO USS Washington) could positively identify an enemy target.

The Washington's main batteries opened fire at 12 midnight precisely. Her radar fire control system functioned perfectly. During the first seven minutes of Nov. 14, 1942, the "last ship in the U.S. Pacific Fleet" fired 75 of her 16-inch shells at the battleship Kirishima. Aboard Kirishima, it rained steel. At 3:25 a.m., her burning hulk officially became the first enemy sunk by an American battleship since the Spanish-American War. Stunned, the Japanese withdrew. Within days, Japanese commander Isoroku Yamamoto recommended the unthinkable to the emperor -- withdrawal from Guadalcanal.

But that was still weeks in the future. Back on the God forsaken, malarial jungle island of Guadalcanal, the Marines were placed 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. The Marines struggled to complete an airfield. Yamamoto knew what that meant. No effort would be spared to dislodge these upstart Yanks from a position that could endanger his ships. Before long, relentless Japanese counterattacks had driven the supporting U.S. Navy from inshore waters. The Marines again were on their own.

As Platoon Sgt. Mitchell Paige and his 33 riflemen set about carefully emplacing their four water-cooled 30-caliber Brownings, manning their section of the thin khaki line which was expected to defend Henderson Field (Guadalcanal) against the assault of the night of Oct. 25, 1942, it's unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide the definitive answer to that most desperate of questions: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against 2,000 desperate and motivated attackers?

Nor did the commanders of the mighty Japanese Army, who had swept all before them for decades, expect their advance to be halted on some God forsaken jungle ridge manned by one thin line of Yanks in khaki in October of 1942.

But by the time the night was over, "The 29th (Japanese) Infantry Regiment has lost 553 killed or missing and 479 wounded among its 2,554 men," historian Lippman reports. "The 16th (Japanese) Regiment's losses are uncounted, but the 164th's burial parties handled 975 Japanese bodies. The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low."

You've already figured out where the Japanese focused their attack, haven't you? Among the 90 American dead and seriously wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige's platoon. Every one. As the night of endless attacks wore on, Paige moved up and down his line, pulling his dead and wounded comrades back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn, convincing the Japanese forces down the hill that the positions were still manned.

photo
Japanese dead at Guadalcanal
Estimates claim over 2,200

An example of the ferocity of the fighting is contained within the following series of paragraphs excerpted from Mitchell Paige’s book, “A Marine named Mitch.”

“The battleground was lit by flashes of machine-gun fire, pierced by the arching red patterns of tracer bullets, shaken by the blast of shells laid down no more than 30 yards in front of the ridge by Captain Louis Ditta's 60mm Mortars. It was a confusing maelstrom, with dark shapes crawling across the ground or swirling in clumped knots; struggling men falling on each other with bayonets, swords and violent oaths. After the first volley of American grenades exploded the wave of Japanese crowding onto the knoll thickened. Pfc. Charles H. Lock was killed from a burst of enemy machine-gun fire.

I screamed, 'Fire machine guns! Fire!' and with that all the machine guns opened up with all the rifles and tommy guns. In the flickering light, I saw a fierce struggle taking place for the number two gun. Several Japanese soldiers were racing toward Leiphart, who was kneeling, apparently already hit. I managed to shoot two of them while the third lowered his bayonet and lunged.

Leiphart was the smallest man in the platoon, weighing barely 125 pounds. The Japanese soldier ran him through, the force of the thrust lifting him high in the air. I took careful aim and shot Leiphart's killer.

Gaston was flat on his back, scrambling away from a Japanese officer who was hacking at him with a two-handed Samurai sword and grunting with the exertion. Gaston tried desperately to block the Samurai sword with a Springfield he had picked up off the ground, apparently Leiphart's. One of his legs was badly cut from the blows. The rifle soon splintered. The Japanese officer raised his sword for the killing thrust and Gaston, with maniac strength, snaked his good leg up and caught his man under the chin with his boon docker, a violent blow that broke the Japanese's' neck.”
•••••
As we advanced back across the ridge, some of the Japanese began falling back. Several of them, however, began crawling awkwardly across the knoll with their rifles cradled in the crooks of their arms. Then I saw with horror that they were headed toward one of my guns, which was now out in the open and unmanned.

Galvanized by the threat, I ran for the gun. From the gully area, several Japanese guns spotted me and swiveled to rake me with enfilading fire. The snipers in the trees also tried to bring me down with grenades, and mortars burst all around me as I ran to that gun. One of the crawling enemy soldiers saw me coming and he jumped up to race me to the prize. I got there first and jumped into a hole behind the gun. The enemy soldier, less than 25 yards away, dropped to the ground and started to open up on me. I turned the gun on the enemy and immediately realized it was not loaded. I quickly scooped up a partially loaded belt lying on the ground and with fumbling fingers, started to load it.

I found three more belts of ammunition and quickly fired them in the trees and all along the ridge. I sprayed the terrain with the remaining rounds clearing everything in sight. All the Japanese fire in the area was being aimed at me apparently, as this was the only automatic weapon firing from a forward position. The barrage, concentrated on the ridge nose, made me feel as if the whole Japanese Army was firing at me.
•••••
I turned around to tell my friends I was going to charge over the knoll and I said, 'I want everyone of you to be right behind me,' and they were. I threw the two remaining belts of ammunition that my men had brought me over my shoulder, unclamped the heavy machine gun from the tripod and cradled it in my arms. I really didn't notice the weight which was about a total of eighty pounds, and was no more aware that the water jacket of the gun was red hot.

I fed one of the belts into the gun and started forward, down the slope, scrambling to keep my feet, spraying a raking fire all about me. There were still a number of live enemy soldiers on the hillside in the tall grass, pressed against the slope. I must have taken them by surprise, as the gun cut them all down. One of them I noticed, was a field grade officer who had just expended the rounds in his revolver and was reaching for his two-handed sword. He was no more than four or five feet from me when I ran into him head on.

They followed me all the way across the draw with fixed bayonets, to the end of the jungle, where long hours before, the Japanese attacks had started. There we found nothing left to shoot at. The battle was over.
•••••
The jungle was once again so still, that if it weren't for the evidence of dead bodies, the agony and torment of the previous hours, the bursting terror of the artillery and mortars rounds and the many thousands of rounds of ammunition fired, it might only have been a bad dream of awful death.

It was a really strange sort of quietness. As I sat down soaked with perspiration and steam still rising from my hot gun, Captain Louis Ditta, another wonderful officer who had joined the riflemen in the skirmish line and had earlier been firing his 60mm mortars to help me, slapped me on the back and as he handed me his canteen of water he kept saying, 'tremendous, tremendous!' He then looked down at his legs. We could see blood coming through his dungarees. He had a neat bullet hole in his right leg.

There were hundreds of enemy dead in the grass, on the ridge, in the draw, and in the edge of the jungle. We dragged as many as we could into the jungle, out of the sun. We buried many and even blasted some of the ridge over them to prevent the smell that only a dead body can expel in heat.

 

photo
In the foreground, a water cooled machine gun, similar to the one used by Mitchell Paige

The citation for Paige's Congressional Medal of Honor confirms the tale: "When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, Sgt. Paige, commanding a machinegun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire."

In the end, Sgt. Paige picked up the last of the 40-pound, belt-fed Brownings (the same design which John Moses Browning famously fired for a continuous 25 minutes until it ran out of ammunition, glowing cherry red, at its first U.S. Army trial) and did something for which the weapon was never designed. Sgt. Paige walked down the hill toward the place where he could hear the last Japanese survivors rallying to move around his flank, the belt-fed gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went. And the weapon did not fail.

photoComing up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conolley was first to discover the answer to our question: How many able-bodied 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.

"However, 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. "Major Conolley decided to rush the Japanese position. For the task he gathered together three enlisted communication personnel, several riflemen, a few company runners who were at the point, together with a cook and a few messmen who had brought food to the position the evening before."

Joined by Mitchell Paige, this ad hoc force of 17 Marines counterattacked at 5:40 a.m., discovering that "the extremely short range allowed the optimum use of grenades." They cleared the ridge. And that's where the unstoppable wave of Japanese conquest finally crested, broke, and began to recede. On an unnamed jungle ridge on an insignificant island no one had ever heard of, called Guadalcanal. But who remembers, today, how close-run a thing it was -- the ridge held by a single Marine, in the autumn of 1942?

When the Hasbro Toy Co. called some years back, asking permission to put the retired colonel's face on some kid's doll, Mitchell Paige thought they must be joking. But they weren't. That's his mug, on the little Marine they call "G.I. Joe."

And now you know.

photo
The Mitchell Paige version of GI Joe, released in 1998 by the Hasbro Toy Co.

Sources: American Legion Post 139 (Original authorship attributed to Vin Suprynowicz, Las Vegas Review Journal - 10/28/07).
“A Marine named Mitch.” Mitchell Paige

 

 

 

 

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