http://www.tysknews.com/Depts/Our_Culture/one_marine_one_ship.htm Published: OCT. 22, 2000 Author: Vin
by Vin Suprynowicz
OCT. 22, 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
and Rear Adm. Willis A. "Ching
Chong China" Lee that they wouldn't have had it
any other way. What they did
58 years ago, they did precisely so their
grandchildren could live in a land
of peace and plenty.
Whether we've properly safeguarded the freedoms
they fought to leave us, may
be a discussion best 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 malarial 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 air field.
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 supporting 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 their
muscles in Korea and Manchuria as early as 1931,
and in China by 1934. By
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. A few aircraft carriers and
submarines remained, though as
Mitchell Paige and his 30-odd men were sent out
to establish their last, thin
defensive line on that ridge southwest of the
tiny American bridgehead on
Guadalcanal on Oct. 25, he would not have been
much encouraged to know how
those remaining American aircraft carriers were
(The next day, their Mark XV torpedoes - carrying
faulty magnetic detonators
reverse-engineered from a First World War German
design - proved so
ineffective that the United States Navy couldn't
even scuttle the doomed and
listing carrier Hornet with eight carefully aimed
torpedoes. Instead, our
forces suffered the ignominy of leaving the
abandoned ship to be polished off
by the enemy ... only after Japanese commanders
determined she was damaged
too badly to be successfully towed back to Tokyo
as a trophy.)
As Paige - then a platoon sergeant - and his
riflemen set about carefully
emplacing their four water-cooled Brownings, 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?
The Japanese Army had not failed in an attempt to
seize any major objective
since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Their
commanders certainly did not
expect the war to be lost on some God-forsaken
jungle ridge manned by one
thin line of Yanks in khaki in October of 1942.
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, the American forces
had so little to work with that Paige's men would
have only the four
30-caliber Brownings to defend the one ridge
through which the Japanese opted
to launch their final assault against Henderson
Field, that fateful night of
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
Among the 90 American dead and 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 picks up the tale:
"When the enemy broke through the line directly
in front of his position,
P/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 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 gun
cradled under his arm, firing as
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 Marines does it
take to hold a hill against two regiments of
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
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
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 messmen who had
brought food to the position
the evening before."
Joined by Paige, this ad hoc force of 17 Marines
counterattacked at 5:40
a.m., discovering that "the extremely short range
allowed the optimum use of
grenades." In the end, "The element of surprise
permitted the small force to
clear the crest."
And that's where the unstoppable wave of Japanese
conquest finally crested,
broke, and began to recede. On an unnamed jungle
ridge on an insignificant
island no one had ever heard of, called
Guadalcanal. Because of a handful of
U.S. Marines, one of whom, now 82, lives out a
quiet retirement with his wife
Marilyn in La Quinta, Calif.
But while the Marines had won their battle on
land, it would be meaningless
unless the U.S. Navy could figure out a way to
stop losing night battles in
"The Slot" to the northwest of the island,
through which the Japanese kept
sending in barges filled with supplies and
reinforcements for their own
desperate forces on Guadalcanal.
The U.S. Navy had lost so many ships in those
dreaded night actions that the
waters off Savo were given the grisly sailor's
nickname by which they're
still known today: Ironbottom Sound.
So desperate did things become that finally, 18
days after Mitchell Paige won
his Congressional Medal of Honor on that ridge
above Henderson Field, Admiral
Bull Halsey himself broke a stern War College
edict - the one against
committing capital ships in restricted waters.
Gambling the future of the
cut-off troops on Guadalcanal on one final roll
of the dice, Halsey
dispatched into the Slot his two remaining fast
battleships, the USS South
Dakota and the USS Washington, escorted by the
only four destroyers with
enough fuel in their bunkers to get them there
In command of the 28-knot battlewagons was the
right man at the right pla4ce,
gunnery expert Rear Adm. Willis A. "Ching Chong
China" Lee. Lee's flag flew
aboard the Washington, in turn commanded by
Captain Glenn Davis.
Lee was a nut for gunnery drills. "He tested
every gunnery-book rule with
exercises," Lippman writes, "and ordered gunnery
drills under odd conditions
- turret firing with relief crews, anything that
might simulate the
freakishness of battle."
As it turned out, the American destroyers need
not have worried about
carrying enough fuel to get home. By 11 p.m. on
Nov. 13, outnumbered better
than three-to-one by a massive Japanese task
force driving down from the
northwest, every one of the four American
destroyers had been shot up, sunk,
or set aflame, while the South Dakota - known
throughout the fleet as a jinx
ship - managed to damage some lesser Japanese
vessels but continued to be
plagued with electrical and fire control
"Washington was now the only intact ship left in
the force," Lippman writes.
"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
still had the conn. He had
just heard that South Dakota had gone off the air
and had seen (destroyers)
Walke and Preston "blow sky high." Dead ahead lay
their burning wreckage,
while hundreds of men were swimming in the water
and Japanese ships were
"Hunter had to do something. The course he took
now could decide the war.
'Come left,' he said, and Washington straightened
out on a course parallel to
the one on which she (had been) steaming.
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. ...
"Meanwhile, Washington raced through burning
seas. Everyone could see dozens
of men in the water clinging to floating
wreckage. Flag Lieutenant Raymond
Thompson said, "Seeing that burning, sinking ship
as it passed so close
aboard, and realizing that there was nothing I,
or anyone, could do about it,
was a devastating experience.'
"Commander Ayrault, Washington's executive
officer, clambered down ladders,
ran to Bart Stoodley's damage-control post, and
ordered Stoodley to cut loose
life rafts. That saved a lot of lives. But the
men in the water had some
fight left in them. One was heard to scream, 'Get
after them, Washington!' "
Sacrificing their ships by maneuvering into the
path of torpedoes intended
for the Washington, the captains of the American
destroyers had given China
Lee one final chance. The Washington was fast,
undamaged, and bristling with
16-inch guns. And, thanks to Lt. Hunter's course
change, she was also now
invisible to the enemy.
Blinded by the smoke and flames, the Japanese
battleship Kirishima turned on
her searchlights, illuminating the helpless South
Dakota, and opened fire.
Finally, standing out in the darkness, Lee and
Davis could positively
identify an enemy target.
The Washington's main batteries opened fire at 12
midnight precisely. Her new
SG radar fire control system worked perfectly.
Between midnight and 12:07
a.m., Nov. 14, the "last ship in the U.S. Pacific
Fleet" stunned the
battleship Kirishima with 75, 16-inch shells. For
those aboard the Kirishima,
it rained steel.
In seven minutes, the Japanese battleship was
reduced to a funeral pyre. She
went down at 3:25 a.m., the first enemy sunk by
an American battleship since
the Spanish-American War. Stunned, the remaining
Japanese ships withdrew.
Within days, Yamamoto and his staff reviewed
their mounting losses and
recommended the unthinkable to the emperor -
withdrawal from Guadalcanal.
But who remembers, today, how close-run a thing
it was - the ridge held by a
single Marine, the battle won by the last
In the autumn of 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.
GyG's Old Salt Marines Tavern
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GySgt USMC (Ret.)