Autumn, 1942: It came down to one Marine, and one ship

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted October 23, 2000

October 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 October 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 faring offshore.

(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 1895. 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 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 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.

Paige in 1998
Paige in 1998

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 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 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 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 and back.

In command of the 28-knot battlewagons was the right man at the right place, 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 problems.

The USS Washington: a jinxed ship
The USS Washington

"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 racing in.

"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.

GI JoeBut who remembers, today, how close-run a thing it was -- the ridge held by a single Marine, the battle won by the last American ship?

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.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and editor of Financial Privacy Report (subscribe by calling Nicholas at 612-895-8757.) His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available by dialing 1-800-244-2224; or via web site http://www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html.

Other articles by this author: (open in a new window)

Current Issue

Archive Main | 2000

Musings - ESR's blog

E-mail ESR


Loading

Send a link to this page!

 


Home

1996-2013, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.