This Day in History: Mitchell Paige & the Battle of Guadalcanal
On this day in 1918, a hero is born. Mitchell Paige would volunteer for the Marines on his 18th birthday—and he even walked 200 miles to Baltimore to do it.
He soon discovered that he didn’t technically weigh enough to join the Marines. Undeterred, he sat there, eating bananas and drinking water until he made himself heavy enough to pass muster.
That same determination would characterize his life in the Marine Corps.
Shortly after the United States entered World War II, Paige was deployed to Guadalcanal, in the Pacific. The Japanese then held virtually everything in the Solomon Islands, but the United States had control of a key airstrip.
Paige’s machine gun platoon was dispatched to hold a particular ridge in front of two other rifle companies. They had to hold that air field. The last order that Paige remembers hearing was that “you gotta hold this line. You have to hold this line. Otherwise they’ll break through and go to the airport.”
By October 24, Platoon Sergeant Paige and his men were in position, in a driving rain. Paige began with 48 men, but he was down to 33 by the time the main attack began on October 26.
Those 33 Marines would hold off more than 1,000 Japanese.
“When they hit our line, it was so fast and it was so fierce,” Paige would later say, “it took me 15 years to tell anybody what happened. It was something you couldn’t describe. I couldn’t describe it. The screaming and the hollering.”
Wave after wave of attacks came. Paige lost count of how many. But he did remember one short flash of humor in the midst of it all. “[W]hen their assault on us began,” Paige chuckled, “this [Japanese] guy started screaming, ‘Blood for the emperor! Blood for the emperor!’ And Stansberry, he was throwing hand grenades and yelling back, ‘Blood for Eleanor! Blood for Eleanor [Roosevelt]!’ Bad as it was, I couldn’t help but laugh.”
Obviously, the humor was short-lived.
Paige didn’t know how he survived. At one point, he was bayoneted through his hand. At another point, he said he “felt a warmth between my chin and my Adam’s apple.” It was a bullet flying by him. That bullet was followed by 29 others, but the Japanese soldier missed each time. Paige was finally able to get off a counter shot. A single burst was enough.
By dawn, Paige was the only member of his platoon still standing. “I ran back and forth,” he said, “and when a gun wasn’t firing, I’d fire the gun, and I guess the Japanese thought we had a lot more men than we did because I kept all the guns going.”
Fortunately, men from other companies were still bringing him ammo, although there were many casualties among them, too.
As the Japanese prepared for a final attack, he yelled over his shoulder at the rifle companies behind him, “Fix bayonets and follow me!” He took off down a hill with a machine gun and cartridge belts, firing from his hip. He cut down a Japanese officer who was coming at him with a samurai sword. Soon, the Japanese retreated.
Paige couldn’t believe what he’d been through. He found his pack and dumped the contents out on the ground. A New Testament fell out. It was open to Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.”
Paige felt sure that he’d been protected by a divine hand. “God was with us,” he told his commander.
Larry Smith, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Beyond Glory: Medal of Honor Heroes in Their Own Words (2004)
Medal of Honor citation (Mitchell Paige; WWII)
Medal of Honor oral Histories (Mitchell Paige; WWII)
Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)
Oliver L. North & Joe Musser, War Stories II: Heroism in the Pacific (2004)