This coming Monday will be Memorial Day in the United States. I’ll be putting on my faded Marine Corp fatigues, with gold railroad track bars on my shoulders, and leading the hometown’s parade. So I thought it would be a good day to tell you the story of my Uncle Mitch.
Since job prospects for high school graduates in rural Pennsylvania in 1936 were poor, Mitch walked 200 miles to the nearest Marine Corp recruiting station in Baltimore. After basic training, he spent five years rotating between duty in China and the Philippines, manning the fabled gunboats up the Yangtze River.
When WWII broke out, he was a seasoned sergeant in charge of a machine gun platoon. That put him with the seventh regiment of the First Marine division at Guadalcanal in October, 1942. When the Japanese counterattacked, Mitch was put in charge of four Browning .30 caliber water-cooled machine guns and 33 men, dug in at trenches on a ridge above Henderson Field.
The Japanese launched massive waves of suicide attackers in a pouring tropical rainstorm all night long, frequently breaking through the lines and engaging in fierce hand-to-hand combat. If the position fell, the flank would have been broken, leading to a loss of the airfield, and possibly the entire battle. WWII would have lasted two more years.
After the first hour, all of Mitch’s men were either dead or severely wounded, shot or slashed with samurai swords. So Mitch fired one gun until it was empty, then scurried over to the next, and then the next. In between human waves, he ran back and reloaded all the guns.
To more easily pitch hand grenades, he cut the arms off his herringbone tunic. When the Japanese launched their final assault, and then retreated, he picked up a 40-pound Browning, cradled it in his arms, and ran down the hill after them, firing all the way, and burning all the skin off his left forearm.
Mitch’s commanding officer, Col. Herman H. Hanneken, heard the guns firing all night from the field below. He was shocked when he visited the position the next morning, finding Mitch alone in front of a twisted sea of 2,000 Japanese bodies, not a scratch on him. Mitch was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by General “Chester” Puller in Australia a few months later.
After the war, Mitch, now a colonel was handed the plum of all Marine Corp jobs, acting as the liaison officer with Hollywood. He provided the planes, ships, and beaches needed to make the great classic war films. He got to know stars like John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and yes, even Elvis Presley. The iconic fictional hero in the 1949 film, Sands of Iwo Jima, the quiet, but strong Sergeant John M. Striker, was modeled after him.
Tradition dictated that all military officers saluted Mitch, even five star generals, and he was given a seat to attend every presidential inauguration from FDR on. Pacific countries issued stamps with his image, and Mattel sold a special GI Joe in his likeness.
When Mitch got older and infirm, I used my captain’s rank to accompany him on diplomatic missions overseas to attend important events, like the D-Day 40th anniversary in Normandy. Whenever Mitch was in town, he would join me for lunch with some of my clients with a history bent, and a more humble and self-effacing guy you never met. He occasionally scratched the massive scars on his forearm, which still bothered him after a half century.
Mitch passed away in 2003 while he was working as a technical consultant to the pre-production of the HBO series, The Pacific, an absolute must-see for all armchair historians. The principal character in the series is an amalgam of Mitch and John Basalone, another Medal of Honor winner at Guadalcanal. Basalone later died leading a charge on Iwo Jima, so his name was used in the film for dramatic effect.
The funeral in Riverside, California was marked by a lone eagle, which continuously circled overhead. According to the Indian shaman present, this only occurs at the services for great warriors. A dozen living Medal of Honor winners accompanied the casket. Boy, the Marines can sure put on a great funeral, perhaps because they have had so much practice.
When I get back from my parade, I’ll take out the samurai sword Mitch captured on that fateful day, a 1692 Muneshige, the hilt still scarred with 30 caliber slugs, and give it a ritual polishing in sesame oil and powdered deer horn, as samurai have done for a millennia.
To read more about the First Marine Division’s campaign during the war, please read the excellent paperback The Island: A History of the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal by Herbert Laing Merillat, which you can buy from Amazon by on the title.
To Buy the DVD The Pacific from Amazon, click here.