May 28, 2010 – A Memorial Day Tribute

Featured Trades: (A MEMORIAL DAY TRIBUTE)


4) A Memorial Day Tribute. Monday is Memorial Day, and I'll be putting on my faded Marine Corp fatigues and railroad track bars and leading the town's veteran'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 1935 were poor, Mitch walked 200 miles to the nearest Marine Corp recruiting station. After basic training, he spent five years rotating between duty in China and the Philippines. When WWII broke out, he was a seasoned sergeant in charge of a machine gun platoon. That put him on the beach on day one when the First Marine division landed at Guadalcanal in August, 1942. When the Japanese counterattacked, Mitch was put in charge of four Browning 30 caliber water cooled machine guns and 36 men, dug in at trenches on a ridge above Henderson Field. The Japanese launched massive waves of suicide attackers 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. After the first hour, all of Mitch's men were either dead or severely wounded. So Mitch fired one gun until it was empty, than scurried over to the next, and then the next. In between waves, he ran back and reloaded all the guns. When the Japanese launched their final assault, and then retreated, he picked up a 40 pound Browning 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. He was shocked when he visited the position the next morning, finding Mitch alone in front of a twisted sea of 1,000 Japanese bodies. A photo of that grisly scene is below. Mitch was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor 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, and got to know stars like John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and yes, even Elvis Presley. The iconic fictional hero in Sands of Iwo Jima, Sergeant John M. Striker, was said to be 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. Mitch passed away in 2003 while he was working as a technical consultant to the just released HBO series, The Pacific. The funeral was marked by an eagle which continuously circled over head, which according to the Indian shaman present, only occurred at the services for great warriors. 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 by clicking here.

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