A few months ago found me on an obscure, deserted ridge in the Solomon Islands in a remote corner of the South Pacific. The jungle was lush and malarial mosquitos alighted in clouds. I was looking over the capital city of Honiara on the main island whose name is honored by all Marine Corps. Veterans:
I had to hold back the tears as I dug through the foxhole on Hanneken’s Ridge occupied by my Uncle Mitch during one of the most violent hand to hand battles of WWII. I found dozens of 6.5 mm Japanese Arisaka copper-jacketed bullets, along with an assortment of unexploded hand grenades, mortar shells, and 30 caliber machine gun casings.
I repeated the same at the base of Hill 27, where my then 19-year-old father fought a similar pitched battle. The battle was later chronicled in the 1998 movie The Thin Red Line. His suffering had to be immense. The reason he stayed in California is that visits to his native Brooklyn, NY, triggered his malaria.
This coming Monday is 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.
Since job prospects for high school graduates in rural Pennsylvania were poor in 1936, Mitch walked 200 miles to the nearest Marine Corps 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. He missed the notorious Bataan Death March by weeks.
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.
A Zero Fighter Wing
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 line would have been broken, leading to a loss of the airfield, and possibly the entire battle. WWII in the Pacific 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 of banzai attackers, he ran back and reloaded all the guns.
To more easily pitch hand grenades, he cut the arms off his green herringbone fatigues. When the Japanese launched their final assault, and then retreated, he picked up a 50-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.
Mitch was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by General “Chesty” Puller in at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds in Australia a few months later.
After the war, Mitch, now a captain, was handed the plum of all Marine Corp jobs, acting as the liaison officer with Hollywood. He provided the planes, ships, Marines, 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. When Mitch became too old to attend, I took that seat. 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 escort him on diplomatic missions overseas to attend important events, like the D-Day 40th anniversary in Normandy.
The Top of Hill 27
Whenever Mitch was in town, he would join me for lunch with some of my history-oriented hedge fund clients 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.
I used to confess to my fellow traders present, “It makes what we do for a living look pretty feeble, doesn’t it?”
What’s Left of a Marine Corsair
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 Basilone, another Medal of Honor winner at Guadalcanal. Basilone 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 millennia.
While in Guadalcanal, I managed to dig up several dog tags from Marines missing in action that were still legible after 78 years in the ground. The Marine Historical Division in Quantico Station Virginia is tracing them so I can return them to the families.
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.
To buy the DVD, The Pacific, click here.
Henderson’s Ridge in 1942
Hanneken’s Ridge Today
A 30 Caliber Machine Gun
A US Wildcat Fighter Crash Landed
Marines Who Didn’t Make It Back