Today is Veterans Day in the United States, a national holiday originally established for those who served in WWI.
I’ll be putting on my faded Marine Corp fatigues, with gold railroad track bars on my shoulders, and lead the hometown’s parade.
So, I thought it would be a good day to tell you the story of my Uncle Mitch, the REAL veteran.
Since job prospects for high school graduates in rural Pennsylvania were poor in 1936, 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 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, he ran back and reloaded all the guns.
To more easily pitch hand grenades, he cut the arms off his herringbone fatigues. 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 “Chesty” 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 escort 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 hedge fund 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.
I used to confess to my fellow traders present, “It makes what we do for a living look pretty feeble, doesn’t it?”
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.
Last spring, I had an opportunity to visit the World War II Museum in New Orleans on the morning of my Strategy Luncheon there. Tucked away in a corner was a plaque paying tribute to Mitch. As I stood there in silence, a group of two dozen gathered around me. When someone asked, I told his whole story to a rapt audience. It was his final tribute.
When I get back from my parade, I’ll take out the samurai sword Mitch captured on that fateful day, a 1692 Muneshige carried by the Japanese division commander, 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 millennium.To bring the story full circle, in January 2020 I’ll be visiting Guadalcanal myself as a representative of the US Marine Corps to begin the 78th year memorial services for the epic battle. I have already hired a native guide and metal detector to find the actual ridge from which Mitch fought hand to hand. I’ll be forwarding you the videos and the pictures.
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