World War Two is generally calculated from Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. But that’s a eurocentric view. The Japanese had been limbering up their muscles in Korea and Manchuria as early as 1931, and in China by 1934. By 1942 they’d devastated every major Pacific military force or stronghold of the great pre-war powers: Britain, Holland, France, and the United States. The bulk of America’s proud Pacific fleet lay beached or rusting on the floor of Pearl Harbor. A few aircraft carriers and submarines remained, though as Mitchell Paige and his 30-odd men were sent out to establish their last, thin defensive line on that ridge southwest of the tiny American bridgehead on Guadalcanal on Oct. 25, he would not have been much encouraged to know how those remaining American aircraft carriers were faring offshore.
As Paige — then a platoon sergeant — and his riflemen set about carefully emplacing their four water-cooled Brownings, it’s unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide the definitive answer to that most desperate of questions: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against 2,000 desperate and motivated attackers?
The Japanese Army had not failed in an attempt to seize any major objective since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Their commanders certainly did not expect the war to be lost on some God-forsaken jungle ridge manned by one thin line of Yanks in khaki in October of 1942.
But in preceding days, Marine commander Vandegrift had defied War College doctrine, “dangling” his men in exposed positions to draw Japanese attacks, then springing his traps “with the steel vise of firepower and artillery,” in the words of Naval historian David Lippman.
The Japanese regiments had been chewed up, good. Still, the American forces had so little to work with that Paige’s men would have only the four 30-caliber Brownings to defend the one ridge through which the Japanese opted to launch their final assault against Henderson Field, that fateful night of Oct. 25.
By the time the night was over, “The 29th (Japanese) Infantry Regiment has lost 553 killed or missing and 479 wounded among its 2,554 men,” historian Lippman reports. “The 16th (Japanese) Regiment’s losses are uncounted, but the 164th’s burial parties handle 975 Japanese bodies. … The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low.”
Among the 90 American dead and wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige’s platoon. Every one. As the night wore on, Paige moved up and down his line, pulling his dead and wounded comrades back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn, convincing the Japanese forces down the hill that the positions were still manned.
The citation for Paige’s Congressional Medal of Honor picks up the tale: “When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. Paige, commanding a machinegun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded. Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire.”
In the end, Sgt. Paige picked up the last of the 40-pound, belt-fed Brownings — the same design which John Moses Browning famously fired for a continuous 25 minutes until it ran out of ammunition at its first U.S. Army trial — and did something for which the weapon was never designed. Sgt. Paige walked down the hill toward the place where he could hear the last Japanese survivors rallying to move around his flank, the gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went.
The weapon did not fail.
Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley first discovered the answer to our question: How many able-bodied Marines does it take to hold a hill against two regiments of motivated, combat-hardened infantrymen who have never known defeat?
On a hill where the bodies were piled like cordwood, Mitchell Paige alone sat upright behind his 30-caliber Browning, waiting to see what the dawn would bring.
One hill: one Marine.