A celebration on Main Street in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Kentish Guards, in 1899. A photograph of a photograph at the Varnum Armory, taken by Alan Clarke.

By Bruce Mastracchio

As a kid I reveled in drawing out the stories of World War Two from my uncles, 10 of whom served, or from guys at the station, who participated in the “War to End All Wars.” I had a collection, given to me by my uncles, of bloody Japanese flags and helmets and the same with German gear. I also had some uniforms and American tank helmets.

One story that always stuck with me was the story of a young American soldier captured by the Germans, who was made to dig his own grave along with, perhaps, 100 other captives, both civilian and military. They were then all lined up and mowed down by a German machine gunner.

My father’s friend fell into the pit, but was only slightly wounded. For whatever reason, the Germans did not plow the pit over, but instead posted a guard with the intent, I guess, of finishing the job the next day. The wounded soldier feigned death til darkness set in. He then killed the guard and made his way, safely, back to the American lines.

I mention this because of how we imagine what our heroes look like. I met this friend of my father’s on a couple of occasions. He did not fit the Hollywood mold of someone you think of when you think of a feat of that magnitude.

He was small and thin, with a pencil-thin mustache, and very refined. When I met him after the war, he was working at a men’s clothing store. I do not remember his name. He was about 5’6″ and 135 lbs at most. Of such size are our real heroes.

It has been said that the average marine is 5’8″ and 145 lbs. I think that is true. But they don’t put men of that size on the recruiting posters do they? Thus adding to our misconception of heroes. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII was about 5’7″ and 145 lbs, yet single-handedly captured over 250 German soldiers. He was turned down for service something like six times before getting the army to take him.

My neighbor down the street here in Las Vegas is not an imposing figure. He is about my size and in Korea he was an Army raider. At Chosin, he helped ward off suicide attacks and engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting. He told me, with prodding, that he encountered more than one and he is still here. In Vietnam, he switched to helicopters, firing rockets at the Viet Cong and NVA forces, and most likely, sent more than a few hundred to meet their maker. These are the men who go to battle. Again, this gentle man from the Tennessee hills does not look like the hero he is.

All three of these heroes were from small towns in R.I., Texas and Tennessee. Statistics say that something like 60 to 70 percent of the casualties of wars are from small towns. Interesting.

The subject of today’s Memories is also from a small town. Thanks to Hasbro, he also has a Rhode Island connection.

So, this Independence Day, I dedicate this STM to my uncles and friends who served, in particular to George, Don and Bud, to my Dad’s friend, to Audie, to Ruble “Ed” Edwards (aka Sgt. “Easy,”) to Army First Sgt. George Dunaway, who I had the pleasure to meet here in Vegas, to Lt. Col. Ervin “Jay” Crampton, USMC, and to all out there who have donned the uniform of our country, and did their duty, whether in peace, or war. God bless you all.

Also thanks to Vin Suprynowicz of the Las Vegas Review Journal, who gave me the idea for this story and from whose article a lot of this STM is derived.

On November 15, 2003, an 85-year-old retired Marine Colonel died of congestive heart failure in La Quinta, Calif. He was a combat veteran of WWII. His name was Mitchell Paige.

On October 25, 1942, the U.S. Navy did not rule the waves as it does today. So they dumped a few thousand U.S. Marines on a lonely beach at a place no one had ever heard of prior. A place called Guadalcanal. They then sped out of the area leaving these marines to fend for themselves.

Mitchell Paige

On Guadalcanal, the marines dug in and Platoon Sgt. Mitchell Paige directed his 33 riflemen in setting up a defense perimeter, strategically placing their four water-cooled .30 caliber Browning automatics. They were expected to defend Henderson Field against Japanese assault. The ensuing action would answer the question: How many able-bodied Marines does it take to hold a position against over 2,000 armed and maniacal attackers?

By the time the night was over, the Japanese would sustain 1,553 killed or missing and 479 wounded out of 2,554 men. The American estimate of over 2,000 Japanese dead is probably too low.

The enemy focused their attack on Mitchell Paige’s position. Among the 90 American dead or seriously wounded that night were all of Mitchell Paige’s platoon. Every single one.

As the night wore on Paige moved along his lines pulling dead and wounded back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn. He tried to fake the Japanese to think that all positions were manned.

Paige’s Medal of Honor citation states: “When the enemy broke through in front of his position, Sgt. Paige, commanding a machine gun section with fearless determination, continued to direct fire of his gunners until all his men were killed or wounded. Sgt. Paige, alone, against the deadly hail of the Japanese, fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took 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 and did something for which the weapon was not designed. He walked down the hill towards the Japanese, firing fiercely as he advanced towards the enemy.

Coming upon the scene at dawn, Major Odell Conoley was the first to discover how many able bodied U.S. Marines it takes to hold a hill against two regiments of combat-hardened soldiers who had never known defeat until that night. One.

On a hill, with bodies stacked around him like firewood, Mitchell Paige sat upright behind his Browning, awaiting the dawn and the next possible attack. The hill had held, because on the hill remained the minimum number of able-bodied United States Marines necessary to hold the position. One.

And, there, on that hill, on a previously unheard of island named Guadalcanal, the Japanese attempt at dominance of the Pacific was brought to a screeching halt.

When the Hasbro Toy Company (based here in R.I.) called some years back to ask permission to put the retired Colonel’s face on a kid’s action figure, Paige thought they must be kidding. Except they weren’t. The face on the G.I. Joe doll for all these years has been that of U.S. Marine hero and Medal of Honor winner Mitchell Paige. His only condition was that G.I. Joe must always remain a U.S. Marine. It has always been that way, at least up to now. (See postscript).

But don’t worry. Far more important for our new movies NOT to offend anyone in foreign lands! Another example of P.C. crap run amok.

But, after all, it’s only a toy. It doesn’t mean anything. OR, does it ?

Mitchell Paige was from the small Pennsylvania town of Charleroi. His parents were Serb immigrants from the Military Frontier. Their last name was Pejic’.

For his actions on Guadalcanal, Paige was given a battlefield commission of 2nd lieutenant. For that action he was also awarded the Medal of Honor, a Purple Heart, the Presidential Unit Citation, two bronze stars and at least 10 other medals. He retired in 1959 with the rank of colonel, and later wrote a book titled “A Marine Named Mitch.”

At the time of his death in 2003, he had been the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Guadalcanal campaign. In later years he served to ferret out imposters wearing or selling the Medal of Honor.

Paige was also awarded the Eagle Scout Award in 2003, an honor he earned in high school, but had not received as he had left home to join the Marines. He is one of only six known Eagle Scouts to also receive the Medal of Honor. He also received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the BSA, and has a middle school named after him in La Quinta, Calif. There is also a museum dedicated to him at the 29 Palms Marines Corps base. All of which is fitting to Mitchell Paige. A small town boy, a Big-Time Hero!

Postscript: All of this story came about because of news of a recent development in Hollywood, which proposed a new action movie based on “Joe,” but a NEW “Joe,” as the G.I. identity needs to be replaced by membership in an International Force based in Brussels .

Paramount is considering replacing our “real American hero” with “Action man,” a member of an international operations team. G.I. Joe’s name will be turned into an acronym – Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity!

This International force will use hi-tech equipment to battle the newest evil organization on the planet, COBRA, led by an dastardly Scottish arms dealer.

Seeing as it is politically incorrect to offend real villains from Muslim countries, Arabs or any of the real bad guys in the world, we turn to the Scots for our latest manifestation of Evil. Guess the Scots don’t complain thus making it easy to vilify them.

Apparently, according to the movie company, heroic U.S. soldiers are off limits due to the present circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan (have they heard of Pat Tillman – I wonder). Thus the need to eliminate G.I. Joe and any reference to the U.S. military.

Oh well, they reason, G.I. Joe is just a toy. He isn’t real,  is he? And thus, you can return to the story above.

Post Postscript: Has it ever occurred to anyone that denigration of real heroes like John Kerry, John McCain, Senator Max McClelland and others by people like the Swift Boaters, denigrates the medals of ALL medal winners. Think about it. In the last few years, true heroes have been painted to be less than they really were and those who chose to avoid military service, like our fearless leaders at 1600, were painted as heroes.

As a famous person once said: Before a war be deemed just, let it be one in which those who declare the war would be willing to send their own sons and daughters. Amen!

Bruce Mastracchio writes about life in old East Greenwich and people and events that inspire him.