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Mon Valley: From colonel to Eagle Scout Medal of Honor winner, 83, to receive rank from Boy Scouts

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

By A. J. Caliendo

On March 24, former West Mifflin resident and McKeesport High School graduate Mitchell Paige will join 208 other worthy recipients in a ceremony in Florida to receive the rank of Eagle Scout from the Boy Scouts of America.

While that in itself is a distinguished honor, the fact that Paige is an 83-year-old war hero and Medal of Honor recipient makes it a one-of-a-kind event.

Paige, a retired Marine colonel, earned his 21st merit badge and qualified for the Eagle rank in 1936. That was the same year Paige, then 18, graduated from high school and walked --yes, walked -- from his home in West Mifflin to Baltimore to enlist in the Marines. At that time, the closest Marine induction center was in Baltimore.

The Eagle award ceremony had not been held before Paige left for what was to become a military career, so he never received the rank he had worked so hard to achieve.

"I was so busy with the Marines, I forgot about it," said Paige from his home in La Quinta, Calif.

His memory was jogged about five years ago when he saw someone wearing an Eagle Scout badge at a dinner for Medal of Honor recipients. (Paige received his medal for holding off a Japanese charge with 33 men at the pivotal Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II.)

FBI Special Agent Thomas Cottone, an Eagle Scout himself, was also at that dinner because of his work with Paige to track down counterfeit medals and recipient impostors. Before hooking up with Cottone, Paige had worked for 40 years to expose the pretenders and was instrumental in getting tougher laws enacted to punish counterfeiters.

Cottone picks up the story.

"Admiral Eugene Fluckey was wearing an Eagle Scout badge on his uniform. That's when Mitch told me that he was in the Scouts before the Marine Corps and that he had earned the rank of Eagle but had never received it"

Cottone, determined to correct the oversight, started making calls and checking leads to verify Paige's right to wear the Eagle badge.

"I used my FBI training, but on my own time," he said.

But most of the principals had passed away and the paperwork was long gone. Then, late last year, came the break he was looking for.

Cottone found 83-year-old Helen Saccone, a classmate of Paige's at McKeesport. She gave a notarized statement recalling the day that Mr. Dean, the high school principal and scoutmaster, announced that Paige and another student would be receiving the Eagle Scout badge later in the year.

Through good friends attached to the Boy Scouts' North Florida Council, Cottone succeeded in getting the case to Boy Scout headquarters in Irving, Texas. On Feb. 23, the Eagle rank was approved.

Jerrye Baker, executive assistant at the North Florida Council in Jacksonville where the ceremony will be held, says the Boy Scouts are excited about the decision.

"I would say it is probably a once in a lifetime thing," she said.

The colonel is taking the news in stride while awaiting his "orders" for the flight to Jacksonville where he will personally accept the latest -- and most belated -- in a long list of honors.

"We're just sitting here waiting for instructions and signing autographs," Paige said with a chuckle.

A. J. Caliendo is a freelance writer.

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