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Obituary: Mitchell Paige / WWII hero, Medal of Honor recipient

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mitchell Paige, the famed Marine platoon sergeant whose 32-member unit held off more than 1,000 attacking Japanese soldiers in the battle of Guadalcanal, died Saturday.

Mr. Paige was 85 and had been through a dozen heart surgeries. He needed a defibrillator and batteries to keep his heart pumping during his last years.

Mr. Paige, who grew up in West Mifflin, died in his home in La Quinta, Calif. He settled there after retiring from the Marine Corps as a colonel almost 40 years ago.

Never did he expect to survive World War II, where the odds against him seemed staggering, especially on Oct. 26, 1942.

That rainy night on the small island of Guadalcanal, all 32 Marines under Mr. Paige's command were killed or wounded so badly that they could not fire their weapons.

Mr. Paige, who was stabbed through the hand with a Japanese bayonet and wounded by shrapnel, fought on alone. When his machine gun was destroyed, he bounded to another and then another, fighting off the Japanese until U.S. reinforcements arrived.

Then Mr. Paige led a bayonet charge that maintained American control of Henderson Field, an important landing strip in the Solomon Islands.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur said the Marines' stirring work that night -- maintaining America's hold on the airfield, even though they were outnumbered more than 30 to 1 -- was a turning point in the Pacific.

Mr. Paige, then 24 years old, received the Medal of Honor, America's highest award for bravery. He could have returned to the United States for a hero's welcome, but declined.

Instead, he put the Medal of Honor in a cigar box, shipped it to his parents in Pennsylvania, and returned to war for another two years.

"I think he was the finest gentleman I ever knew," said Arthur Weigel, who served as a Marine technical sergeant in the Solomon Islands. Weigel, 87, of Lincoln Place, met Mr. Paige after both were stationed in Australia in 1943.

By then Mr. Paige's stature was that of a legend. Presidents and generals sought him out. Even so, Weigel said, Mr. Paige remained unassuming and kindly with fellow enlisted men.

Mr. Paige remained in the Marines until he retired in 1964. He did not serve in Korea, but one of his last assignments took him to the jungles of Vietnam.

The ugliness of the Vietnam War diminished America's appetite for military heroes for a time. But three decades later, in the winter of Mr. Paige's life, what he accomplished on Guadalcanal again made him something of a celebrity.

Museums, schools and foundations sought him out as a speaker, jamming his calendar with public appearances. Buildings and highways were dedicated in his honor.

Hasbro Inc. in 1998 modeled its classic G.I. Joe action figure after Mr. Paige. The toy company decided that the story of his heroism should not be forgotten.

Mr. Paige made a point of sharing any credit he received with every Marine at Guadalcanal.

"This Medal of Honor belongs to 33 people," he said in a 2000 interview. "The greatest heroes were those guys who didn't survive."

Mr. Paige was born in 1918 in Charleroi, the son of a railroad construction worker and a homemaker. His family later moved to the Camden Hills section of West Mifflin.

A child of the Depression, Mr. Paige joined the Marines for two reasons. Military service meant a steady paycheck, and it permitted him to wear the blue uniform with red piping. He first saw Marines in uniform when his mother took him to an Armistice Day parade, and immediately decided he would be one of them.

He enlisted after graduating from McKeesport High School in 1936. His first assignment was aboard the battleship USS Wyoming, which took him to Cuba, China and the Philippines.

By the time the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Mr. Paige had risen to platoon sergeant. He read history voraciously, studied battle tactics and adhered to a simple philosophy: Always look out for your men. Mr. Paige said he regarded his platoon as family.

"He wasn't a fierce or violent man. I never heard him use an off-color word. He simply meant to do his duty," said Jim Crist, of Thornburg, one of Mr. Paige's closest friends during the last 20 years.

Mr. Paige, though, remained tenacious long after his retirement from the Marine Corps. One of his interests was in exposing impostors who claimed to be war heroes.

Medal of Honor recipients are so rare that Mr. Paige knew virtually all of them by name. Today, only about 130 recipients of the medal are alive.

Yet, in his travels across the country, Mr. Paige encountered dozens of strange men who pretended to have received the Medal of Honor or other high awards for combat valor.

Their lies infuriated him. He confronted these frauds and threatened to have them prosecuted unless they stopped their charade. Posing as a Medal of Honor recipient is a crime.

Mr. Paige is survived by his wife, Marilyn. Both have grown children from prior marriages.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday, but Mr. Paige will be buried next week in Riverside National Cemetery in California.

Milan Simonich can be reached at or 412-263-1956.

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