Rambo is often mocked for over-the-top depictions of combat. The scene that elicits the most derision is probably that of its hero slaughtering enemies by the dozen while firing an M60 chain-belt-fed machine gun from the hip. The criticism is that because of recoil and kickback, using a machine gun that way would spray bullets all over the place in an uncontrollable manner. However, there was at least one real-life instance when somebody mowed scores of enemies while firing a machine gun from the hip – and a heavier machine gun than John Rambo’s M60. It happened in Guadalcanal during World War II, during a one-man-stand by US Marine Mitchell Paige against thousands of Japanese attackers.
Inspired by Childhood Tales of Martial Valor
Mitchell Paige, born Mihajlo Pejic, was born in Pennsylvania in 1918 to Serb immigrant parents who hailed from what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As he recounted in later years, his mother had raised him and his brother as proud Americans, even as she kept them aware of and in touch with their Serb ethnic roots. From early childhood, as he recalled, he grew up with stories of Serbian feats of heroism and resistance, dating from as far back as the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.
Unsurprisingly, the consumption of such a steady fare of martial lore at home made Paige want to join the military. When he was a young boy, Paige watched a parade that featured US Marines marching proudly, and then and there, he made up his mind to join the Corps as soon as he was old enough. He graduated high school in 1936 and later that summer, he walked about 200 miles from his Pennsylvania hometown to the Marine recruiting center in Baltimore, Maryland, where he enlisted on September 1st, 1939.
After boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, and further training, Paige ended up as a gunner aboard the battleship USS Wyoming, which eventually took him to the West Coast and the Pacific. The tour of duty aboard the Wyoming was followed by a series of onshore duty assignments that took Paige from San Francisco to the Philippines and eventually to China. During that period, he played for the Navy-Marine baseball team, which had some renown at the time, and also tried his hand at boxing.
In 1939, he took part in American disaster relief efforts in China following catastrophic flooding that devastated the Tianjin region. 1940 saw Paige back in the US, serving in the Navy Yards at Brooklyn and Philadelphia. He then joined the 5th Marine Regiment and took part in training exercises and maneuvers in Cuba and Puerto Rico. After the Caribbean stint, Paige was transferred back to the US in 1941 as part of the initial cadre that set up a new training base for the Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Paige’s tour of duty as a trainer at Camp Lejeune came to an abrupt end on December 7th, 1941. After the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust America into WWII, he returned to overseas duty, this time with the 7th Marine Regiment. By 1942, he was a sergeant in charge of his own platoon, and in September of that year, he and his unit headed for Guadalcanal in the Solomons Islands. There, within a few weeks of his arrival, USMC Sergeant Mitchell Paige would earn his place in history.
Paige Stands in the Path of Thousands of Japanese
1942 was a grim year for America and her Allies in the Asia-Pacific Theater, relieved only by the US naval victory at the Battle of Midway that June. The rampaging Japanese had run riot and captured the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma, Wake plus sundry other Pacific islands, much of New Guinea and were threatening India and Australia. Things began looking even grimmer when news arrived that the Japanese were busy building an airbase in Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
There was nothing special about the Solomons during peacetime, but in wartime, they became vitally important. Japanese long-range airplanes flying from Guadalcanal could disrupt communications and supply lines between America and Australia, and that was unacceptable. So a decision was made to seize the island before the Japanese airfield there became operational. Rushed planning was followed by a rushed Marine invasion in August of 1942 that caught the enemy off guard and seized the nearly completed airfield. It was hurriedly completed by its new owners and opened up for business as Henderson Field, named in honor of a Marine aviator killed in the Battle of Midway.
Things began well for the Americans in Guadalcanal but soon took a turn for the worse. Setbacks at sea made the waters around the island too dangerous for the US Navy, which chose discretion over valor and hurriedly decamped. That left the Marines - who had not yet landed all their munitions and supplies from transport ships – stranded on Guadalcanal, just as the Japanese rushed in reinforcements for a counterattack to regain control of the island. What followed were weeks of sheer hell on earth.
Desperate Marines, supported by a collection of plucky airmen flying from Henderson Field, short of just about everything, fought off attacks by an enemy equally desperate to kick them off Guadalcanal. In September 1942, Paige arrived with the 7th Marine Regiment, under the command of legendary leatherneck Chesty Puller, to reinforce their hard-pressed brethren. During the night of October 25-26, Paige and his platoon were dug into their foxholes when he heard and noticed signs of heavy enemy activity and preparations somewhere out in the pitch dark of the jungle.
Paige correctly judged that a Japanese night attack was in the works and did what he could to prepare his men for the coming storm. It broke in the early morning hours. At 2 AM, October 26th, 1942, the relative quiet of the jungle night was shattered by the din of battle. Thousands of Japanese from the 16th and 29th Infantry Divisions made a desperate bid to overrun the 7th Marines in order to capture Henderson Field. Their main route went straight through the position occupied by Paige and his platoon.
The desperate fighting that saw Mitchell Paige’s exploits was the culmination of the Battle for Henderson Field fought from October 23rd to the 26th, 1942. It was the third major offensive that sought to recapture Guadalcanal, as the Japanese 17th Army made a desperate bid to burst through US Marine and Army forces guarding the Lunga Perimeter, which protected Henderson Field. Over three days and nights, the Japanese launched a series of assaults around the American perimeter, all of them beaten back with heavy losses.
Paige’s Finale as the Last Man Standing
The fiercest Japanese assault took place on the final night of the Battle for Henderson Field and was pointed straight at Paige’s platoon. When the charging Japanese drew within a few hundred yards of his position, Paige ordered his men to open fire. Machine gun and rifle bullets mowed down rows upon rows of the enemy, but the opposition ignored their losses and pressed their attack. It soon came down to hand-to-hand combat, as Marines and Japanese infantrymen grappled in the dark, stabbing, clubbing, bayoneting, and sometimes literally fighting tooth and nail by biting and clawing one another.
The first Japanese charge was beaten back – barely. However, the respite was only temporary, as the initial attack was followed by more and more waves of fanatical attackers. As the desperate night dragged on, the unit to Paige’s left was overrun, and he and his men ended up isolated. Under relentless Japanese pressure, Paige’s platoon fell one man after the other, killed or wounded. Eventually, Paige ended up as the sole survivor in his company, still on the battle line and capable of fighting. So he fought on, alone.
Paige found himself as the last man standing, manning a machine gun position. Surrounded by an entire Japanese regiment. He kept pouring fire into the enemy until his machine gun was shot up and put out of action. So he braved heavy fire and broke through enemy lines to a neighboring company, commandeered one of their machine guns, and ordered some riflemen to fix bayonets and follow him. Over the next few hours, Paige made a desperate last stand that saw him alternating between four machine guns, as each overheated or was otherwise put out of action. During that stretch, he single handedly broke a Japanese attack that threatened his battalion’s command post.
After beating off one wave of attackers, Paige grabbed a machine gun and firing it from the waist like a Greatest Generation Rambo or Arnold Schwarzenegger, charged down a hill to disrupt a Japanese attempt at regrouping. During that charge, a Japanese officer emptied a pistol trying to shoot Paige but missed. He then drew his samurai sword, but Paige mowed him down before getting close enough to take a swing. Through such heroics, Paige held his position for 10 hours before reinforcements finally arrived to stabilize the line. His feats earned him America’s highest award for valor, and his Medal of Honor citation read:
“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, in combat against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomons Islands Area on October 26, 1942. When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, Platoon Sergeant Paige, commanding a machine-gun 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 manned his gun, and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire against the advancing hordes until reinforcements finally arrived. Then, forming a new line, he dauntlessly and aggressively led a bayonet charge, driving the enemy back and preventing a breakthrough in our lines. His great personal valor and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Paige held just about every rank and assignment in a Marine Corps infantry battalion. A few months after his heroic stand, he received a field commission and was made a second lieutenant. He subsequently fought in New Guinea before he was sent back to the US and given training and public relations assignments. By the time he retired in 1964 with the rank of colonel, he had served not only in Guadalcanal and New Guinea, but also in China, Cuba, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. After retirement, he worked on miniature rockets and other military research and development, penned an autobiography, and helped the FBI expose Medal of Honor and stolen valor imposters. He died of heart failure in 2003, at age 85.
Some Sources and Further Reading
Burn Pit - “Sgt. Mitchell Paige (USMC) Single Handedly Repels Japanese Attack, Received Medal of Honor”
Library of Congress Veterans History Project – Mitchell Paige Collection
Paige, Mitchell – A Marine Named Mitch (1975)
PBS - American Valor: Stories of Valor: Mitchell Paige
Tara Ross - This Day in History: Mitchell Paige & the Battle of Guadalcanal
War History Online - Mitchell Paige: The Man Who Took On 2500 Japanese, and Won
Washington Post, November 18th, 2003 – “Col. Mitchell Paige, Medal of Honor Recipient, Dies”We Are the Mighty - This Medal of Honor Recipient Walked 200 Miles to Serve in the Marines