It takes serious guts to stand up to thousands of fanatical enemy soldiers charging one’s position at night in a hot and fetid tropical jungle. It takes even more guts to stand up to said horde alone, after all your comrades have been killed, overrun, or retreated. That, however, is what United States Marine Corps sergeant Mitchell Paige (1918 – 2003) did in Guadalcanal in the early AM hours of October 26th, 1942, when his position was attacked by roughly 2500 Japanese. His solo heroics over the next few hours would earn him a Medal of Honor, national renown, and a place in the history books.
The Making of a Marine
Mihajlo Pejic, who would later anglicize his name to Mitchell Paige, was born in Pennsylvania in 1918, to Serb immigrant parents who hailed from what had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Paige would later recount, his mother had managed to raise him and his brother as proud Americans, while keeping 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.
Consuming such martial lore as steady fare at home, it was no surprise that Paige grew up with a desire to join the military. As a young boy, he watched a parade that featured proudly marching US Marines, and then and there, he made up his mind that he would join the Corps as soon as he was old enough. Paige 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. There, on September 1st, 1939, he enlisted. After boot camp in Parris Island, SC, and further training, he ended up as a gunner aboard the battleship USS Wyoming, that eventually took him to the West Coast and the Pacific.
Paige’s stint aboard the Wyoming was followed by a series of onshore duty assignments, that took him from San Francisco to the Philippines and eventually to China. During that period, he played for the Navy-Marine baseball team, which gained some renown in the second half of the 1930s, 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, where he served 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 that stint in the Caribbean, 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 Lejune, North Carolina.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor later that December thrust America into WWII, Paige was returned to overseas duty, this time with the 7th Marine Regiment. By 1942, Paige had risen to the rank of 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 arrival, USMC Sergeant Mitchell Paige would earn his place in history.