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Col. Mitchell Paige,
Medal of Honor Recipient, Dies
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2003; Page B06
Mitchell Paige, 85, a retired Marine Corps colonel who received the Medal of Honor after almost single-handedly staving off enemy forces during a crucial battle of World War II, died Nov. 15 at his home in La Quinta, Calif., southeast of Palm Springs. He had congestive heart failure.
On Oct. 26, 1942, Col. Paige, who was then a sergeant, was leading a platoon defending a small but strategic airfield on jungle-covered Guadalcanal, part of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. The islands and the airstrip, Henderson Field, were key positions in the defense of Australia.
Col. Paige and his 33 men placed their few machine guns on a hilltop ridge, bracing for the inevitable: thousands of Japanese soldiers planning to rush them at night.
To hear any sneak attack, Col. Paige placed C ration tins filled with empty bullet casings about 20 yards away, near the tall grass.
It was, in fact, a noisy assault. He said the Japanese yelled in the darkness "Banzai!" and "Blood for the emperor!" One of his own men started a chorus of "Blood for Eleanor!" referring to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Because of the sheer volume of Japanese troops he faced, Col. Paige ordered members of his platoon to fire until they or the enemy were dead or wounded.
Soon, he was the only able-bodied American left on the ridge and solely held the Japanese at bay. In the pre-dawn, he darted from one machine gun to another, firing constantly to make the Japanese think he had a fully manned defense.
He was under ceaseless threat. At one point, he said, he felt the heat from bullets that whizzed past his neck. His metal helmet also was struck by gunfire.
As the battle waged into morning, he knew the enemy would see he was the only one standing.
By then, U.S. reinforcements had arrived with bayonets. Col. Paige grabbed one of his machine guns, still burning hot after hours of use and charged into enemy lines with the others.
The Japanese began their retreat.
Besides the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, Col. Paige's decorations included the Purple Heart.
He spent two more years in the South Pacific before returning home. He was a veteran of the Korean War and retired in 1964 as a full colonel. During the Vietnam War, he did advisory work to test high-powered rockets.
Col. Paige, the son of Serbian immigrants, was born in the southwestern Pennsylvania town of Charleroi.
On his 18th birthday, in 1936, he walked and hitchhiked to the nearest Marine Corps recruiting station -- in Baltimore, 200 miles away.
After retiring, he spent years on a crusade to identify those who bought, stole and sold the Medal of Honor for profit or false glory. Starting in the mid-1990s, he worked in tandem with the FBI.
"I couldn't arrest these guys before I got together with the FBI," he told Newsday in April, "but I scared the hell out of them and even got some of the medals back."
Working with Rep. Al McCandless (R-Calif.), Col. Paige successfully lobbied for a provision in a 1994 crime bill that increased the penalties for selling a Medal of Honor from six months in jail and a $250 fine to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.
A friend in the FBI also helped Col. Paige on another issue of great personal interest: becoming an Eagle Scout. His old paperwork had never been properly submitted before he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
In March, he received his Eagle Scout badge. "My heart is overwhelmed with joy," he said at the time.
His first wife, Genevieve Paige, died in 1979.
Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Marilyn Paige of La Quinta; two children from his first marriage, Mitchell J. Paige of Goddard, Kan., and Janis Bruha of San Mateo, Calif.; four stepchildren, Wendy Allaire of Laguna Hills, Calif., Judith Terry of Biggs, Calif., William Wylde of Whittier, Calif., and Robert Corey Wylde of Fullerton, Calif.; 15 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
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