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Mitchell Paige, 85; Marine Medal of Honor Winner Influenced Law to Expose Impostors

November 18, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Mitchell Paige, a retired Marine Corps colonel who received the Medal of Honor -- the military's highest award for valor -- during the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II and spent five decades tracking down and exposing Medal of Honor impostors, has died. He was 85.

Paige, whose youthful leatherneck face appeared on a G.I. Joe action figure more than 50 years after he was honored for "extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry," died Saturday of congestive heart failure at his home in La Quinta, Calif.

Paige was a 24-year-old sergeant when he and his machinegun platoon of 33 men battled an estimated 2,700 Japanese soldiers bent on launching a final assault on Guadalcanal's small but critical airstrip, Henderson Field.

The Japanese broke through the line directly in front of Paige's position and he and his men waged a nightlong battle as they repelled a series of attacks in the early hours of Oct. 26, 1942.

Commanding his "machinegun section with fearless determination," his Medal of Honor citation reads, Paige "continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded."

Then, alone, he continued to fight the advancing enemy. When his machinegun was destroyed, he took over another and moved from gun to gun until reinforcements arrived.

Paige then formed a new line and led a bayonet charge, which drove the enemy fighters back and prevented them from breaking through American lines.

About half of the 2,700 Japanese were killed, according to Paige's 1975 autobiography, "A Marine Named Mitch," which was recently added to the U.S. Marine Reading Program, a list of suggested reading material from the commandant of the Marine Corps.

The heroic stand of Paige and his men is credited with helping to ensure victory at Guadalcanal, which turned the Pacific war in favor of the Allies.

Paige, who also received a Purple Heart and a battlefield commission to second lieutenant for his actions, was one of 464 Medal of Honor recipients in World War II, 266 of whom were honored posthumously.

Paige said his own medal belonged to the 33 men in his platoon.

"The greatest heroes were those guys who didn't survive," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1999.

The son of Serbian immigrants, Paige was born in Charleroi, Pa.

While he was growing up, his mother would take him to the annual Armistice Day parade in downtown McKeesport, Pa.

"When the Marines came by in their blue and red stripes, looking so sharp and standing up so straight, I'd think, 'I sure want to be one of those guys some day!' " he told the Post-Gazette.

A few days after graduating from high school in 1936, Paige walked and hitchhiked with a friend the 200 miles to the closest Marine Corps recruiting station, in Baltimore. But at 17, he was too young -- and, he was told, too underweight -- to join.

Two months later, on his 18th birthday, he was back in Baltimore. After downing dozens of bananas and several glasses of water to meet the weight requirement, he was on his way to boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.

Assigned to the battleship Wyoming, Paige spent time in the Philippines, China and Cuba before World War II began.

After receiving the Medal of Honor, Paige placed the award in a cigar box and shipped it home to his parents.

"I didn't pay too much attention to it because we had a lot more fighting to do," he told the Post-Gazette.

Paige later served in Korea and, after retiring from the Marine Corps in 1964, was an advisor in Vietnam.

He was involved in numerous veterans' causes and, starting in the 1950s, tracked down and confronted hundreds of individuals who falsely represented themselves as Medal of Honor recipients.

"Many would actually wear the medal," Thomas A. Cottone Jr., the FBI's national case agent for the investigation into the illegal use, sale and manufacture of the Medal of Honor, told The Times on Monday.

Cottone said he began his investigations in 1995 after the Medal of Honor law had been strengthened due to Paige's efforts. Previously, the unauthorized wearing, selling or manufacture of any military medal was a minor offense, and there was no enhanced penalty related to the Medal of Honor.

Now, Cottone said, the penalty for the Medal of Honor could be a $100,000 fine and up to one year in prison; a corporation that violates the statute could be fined as much as $250,000.

In the last eight years, Cottone said, the FBI has been involved in more than 100 cases around the country.

Paige, who was the official liaison between the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the FBI, worked closely with Cottone.

"Unlike these impostors that we go after, who will tell anybody who wants to listen how great they are," Cottone said, "Col. Paige, along with the other recipients, are the most unassuming, humble people that you would ever want to meet.

"The word is thrown lightly these days, but when you talk about Col. Paige, he is a true American hero."

The Hasbro toy company agreed. In 1996, Hasbro asked Paige if it could use his likeness on a Marine G.I. Joe action figure as part of a "Classic Collection" series.

Paige's first wife, Genevieve, died in 1979. He is survived by his wife of 23 years, Marilyn, and six children, 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

The family asks that memorial donations be made to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation or the World War II Museum in Eldred, Pa.

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