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The face of GI Joe: he wasn't a toy.

God bless candy-stripers. You know, the teenage girls who Uvolunteer in hospitals, known by their red-and-white striped jumpers and big, bright smiles? They're gone from most hospitals now, I'm told, because of "liability concerns." If you ever wind up crunched in a hospital bed, I hope you get a real, jumper-wearing, freckle-flecked, big-eyed, wide-grinning candy-striper like mine. One smile is worth at least 60 milligrams of morphine.

The best thing about candy-stripers is, they seem to actually like just coming by to see you. Maybe it's part of their assigned duties, like smiling, asking tons of questions about how you got broken and what does your doctor say? and shyly filling you in on which patient is a big butthead, which nurse is so sweet! and which doctor has been nicknamed "Count Dracula" by the staff. My 'striper told me I had a nickname too.

"Didja know," she whispered breathlessly, nodding back toward the nursing station, "they call you GI Joe? Is that OK with you?" She must have misread the look on my face, because she hurriedly asked,

"Do you know who that is? Y'know, the plastic Army-guy toy?"

Yeah, I knew who and what she meant. I knew of both the "action figure" and the man the original GI Joe.

That man is gone now, God rest his brave soul. And I heard recently the toy is gone too. But neither one are forgotten.

America's entry into World War II was what historians might call "inauspicious." We now have generations of Americans whose knowledge of those dark times is limited to knowing we won, so in modern terms, it couldn't have been that bad, could it? Yes, it was.

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The pride of our Pacific fleet rested in the oily mud of Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese Empire had handily rolled up every other US and Allied presence in that broad ocean except for Australia and New Zealand. The Japanese appeared invincible--an outlook quietly shared by many military leaders. The North Atlantic was a German lake, ruthlessly coursed by U-boats, and Hitler's boys owned Europe plus big bites of Africa and the Middle East.

But our British cousins held tenaciously to their isles, and were fighting for every inch of sand in North Africa. America was determined to strike back, but where, and with what? Priority was given to North Africa, where at least we had friends waiting, and our combination could trap Rommel's Afrika Korps between US and British forces. Some war planners felt it wasn't worth the risk to send a single Marine to the far western Pacific. Then in the spring of '42, things changed.

The Japanese pushed into the Solomons, building bases--including a large airfield at Lunga Point on a hilly, thickly jungled island called Guadalcanal. From there they could isolate and then attack Australia. America decided to send that one Marine ... With some friends, of course.

Enter GI Joe

Mitchell Paige was born in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, to immigrant Serbian parents who changed the family name from Pejic to Paige. His mother constantly reminded Mitch and his brother of their heritage, including a warrior history dating back to the fabled Battle of Kosovo in 1389. At the same time, she made them fiercely proud to be free--and Americans. Mitchell enlisted in the Marines.

The history of the battles fought for the malarial morass of Guadalcanal is reading for a long winter month. Like a head-on train wreck filmed in slow motion, both sides savagely bloodied each other for creekbeds and ridges, week after unending week.

The critical difference was, the Japanese could land supplies and replacements far faster and in greater numbers. They could win a war of attrition, but Japanese pride demanded a glorious, decisive victory. After all, they were only fighting Americans--not, to their minds, true warriors. They landed 15,000 more troops--and went for a coup de main. Battles raged on other ridgelines and deep in ravines, but the question of victory or defeat came down to one night and one thin line of 34 Marines on one hill.

Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige's men had their rifles, four 30-caliber Browning machine guns, and a very tough boss. They were hungry, exhausted, shaking with malaria, and possessed of the knowledge that if their line broke, thousands of Japanese troops would pour onto the airfield. Guadalcanal would be lost--and perhaps, the entire war in the Pacific.

Screaming Banzai! Banzai! the Japanese charged out of the jungle treeline by the hundreds in a human wave of flashing steel, sweat and chaos. Their voices almost drowned out the hammering of Paige's machineguns, and their bodies nearly covered the Marines in their fighting holes. But the wave broke and receded, ebbing back into the treeline. Paige moved up and down the line, tending to the wounded and counting the dead. He moved fast, knowing another charge would soon come. And the charges came all through the night.

Every man--every single man including Paige--was either killed or seriously wounded. Paige propped up his wounded so they could continue to fire, and placed his dead to make it appear their positions were still manned.

Finally, toward dawn, when he was the only Marine able to move, Paige went from machinegun to machinegun, firing bursts from each in turn. When his own gun was destroyed, he took over another. Then he heard increased rustling and voices in the treeline. The Japanese were forming for another charge.

Paige picked up a 40-pound machinegun, draped a belt of ammo over his shoulder--and walked down that hill, blazing away at every movement. The final charge never happened.

At dawn, Paige was found sitting up behind his machinegun, watching over his wounded and keeping a wary eye on the jungle. Intelligence indicated his platoon was attacked by about 2,000 enemy infantry. Hundreds lay dead on the hillside.

The Other GI Joe

Mitchell Paige received a battlefield commission, a Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor. He went on to fight other campaigns in WWII and Korea, retiring from the Marine Corps as a Colonel in 1959.

When the Hasbro Toy Company developed their "GI Joe" action figure, they asked Colonel Paige if they could use his likeness for their plastic hero's face. Paige agreed, with one stipulation: GI Joe should always be a United States Marine.

Now Colonel Paige is gone, and I hear the toy GI Joe is too; no longer a Marine, but some kind of smooth international operator, like a James Bond with combat boots. Rest assured he does not fight anyone from any group politically incorrect to portray as an enemy.

If somebody wants to call me GI Joe, I don't deserve it, but that's OK. I know who the real GI Joe was. Semper Fidelis, Colonel.
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Title Annotation:ODD ANGRY SHOT
Author:Connor, John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Geographic Code:60NOR
Date:Oct 1, 2009
Words:1130
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