Oct. 28, 2007
Las Vegas Review-Journal
VIN SUPRYNOWICZ: G.I. Joe was just a toy, wasn't he?
Hollywood now proposes that in a new live-action movie based on the G.I. Joe toy line, Joe's -- well, "G.I." -- identity needs to be replaced by membership in an "international force based in Brussels." The IGN Entertainment news site reports Paramount is considering replacing our "real American hero" with "Action Man," member of an "international operations team."
Paramount will simply turn Joe's name into an acronym.
The show biz newspaper Variety reports: "G.I. Joe is now a Brussels-based outfit that stands for Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity, an international co-ed force of operatives who use hi-tech equipment to battle Cobra, an evil organization headed by a double-crossing Scottish arms dealer."
Well, thank goodness the villain -- no need to offend anyone by making our villains Arabs, Muslims, or foreign dictators of any stripe these days, though apparently Presbyterians who talk like Scottie on "Star Trek" are still OK -- is a double-crossing arms dealer. Otherwise one might be tempted to conclude the geniuses at Paramount believe arms dealing itself is evil.
(Just for the record, what did the quintessential American hero, Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," do before he opened his eponymous cafe? Yep: gun-runner.)
According to reports in Variety and the aforementioned IGN, the producers explain international marketing would simply prove too difficult for a summer, 2009 film about a heroic U.S. soldier. Thus the need to "eliminate Joe's connection to the U.S. military."
Well, who cares. G.I. Joe is just a toy, right? He was never real. Right?
On Nov. 15, 2003, an 85-year-old retired Marine Corps colonel died of congestive heart failure at his home in La Quinta, Calif., southeast of Palm Springs. He was a combat veteran of World War II. His name was Mitchell Paige.
It's hard today to envision -- or, for the dwindling few, to remember -- what the world looked like on Oct. 25, 1942 -- 65 years ago.
The U.S. Navy was not the most powerful fighting force in the Pacific. Not by a long shot. So the Navy basically dumped a few thousand lonely American Marines on the beach at Guadalcanal and high-tailed it out of there.
(You old swabbies can hold the letters. I've written elsewhere about the way Bull Halsey rolled the dice on the night of Nov. 13, 1942, violating the stern War College edict against committing capital ships in restricted waters and instead dispatching into the Slot his last two remaining fast battleships, the South Dakota and the Washington, escorted by the only four destroyers with enough fuel in their bunkers to get them there and back. By 11 p.m., with the fire control systems on the South Dakota malfunctioning, with the crews of those American destroyers cheering her on as they treaded water in an inky sea full of flaming wreckage, "At that moment Washington was the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet," writes naval historian David Lippman. "If this one ship did not stop 14 Japanese ships right then and there, America might lose the war. ..." At midnight precisely, facing those impossible odds, the battleship Washington opened up with her 16-inch guns. If you're reading this in English, you should be able to figure out how she did.)
But the Washington's one-sided battle with the Kirishima was still weeks in the future. On Oct. 25, Mitchell Paige was back on the God-forsaken malarial jungle island of Guadalcanal.
On Guadalcanal, the Marines struggled to complete an airfield that could threaten the Japanese route to Australia. Admiral Yamamoto knew how dangerous that was. Before long, relentless Japanese counterattacks had driven the supporting U.S. Navy from inshore waters. The Marines were on their own.
As Platoon Sgt. Mitchell Paige and his 33 riflemen set about carefully emplacing their four water-cooled .30-caliber Brownings on that hillside, 65 years ago this week -- manning their section of the thin khaki line that was expected to defend Henderson Field against the assault of the night of Oct. 25, 1942 -- it's unlikely anyone thought they were about to provide the definitive answer to that most desperate of questions: How many able-bodied U.S. Marines does it take to hold a hill against 2,000 armed and motivated attackers?
But by the time the night was over, "The 29th (Japanese) Infantry Regiment has lost 553 killed or missing and 479 wounded among its 2,554 men," historian Lippman reports. "The 16th (Japanese) Regiment's losses are uncounted, but the 164th's burial parties handled 975 Japanese bodies. ... The American estimate of 2,200 Japanese dead is probably too low."
You've already figured out where the Japanese focused their attack, haven't you? Among the 90 American dead and seriously wounded that night were all the men in Mitchell Paige's platoon. Every one. As the night of endless attacks wore on, Paige moved up and down his line, pulling his dead and wounded comrades back into their foxholes and firing a few bursts from each of the four Brownings in turn, convincing the Japanese forces down the hill that the positions were still manned.
The citation for Paige's Medal of Honor picks up the tale: "When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. 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 fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire."
In the end, Sgt. Paige picked up the last of the 40-pound, belt-fed Brownings and did something for which the weapon was never designed. Sgt. Paige walked down the hill toward the place where he could hear the last Japanese survivors rallying to move around his flank, the belt-fed gun cradled under his arm, firing as he went.
Coming up at dawn, battalion executive officer Major Odell M. Conoley was the first to discover how many able-bodied United States Marines it takes to hold a hill against two regiments of motivated, combat-hardened infantrymen who have never known defeat.
On a hill where the bodies were piled like cordwood, Mitchell Paige alone sat upright behind his 30-caliber Browning, waiting to see what the dawn would bring.
The hill had held, because on the hill remained the minimum number of able-bodied United States Marines necessary to hold the position.
And that's where the unstoppable wave of Japanese conquest finally crested, broke, and began to recede. On an unnamed jungle ridge on an insignificant island no one ever heard of, called Guadalcanal.
When the Hasbro Toy Co. called some years back, asking permission to put the retired colonel's face on some kid's doll, Mitchell Paige thought they must be joking.
But they weren't. That's his mug, on the little Marine they call "G.I. Joe." At least, it has been up till now.
Mitchell Paige's only condition? That G.I. Joe must always remain a United States Marine.
But don't worry. Far more important for our new movies not to offend anyone in Cairo or Karachi or Paris or Palembang.
After all, it's only a toy. It doesn't mean anything.
Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of the books "Send in the Waco Killers" and "The Black Arrow."