The George Medal
By Dick Camp - Originally Published August 2002
In the 225 years of the U.S. Marine Corps' existence, thousands of Marines have been awarded medals for distinguished service on the field of battle. One medal, however, never will show up on the list of officially approved decorations-the George Medal.
In the early morning hours of 7 Aug. 1942, leathernecks from the First Marine Division stormed ashore on the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal in the first large-scale ground offensive in the Pacific during World War II. Japanese reaction was swift and violent. The day after the landing, 40 twin-engined torpedo planes struck transport USS George F Elliott (AP-13) and destroyer USS Jarvis (DD393). Both were lost. At approximately 0130 on 9 Aug., elements of the Japanese 8th Fleet attacked the American and Australian screening force, sinking four cruisers and badly damaging a fifth. Hours later, with the smoke from burning ships as a backdrop, the US. Navy amphibious force withdrew, taking vital supplies and ammunition with it and leaving the Marines stranded.
Reaction among the leathernecks ranged from outright anger to biting sarcasm. Lieutenant General Merrill B. Twining, then a lieutenant colonel and operations officer of lstMarDiv, remembered: "One night on Guadalcanal, a group of us were discussing our situation. It didn't look good. We lacked support, chow, ammo and just about everything else except Japs. That's when I suggested a medal designed to commemorate the campaign, something akin to the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal and that it should be called the `Let George Do It Medal.'"
The phrase was synonymous with the division back in the States. "Anytime there was a job that no one else wanted to do, Headquarters Marine Corps assigned it to the First Marine Division," LtGen Twining related. "Soon, some senior officers referred to the division as the `Let George Do It Division,' and it became a common term. If you had a job to be done, call up the 'George' [First] Division."
The group decided that the medal should have an appropriate Latin inscription and called upon famed Australian coastwatcher Martin Clemens to translate. "He gave us a sharp look," LtGen Twining recalled, "but then we explained that our 'George' had nothing whatever to do with King George V, and I explained the idea of our medal. Martin was delighted and suggested the words, `Faciat Georgius,' a loose rendering of `Let George do it.' "
Then-Captain Donald L. Dickson, adjutant of the Fifth Marine Regiment, an artist and later editor for Leatherneck magazine, was brought into the picture. Using a 50-cent piece, he drew a circle on a captured Japanese blank military postcard and sketched in the designs.
"Hit the Fan"
LtGen Twining's group decided that the obverse of the medal should have an outstretched hand with Navy stripes on the lower sleeve, dropping a hot potato into the hands of a tired, grateful Marine on an island shaped like Guadalcanal. They also discussed the idea of depicting a transport with a stem on each end so it could "haul a-- without turning around." According to E Brooke Nihart, former deputy director for Marine Corps Museums, 1973-92, the original design of the sleeve bore the stripes of a vice admiral intended to be either VADM Robert L. Ghormley or VADM Frank Jack Fletcher, Navy commanders for the operation, but the final medal diplomatically omitted this identification. Also depicted is a saguaro cactus representing the military code name for the Guadalcanal campaign, Operation Cactus.
The backside of a cow, with tail uplifted, and a whirling electric fan are inscribed on the reverse side, suggesting "stuff" hitting the fan (the original design showed a Japanese soldier with his pants down, according to Nihart), an expression popular among Marines on the island. It was a typical response to a heavy attack: "The s--- hit the fan up here; we need help!" An inscription below this earthy scene reads, "In fond remembrance of the happy days spent from Aug. 7th 1942 to Jan. 5th 1943 U.S.M.C."
To hang the medal, some Marines employed the oversized safety pin used to close laundry bags aboard ship, while others used a metal clasp or a bandoleer pin. LtGen Twining suggested that the ribbon be made out of the pale-green herringbone twill material from the utility uniform. He thought that even the Corps' legendary parsimonious quartermaster would approve because of the obvious economy involved in providing the material. Legend has it that to be authentic the material had to have been washed in the Lunga River.
When the badly used-up division returned to Australia in early December, Lieutenant Herbert C. Merillat, division press officer, attempted to get a local firm to cast the medal. "Everything went nicely," he said. "All arrangements were apparently made, when I learned that the firm of engravers couldn't take on the job unless an official request was made. The engraver said he might otherwise get into trouble with the manpower board, because his men were exempted from the draft on the grounds that they were doing war work." LtGen Twining, the most ardent promoter, said he couldn't sign the request and suggested to let the matter rest awhile, but not to give up on the medal. No other senior Marine seemed to want his name associated with the project. There is no record of who finally accomplished the task; however, retired Marine Major Richard T. "Rick" Spooner, owner of the fabled Globe and Laurel Restaurant outside Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Va., thinks that the Luke Jewelry Company of Melbourne, Australia, may have produced the medals. The company was contracted to make Marine Corps emblems that were in short supply, and it would have been a good fit to sneak in the George Medal.
In mid-May 1943 Second Lieutenant John C. Schiller Jr. of the Division Intelligence Section was designated officer in charge of collecting money for the medal. Its cost, one Australian pound, included a certificate. Headquarters and Service Company, 7th Marines published a memorandum "to all present when it hit the fan," announcing, "A limited number of Faciat Georgius (Let George Do It) medals, which wags of the First Marine Division are presenting to themselves, are available."
Lieutenant Frank Farrell, 7th Marines' intelligence officer and noted columnist for the New York World Telegram, was assigned to handle the details. Forty-five members signed up; most were officers or senior enlisted men. The memorandum also included the wording of the scroll:
Faciat Georgius (Let George Do It) Major, later Colonel, James E. Buckley, G-2 of the division, signed both Clemens' and Farrell's citations "For the committee." Grand Master of the Order.
Unlike officially recognized awards, there was no ceremony to mark the occasion. LtGen Twining was sitting in his office when two junior officers entered and, after observing the usual military courtesies, handed him a brand-new George Medal. No flowery language, just a simple "Here is your medal, sir."
Years later LtGen Twining still did not know who made the castings and thought it was best that he didn't know in case the Navy bore grudges. Rear Admiral Samuel E. Morison, the noted naval historian, dropped by Twining's office to see his medal and was duly amused, but did not make an issue of it. "The Old Breed: A History of the First Marine Division in World War II" notes, "The details of how the George Medal was manufactured in Australia must remain a secret. 'I have been told,' one owner says, `that the metal with which they were made was not honestly come by.'"
Currently, there is some discussion to name he former 5th Marines' cantonment at Camp Pendleton, Calif, home of the 1stMarDiv, the George Area. If the designation comes to pass, today's leathernecks will share the proud heritage of the Marines who served during those dark days on Guadalcanal.
There were as few as 50 or as many as several hundred brass medals produced before the original mold broke. No one is sure of the number-Farrell's citation is numbered 380. The Marine Corps Museum has what it believes to be the second mold, which also produced an unknown number of slightly larger medals. The great demand for WW II Marine memorabilia, combined with the scarcity of the medal, has caused its value to increase steadily.
Today, an authentic George Medal will fetch from $1,200 to $1,500 or more, if it is part of a grouping and can be traced to a particular veteran. In recent years, reproductions have appeared, usually identified by the different metal and a poorer definition of details. A collector told the author that two appeared for sale on eBay and reportedly sold for several hundred dollars.
LtGen Twining, who won numerous awards during his 36 years of service, considered the George Medal his most prized possession. For the veterans who earned the medal, it is a priceless remembrance of "those happy days" on Guadalcanal.