Giants Of The Corps: Merritt A. Edson

By Paul C. Curtis - Originally Published July 1975

"Sometimes you hate him; sometimes you love him; but I would rather fight along with Red Mike than anyone."

This statement, made by a Marine who fought beside Edson at Tulagi and on Guadalcanal, exemplifies the thoughts of thousands of fighting men who followed Merritt A. Edson in battle through the steamy jungle trails of Nicaragua in 1928 and beyond the bloody beaches of the Second World War.

Edson was born in Rutland, Vt., in 1897. Later his family moved to Chester, Vt., where he spent his youth.

As a private with the 1st Vermont Volunteer Regiment, Merritt Edson got his first taste of military life on the Mexican Border in 1916. After attending the University of Vermont, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps on October 9, 1917, starting a career that culminated with his retirement as a major general on August 1, 1947.

"Red Mike" Edson was a Marine's Marine, cast in the mold of the Old Corps. He insisted on perfection and relentlessly drove his officers and men, as well as himself, to achieve it.

There was little about the countenance of General Edson to indicate the fighting ability he possessed. He was quiet, soft-spoken, kind and considerate. His long list of personal decorations, however, emphasize the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross with a Gold Star in lieu of a second, the Silver Star Medal, two Legion of Merit Awards and the Distinguished Service Order of the British Empire.

As a lieutenant, Edson served in France from September 1918, until December 1919. For the last six months of his duty there, he commanded Company "D" of the 15th Separate Marine Battalion which had been organized for the purpose of assisting in the control of the Schleswig-Holstein plebiscites in Germany, a duty never performed because of the failure of the United States to ratify the Versailles Treaty.

For the next two years he was stationed at the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Va., and in December 1921, he was assigned to the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Fla., as a student aviator. He received his wings in July 1922, and served a time as an aviator and squadron commander but later reverted to a line status.

In February 1928, "Red Mike" was ashore fighting the insurrectionists in Nicaragua. It was "Edson and his 40 thieves" on the jungle trails of the little republic and the lightly-armed, fastmoving patrol he led was possibly the forerunner of his famed Raiders of World War II.

As a captain, Edson led his men for more than 10 months in the Nicaraguan interior, actively patrolling against the outlaws on rivers and trails far beyond the reach of supporting troops. General Edson won his first Navy Cross for his "coolness, intrepidity and dash" while leading a Marine patrol of 45 men against an irregular force of more than 400. Years later, a Gold Star in lieu of his second Navy Cross was awarded for "extraordinary heroism" at Tulagi.

The general was an outstanding expert on small arms, explosives, tactics and the employment of men. He served as an instructor at the Basic School in Philadelphia from September 1929, until June 1931, and, for four years, was the Ordnance and War Plans Officer at the Marine Corps Depot of Supplies, Philadelphia.

He was also a distinguished rifle and pistol marksman and was long associated with Marine Corps rifle and pistol competition. His shooting activities dated back to 1921, when he was a firing member of the winning Marine Corps National Rifle Team. he was an assistant coach with the 1927, 1930 and 1931 Marine Corps National Rifle and Pistol teams and captained the Marine Corps teams which won the National Trophy in 1935 and '36. After a twoyear tour of duty as Operations Officer with the Fourth Marine Regiment in Shanghai, he was assigned to Headquarters, Marine Corps as Officer in Charge of Rifle Practice for the entire Corps.

In 1939, General Edson was elected a director of the National Rifle Association and served that organization as a member of the Association's Executive Committee, Vice President in 1948, and as President in 1949. At the time of his death, he was Executive Director of the NRA, a position he had held since July 1, 1951. He was also Vice President of the International Shooting Union for North America and Secretary of the U.S. Olympic Rifle Shooting Committee.

It was with the 1st Marine Raider Battalion that "Red Mike" gained the ultimate of success as a fighting leader of men; with them he picked up his famous nickname (used as a code during combat operations) and it is among his beloved former Raiders that he will be best remembered.

General Edson conceived the Marine Raiders as a hard-hitting, highly mobile force of steel-hard fighters who asked no quarter and gave none. Like the lightly-armed and fast-moving patrols he led on Nicaragua, he chose only the light caliber weapons to arm his men and backed up his operations with concentrated fire power.

For men of the 1st Raider Battalion, "Red Mike" insisted on carefullyscreened volunteers with stamina and nerve. He promised them nothing but rough duty with plenty of action. Eager recruits, mostly from Parris Island, and salty old-timers from the Fifth Marines responded to his calland Edson led them to fame. First at Tulagi and Savo and later on the 'Canal.

The action at Bloody Ridge on September 13-14, 1942, has gone down in Marine Corps history as an epic struggle which is generally credited with saving the entire Guadalcanal offensive. For his action during the two hectic days and one night of that battle, General Edson was awarded the Nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

It was called Lunga Ridge before the Raiders bivouacked there. General A.A. Vandegrift had sent Edson's men up on Lunga for a rest, but they didn't get any rest on Lunga! The first night, patrols began bringing in to Edson's CP ominous reports of considerable Japanese activity in the jungle beyond. "Red Mike" called his haggard troops together and told them the bad news.

Altogether, "Red Mike" had 880 men with him that night, the 12th of September-all that was left of the 1st Raiders and two companies of Paramarines who had been detached to them on the 'Canal.

The Paramarines were strung out along an easterly "fin" of the ridge. "B" Company of the Raiders held the westerly "fin" from the peak of the ridge to a lagoon, and "C" Company was stretched from the lagoon to the river. "A" Company was held on the reserve line-another "fin" some 500 yards north of the defense line.

"Red Mike's" story of what followed is the precise account of the master tactician. As he talked, he roughed out a map with red and black pencils on a sheet of scratch paper.

"The Japanese began bombarding at 2300 on the 12th," he began. "It lasted until 0030. The attack came down the lagoon and the river and around both flanks of 'C' Company by infiltration, dislodging 'C' Company.

"We tried to reestablish our line during the morning of the 13th but we couldn't do it, so we moved back to the reserve line in the afternoon.

"The paratroops simply moved back. 'A' Company was shifted over to the river when 'B' Company moved back, and 'C' Company of the .Engineers (they had been rushed up from Henderson Field) took the position between them. The Pioneers (the demolition platoon of the Raiders) were stationed farther down to cover a bridge over the river. 'C' Company was moved back to the new reserve line.

"At 1845, the Japanese struck at 'B' Company, cutting out the end platoon. At 2200, the big attack came down the center of the ridge.

"From 2200 to 2400, 'B' Company and the paratroops gave ground slowly, withdrawing to the reserve line in good order and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. At that point our lines held fast and the enemy was forced to withdraw on the 14th."

That was it, "Red Mike's" unadorned play-by-play account of the Battle of Bloody Ridge which saved Henderson Field and probably Guadalcanal.

On August 1, 1943, Merritt Edson was named Chief of Staff of the Second Marine Division. For "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as Chief of Staff" during the battle of Tarawa, he was awarded the Legion of Merit and recommended for promotion to Brigadier General. He was promoted to that rank shortly after the Tarawa operation.

As Assistant Division Commander of the Second Marine Division, General Edson participated in the Saipan and Tinian operations during June, July and August of 1944. For these operations he was awarded the Silver Star Medal, his fourth combat decoration.

From September 1944, until July 1945, the general served as Chief of Staff, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. For helping to plan the operations at Iwo and Okinawa during that period he was given a Gold Star in lieu of his second Legion of Merit.

After 44 months of continuous duty in the Pacific Theater, the longest continuous overseas assignment for any Marine officer during World War II, General Edson was ordered to Washington and assigned to duty in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He was the senior Marine officer on the staff of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

"Red Mike" retired from the Marine Corps on August 1, 1947, to accept the position of Director of Public Safety for his native Vermont. In this position he became the first head of the newly established Vermont State Police and was a moving force in its organization.

After resigning from his post in Vermont, he was appointed Executive Director of the National Rifle Association. He was a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Manpower Utilization in the Armed Forces in 1952-'53 and, later, he served on the special committee appointed by the Secretary of Defense to study and make recommendations on the problems relating to the treatment of American prisoners of war.

"Red Mike" Edson, Medal of Honor winner and legendary hero, died at his home in Washington, D.C., on August 14, 1955. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. His death brought to an end a long and distinguished career of active military and civil service.