One of the last of a rapidly diminishing group of living American heroes was laid to rest today. He was a charter member of the Greatest Generation; more than fulfilling his duty to his nation in his youth and yet active until his death as a champion of causes great and small. He was eulogized by his pastor as a man who always "took care of things;" at the age of 89 he remained on the go and always in service.
Willis A. Hinson (Buddy to his friends and Great Uncle Buddy to the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda) was one of that rare breed of men who early in their adult lives recognize that there are indeed things worth fighting for and that a small minority of hard men are needed to fight for the rest. At the age of eighteen, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, Buddy Hinson enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. For his twentieth birthday Uncle Sam gave Buddy an all-expense-paid trip to the South Pacific.
By the summer of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army had earned an aura of invincibility--they had virtually steamrolled every Allied force in their way from China to the Philippines to Singapore. The inexorable Japanese march south had reached the last rim of islands to the north of Australia -- the Solomons -- and there seemed nothing to prevent invasion. There were scant Australian forces available to defend against the impending attack -- most of Australia's military manpower was fighting Rommel's Afrika Corps in the deserts of North Africa.
Enter Buddy Hinson and several thousand of his closest friends.
In August of 1942, the woefully understrength and ill-equipped 1st Marine Division was thrown ashore on the key island in the Solomons -- Guadalcanal. The Japanese had been constructing a large forward airbase on Guadalcanal from which to support future operations against Australia. Buddy Hinson was a machinegunner with the 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (2/7) of the 1st Marine Division. The U.S. Navy landed the 1st Marine Division with the mission to seize and hold the airfield, and steamed away.
The Imperial Japanese Army and Navy had a problem with that.
For the next three months, the American Marines, soldiers, and airmen holding tenuously to the former Japanese airfield endured unimaginable horrors as the Japanese threw everything at the mud-mired men but the kitchen sink. Ferocious Japanese naval bombardment preceded determined land assaults by increasingly larger and larger Japanese army forces against the American perimeter.
At the end of October, 1942, a final do or die assault was mounted by the Japanese. On the afternoon of the 23rd of October, Marine commanders detected a Japanese force massing on a hitherto unassailed flank and hurriedly repositioned 2/7 on a low ridge of hills astride the expected Japanese avenue of approach. The battalion commander placed his 33-man machingun section on a spur that extended off the ridge and had a field of fire covering the expected Japanese line of attack. The Marines got into position as darkness fell and had very little time to dig in and prepare defensive positions.
Fast forward to the first, and last, sadly, time the Colonel got to spend any time talking with Buddy Hinson -- about six years ago. The Colonel knew Buddy had been a World War Two-era Marine, but not much else about his service. Buddy and the Colonel participated in a quick round of chest-thumping traditional among Marines and then Buddy sharpened his eyes and leaned in,
"You ever heard of Mitchell Paige?"
Ever heard of him!?! Mitchell Paige was among the pantheon of legendary figures the exploits of whom young Marines memorized like favorite bedtime stories. The Colonel knew that Platoon Sergeant Paige had received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor during a particularly brutal fight on Guadalcanal and had gone on to serve a distinguished career; retiring as a Colonel.
"Yessir!" The Colonel answered Uncle Buddy.
"Well, I served with Mitchell Paige on Guadalcanal."
The Colonel pressed him for more, but true to the character of his generation, Uncle Buddy gave little other information about the most significant event in his life. But, the Colonel could tell there was a great story behind those sharp eyes.
To his discredit, the Colonel quickly forgot about the incident, until the other day when he heard that Uncle Buddy had passed away.
The Colonel began a crash course on the Guadalcanal exploits of Willis A. Hinson. The Colonel was amazed at what he found.
Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige's 33-man machinegun section was positioned at the very point at which the Japanese commander had marked for his forces to assault and penetrate the Marine lines. When the assault came at 0200 on the morning of 26 October 1942, Paige was on the right flank by the #1 machinegun and Buddy Hinson was on the left flank, manning the #2 machinegun.
Within minutes nearly every Marine in Paige's outfit were dead or severely wounded. Early in the fight Paige looked over to see Hinson fall from a head wound, and then moments later looked back to see Buddy back on his gun, operating a 3-man weapon singlehandedly.
Suffering from his severe head wound, short of ammo, and now the lone Marine alive on his end of the line, Hinson followed his last order from Paige and put his gun out of action before crawling back to the rear.
The Japanese pouring through the gap in the lines beat Buddy back to the rear and were advancing on the Battalion command post. Paige was still on his ridge, now behind the advancing Japanese. He picked up a weapon and took the Japanese under fire, blunting the attack enough to allow an adhoc Marine counterattack force to form and begin to push the Japanese back. Paige picked up an eighty-pound, 3-man, water-cooled machinegun, cradled it in his arms and joined in the counterattack which re-established the Marine defensive line. THE STUFF OF LEGEND.
At the ceremony at which Paige was presented with the Medal of Honor, he deflected credit from himself and heaped praise on the men, Buddy Hinson among them, who fought and fell in that climactic battle.
Others have told the Colonel that Buddy used to joke that, "Paige got a parade; I got a pat on the back." Still, Hinson was devoted to his wartime leader until Paige's death in 2003; and to Paige's memory until his own death this week.
Until Guadalcanal, the Imperial Japanese Army had never been beaten. On Guadalcanal, a few great Americans stood toe to toe with the cream of the Japanese military...and won. After Guadalcanal, eventual American victory over the Empire of Japan was never in doubt.
The Colonel had the honor of telling Mitchell Paige's and Buddy Hinson's battle story this morning at Uncle Buddy's funeral service. The Colonel is quite certain that Uncle Buddy is now guarding heaven's gates and that the Colonel will have to answer someday to Uncle Buddy for telling a story Hinson would rather not have been told.
The Colonel is looking forward to the butt-chewin'.