50 states, 50 heroes: ‘Red Mike’

Published 6:30 am Saturday, November 21, 2020

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Born April 25, 1897, in Rutland, Vermont, Merritt Austin Edson grew up in Chester, Vermont. He joined the National Guard and was a student at the University of Vermont when his unit, the First Vermont National Guard Regiment, was called into active service on June 27, 1916. After a few months of duty on the Mexican border at Eagle Pass, Texas, Edson returned to the University of Vermont.

On June 26, 1917, Edson enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves. On Oct. 9, 1917, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the regular Marine Corps. He arrived in France in September 1918, toward the end of World War I, and was named commander of Company D, 15th Separate Marine Battalion.

Upon his return home, Edson rose through the ranks of the Marine Corps. He successfully completed aviation training in 1922 and proved instrumental in improving training at the Marine Corps Institute. From 1928-29, he fought several engagements against the forces of Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua and received the Navy Cross for his defense of the Poteca and Coco River Valleys. It was in Nicaragua that he earned the nickname “Red Mike,” a reference to his red beard.

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In 1942, Edson was promoted to colonel and organized the First Marine Raider Battalion. On Aug. 7, 1942, Edson and his raiders led a Marine attack on the island of Tulagi in the British Solomon Islands. The Marines captured the strategic island in two days; for his efforts, Edson was awarded another Navy Cross.

Edson and his men were sent to Guadalcanal, where they continued to launch raids in support of the American invasion of the island. On the night of Sept. 12, 1942, Edson and his raiders, supported by two companies from the First Marine Parachute Battalion, were positioned on Lunga Ridge near the vital airstrip at Henderson Field.  Edson and fellow Marine Col. Gerald Thomas believed the Japanese would attempt to seize Henderson Field by attacking Lunga Ridge and convinced Gen. Alexander Vandergrift to allow Edson to occupy the position.

The Marines, tired from having marched to the ridge, were taking a rest when the Japanese launched an artillery attack and infantry assault on their position, breaking through the left center of the American line. Edson then ordered the outnumbered force of about 800 marines to pull back to a reserve position.

For two days, the Japanese launched multiple attacks on the marines at what was later dubbed “Bloody Ridge.” Edson’s men were the only force standing between the Japanese and Henderson Field. The brutal fighting included hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, pistols, rifles, grenades and knives.

Throughout the night, Edson repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as he directed the defense of the ridge.  One marine attested that Edson “was all over the place, encouraging, cajoling and correcting as he continually exposed himself to enemy fire.” A combat correspondent who witnessed Edson’s actions wrote, “He is not a fierce Marine. In fact, he appears almost shy. Yet Col. Edson is probably among the five finest combat commanders in all the United States armed forces.”

The fighting lasted until Sept. 14, when the Japanese finally broke off their attacks and retreated. From then on, Edson’s men always referred to Lunga Ridge as “Edson’s Ridge.” For his actions, Edson was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Roosevelt.

In August 1943, Edson was named chief of staff of the Second Marine Division. On Dec. 1, 1943, he was promoted to brigadier general and was appointed the assistant division commander of the Second Marine Division. He saw further combat at Saipan and Tinian. By the end of World War II, he was the commanding general of Service Command, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific.

Edson retired from the Marine Corps on Aug. 1, 1947, at which point he was promoted to major general. Along with the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross, Edson’s awards included two Legions of Merit and a Silver Star, among others.

In his post-military years, he served as the first Commissioner of the Vermont State Police and was executive director of the National Rifle Association.

On Aug. 14, 1955, Edson committed suicide in his garage at his home in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1958, the Navy commissioned the destroyer USS Edson, named in Edson’s honor. Edson Hall at Marine Corps Base Quantico and Edson Range at Camp Pendleton are also named in his honor.