Lieutenant Paige Comes Home

Portrait of Mitchell Paige, artist unknown, oil on canvas, undated. Gift of the Serb National Foundation. Heinz History Center museum collections.
Portrait of Mitchell Paige, artist unknown, oil on canvas, undated. Paige’s family celebrated their Serbian ancestry and the Serb National Foundation presented Paige with gifts when he returned in 1944. But is it not certain whether this portrait was done during the war years. Gift of the Serb National Foundation. Heinz History Center museum collections.

Remembering a hero’s return to the Mon Valley in the summer of 1944

Rumors about his arrival had swirled in the community for weeks. Some thought he would be home by May 30, but that date had come and gone. By the time the young man stepped off the train at McKeesport’s Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station around 2 a.m. on June 23, 1944, he hoped that he could quietly head to his destination in peace.

No such luck. A crowd of more than 1,000 people greeted Lieutenant Mitchell Paige, Allegheny County’s first World War II member of an elite fraternity: soldiers whose bravery in action had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Someone even brought a cake. Granted a 30-day leave, Paige returned to a region eager to celebrate the Battle of Guadalcanal heroics that had earned him the medal, an award Paige repeatedly vowed belonged not to him, but to the 33 other men who had fought alongside him. (You can hear Paige himself discuss the combat for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor in a video interview done before his death in 2003.)

Mitchell Paige with his Medal of Honor, 1943.
Mitchell Paige with his Medal of Honor, 1943. Paige was officially awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on May 21, 1943. Courtesy of the U. S. Marines Corps.

Paige’s return to McKeesport and the Monongahela Valley in the summer of 1944 illustrated the delicate balancing act faced by veterans as they came home to a nation that wholeheartedly wanted to honor their service but had little notion of the reality they had left behind. For Paige, the whirlwind of activity started before he even crossed the Pennsylvania line. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and photographer boarded Paige’s rail car in Akron, Ohio, eager to get pictures of the Lieutenant in his Pullman berth. “All I want to do is relax,” he said to the reporter, whose article appeared the same day Paige walked into the late-night (or early-morning) crowd in McKeesport.[1]

Arriving on a Friday, Paige got a few days of rest with his family before launching into a series of appearances, parades, and war bond drives. Mother Nature nearly upset some of those plans with a ferocious series of weekend tornadoes that ripped through parts of Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, including McKeesport, Port Vue, West Liberty, Elizabeth, and other communities, killing 90 people and leaving hundreds injured.[2] But such was the impact of Paige’s story that plans merely shifted to accommodate and avoid the storm-damaged areas.

After spending Monday washing and ironing his own shirts, insisting that he knew best how to ensure the proper military crease, Paige kicked off the visit Tuesday morning with a grand parade in McKeesport and an extended tour of the Monongahela Valley, stopping at seemingly every community in the region before finally attending a grand banquet on Wednesday evening with 750 people at the Alpine Hotel.

A casualty from the front line being transferred from a makeshift stretcher on Guadalcanal, between 1942-1945. Courtesy of the Office of War Information. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
A casualty from the front line being transferred from a makeshift stretcher on Guadalcanal, between 1942-1945. The brutal jungle combat of places such as Guadalcanal, much of it undertaken by U. S. Marines, contributed to the terrible reputation of the Pacific theater during World War II. Courtesy of the Office of War Information. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Mitchell Paige action figure, G. I. Joe Classic Collection, Hasbro, 1998. Gift of Kurt Groen. Heinz History Center museum collections.
Mitchell Paige action figure, G. I. Joe Classic Collection, Hasbro, 1998. Inspired by the 50th anniversary of World War II, Hasbro launched a G. I Joe line based on real soldiers who had been awarded the Medal of Honor. When they first approached Mitchell Paige, he turned them down. He later agreed for his grandchildren and in hopes that the figure might encourage greater learning about the Guadalcanal campaign. Gift of Kurt Groen. Heinz History Center museum collections.
“Dream Coming True,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 23, 1944.
“Dream Coming True,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 23, 1944. This image captured Paige and his wife Stella in a joyous moment during his homecoming, but the marriage was ill-fated. By the time this image was taken, they had been married for three years but had only spent a few days together. They divorced a year later, in 1945.
“My Honors Belong to Platoon – Paige,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 14, 1944
“My Honors Belong to Platoon – Paige,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 14, 1944. Mitchell Paige consistently resisted personally claiming the accolades bestowed upon him, instead emphasizing the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers.
“Gift for Hero,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Jul 22, 1944.
“Gift for Hero,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Jul 22, 1944. Born to a Charleroi family of Serbian ancestry, Paige was a member of the Serb National Federation. In this clipping, he received a gift watch and a war bond from the secretary of the organization.

For the next few weeks, he was seemingly everywhere. He joined a fellow Medal of Honor recipient from World War I, Sterling Morelock, meeting convalescents at a veterans’ hospital in Aspinwall. He ate dinner with community officials at multiple locales, received gifts from the Serb National Federation, and sold “nearly a million and a half dollars” of war bonds.[3] He volunteered to help with the western Pennsylvania milkweed drive, an effort to collect the silky strands used to replace kapok as a filling for naval life preservers. He also made a quick trip to Chicago to appear in a live radio program. By the time Paige was contemplating the end of his leave in early August, he estimated that he had gotten about three hours of sleep a night since arriving back in western Pennsylvania.

Even in the overtly celebratory media coverage of the visit, there were moments when the more somber nature of Paige’s experience emerged. One reporter described his manner answering a barrage of questions as “diffident . . . as he felt he really shouldn’t be telling these things.”[4] Paige said that his only regret about the furlough was that he couldn’t bring “all my boys along.”[5] Newspapers published President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words describing Paige’s actions in Guadalcanal; Paige himself seemed reluctant to discuss them. (Many years later, he remembered that it took at least 15 years before he felt comfortable talking about what happened that day.) He did, on at least one occasion, speak directly about the loss of members of his platoon, repeating his assertions that his honors were not his, but belonged to his men. He even got the Post-Gazette to print his account of the death of one of his Pennsylvania boys in the jungles of Guadalcanal, Sam Leipart of Ephrata. At the end of the piece, Paige observed, “you can’t win wars without guys like Sam . . . without sacrifice. That’s why my honors are the platoon’s honors.”[6]

In the din of the next few days and weeks, for most readers those words probably receded behind the wave of other war news, including Paige’s own whirlwind of activity. But for Paige, and similar to the sentiments of countless other combat veterans who would echo the same thing through the years, it was possibly one of the most meaningful moments of coverage he was able to garner during the visit.

As the Heinz History Center focuses this week’s “History’s Helpers” stories on the value of bravery in honor of Memorial Day, it’s worth recalling again the story of veterans such as Paige, looking beyond the public commendations to the real sacrifices that their stories embody.

For further information:

For more about the sacrifice of servicemen during World War II, revisit this Making History blog post featuring the words of four young men killed in duty: The Last Letters (2018).

[1] Vincent Johnson, “Lieutenant Paige Counts the Minutes,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 23, 1944.
[2] See, for example: “90 Dead, Over 600 injured as Tornado Rips District,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 24, 1944.
[3] “Marine Hero Paige Joins Milkweed Drive,” Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, August 6, 1944.
[4] Maxine Garrison, “Pacific Hero makes Gallant One-man Stand Against Neighbors’ Barrage of Questions,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 23, 1944.
[5] Johnson, “Paige Counts,” 1944.
[6] Lieutenant tells how Small Sam died; My Honors belong to Platoon—Paige,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 24, 1944.

Leslie Przybylek is senior curator at the Heinz History Center.

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