Major General Merritt Edson

Merritt A. Edson

Merritt A. Edson

Major General Edson was born in Rutland, Vermont, on April 25, 1897. He received his early education in the Vermont towns of Rutland and Chester.

Physically he was not a big man, but underneath he was as rugged as Vermont granite, as tough and straight as the trees of the Green Mountains, as forthright and demanding as Vermont’s cold and icy winters and as kind and generous as her sunny, pleasant summers.

He started his college career at the University of Vermont in the Fall of 1915, and soon thereafter began his military career by joining a company of the First Vermont Infantry. During the Summer of 1916 he was ordered to Eagle Pass, Texas, for service on the Mexican border. At the end of September his company was relieved, enabling him to continue his college studies.

With the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917 near the end of his sophomore year, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. Early in July, along with nine hundred other aspirants, he took and passed a competitive examination for a permanent commission in the Corps and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on October 9, 1917. Though unable to finish college, the University of Vermont later recognized his achievements and awarded him an honorary LL.D. Degree in 1944.

During the remainder of World War I General Edson served with the Eleventh Marines in France, and then with the Fifteenth Separate Battalion during the occupation of Germany.

He returned to the states in late 1919 and in August, 1920, he was married in Burlington, Vermont, to Ethel Winifred Robbins, to whom must go recognition for the important role she played in his life. Shortly after his marriage General Edson was transferred to Pensacola, Florida, and in 1922 he was qualified as a Naval Aviator. Serving in Marine Corps Aviation he saw duty on Guam from 1923 until late 1925, and then at Quantico, Virginia, from 1925 until early 1927.

Edson was known as Red Mike because of the red beard he wore as a young Marine officer. This photo was likely taken in Nicaragua around 1928.

Edson was known as Red Mike because of the red beard he wore as a young Marine officer. This photo was likely taken in Nicaragua around 1928. – USMC Photo

General Edson was then ordered to sea duty, serving for a brief period on the USS Denver and then on the USS Rochester as Commanding Officer of the embarked Marine detachment. Shortly after reporting aboard the USS Rochester his Detachment of sixty men was ordered ashore in Nicaragua, where it became famous as the Coco River Patrol. This superbly trained and led unit slogged through the unbearably hot and musty jungles developing the tactics enabling it to relentlessly track down insurrectionists. Many of these same tactics became very familiar to Marines during the jungle warfare of World War II. It was for this action and his outstanding heroism under fire during this campaign that General Edson was awarded his first Navy Cross, as well as the Medal of Merit by Nicaragua.

For the next few years, 1929 through 1931, General Edson served as a tactics instructor of newly commissioned Second Lieutenants attending Basic School at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Remaining in Philadelphia he then served as Ordnance Officer at the Supply Depot from 1931 until 1935. He was transferred in 1935 to Quantico, Virginia, where he soon reached the height of his illustrious record in competitive rifle and pistol marksmanship, a record which began in 1921 when he became a firing member of the Marine Corps Rifle Team. Having become distinguished in both he was appointed to the distinctive position as Captain of the Marine Corps Rifle and Pistol Team in 1935 and again in 1936.

Then followed several years of duty with the Fourth Marines at Shanghai, China, where General Edson, then a Major, observed and studied firsthand the tactics of the Japanese forces.

Returning to the States in 1939, General Edson, then a Lieutenant Colonel, was assigned duty at Marine Corps Headquarters, Washington D.C. During 1941 he was assigned to Quantico as Commanding Officer of the First Battalion, Fifth Marines, which had been designated for special training in amphibious and “commando” type warfare. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States entry into World War II, this battalion was redesignated the First Raider Battalion which soon was familiarly known as “Edson’s Raiders.” It was an all-volunteer outfit and General Edson, known more familiarly as “Red Mike” (his code name during World War II) personally supervised all phases of its training. Twenty-mile speed marches were routine and the last mile or two was always “on the double” with “Red Mike” leading. The training of the Raiders included closely coordinated exercises with a division of World War I destroyers which had been converted to fast transports, the Manley, Gregory, Little, Calhoun, McKean and Stringham. Later, in the Solomons campaign, the Raiders and nearly all of these destroyer transports were teamed together in successful combat missions.

Before the Raiders left for Samoa in March, 1942, “Red Mike” called his officers and men together in the mess hall at Quantico. In the men’s presence, he told his officers just what was expected of them as leaders. His thoughts were for the welfare of his men first. The officers were expected to conduct themselves in the same manner. He himself was the best example. A commanding officer in the field could demand and get what comforts there were available in the way of shelter, food and clothing. The only things “Red Mike” demanded were fighting hearts and rigid discipline.

On August 7, 1942, he directed the assault of the Raiders on Tulagi, the first offensive assault against the Japanese in World War II. For three days he led his men in battle against fanatical Japanese in caves and dugouts until the enemy was wiped out and this strategic island, where the Japanese had maintained their headquarters for the Solomon Islands, was secure. For his brilliant and courageous action on Tulagi, General Edson was awarded his second Navy Cross.

BG Merritt A. Edson, (with binoculars) assistant division commander of the 2d Marine Division, follows the progress of his troops not far from the scene of action. Gen Edson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism on Guadalcanal.— Department of Defense Photo (USMC).

BG Merritt A. Edson, (with binoculars) assistant division commander of the 2d Marine Division, follows the progress of his troops not far from the scene of action. Gen Edson was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism on Guadalcanal.— Department of Defense Photo (USMC).

Three weeks later the Raiders were transferred to Guadalcanal to aid in its defense. Although his men were living at a bare subsistence level and ammunition was almost as scarce as food, “Red Mike” received permission to seek out and destroy the enemy. The Raiders proceeded to do this in a daring and well executed raid against an estimated one thousand well armed Japanese troops located at the Village of Tasimboko. The enemy forces were completely surprised and driven inland, abandoning their supplies, weapons, food and communications, all of which were destroyed, including a unit of artillery.

Defense of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal at that time consisted of positions on the beaches and both flanks. There was no defense at the rear of the Field where the only clear ground in the tangled, forbidding jungle was a grassy ridge several hundred yards long.

“Red Mike” believed that the Japanese forces dispersed at Tasimboko would attempt to strike the defenseless rear and capture the airfield in a bold stroke. Under the guise of seeking “rest and rehabilitation” for his men, he got the First Marine Division’s permission to occupy the ridge.

Immediately he prepared to defend this position amid much grumbling from his tired men who affectionately nicknamed him “Mad Merritt the Morgue Master” because of his apparent eagerness for action. General Edson’s plan was masterfully conceived. Supplies were so short that there was only a single strand of barbed wire to string in front of the advance positions. General Edson knew his men could not stop the Japanese in overwhelming numbers in a knock-down, drag-out action. Instead, he placed his positions far out on the ridge and designated pre-arranged lines in the rear for their withdrawal. It was sort of a “cushion” defense.

On September 11 and 12 the Japanese both bombed the ridge from high-level bombers and shelled it from cruisers. On the night of the 12th, the advance parties of the enemy struck, driving the Raiders from their advance positions. On the 13th, “Red Mike” organized his lines along the ridge closer to the airfield as planned.

That night at about 1900, the enemy force attacked in fanatical waves. First their numbers were thought to be a battalion or two. Actually it was a brigade without the support of the artillery which “Red Mike” had destroyed at Tasimboko.

The Raiders’ right and left flanks soon folded under heavy enemy pressure. In the dark with practically no communications, General Edson personally reformed his lines on the forward slope of the last high ground protecting Henderson Field. There he knew it was do or die. “Red Mike” walked back and forth on the ridge that night personally rallying his men for combat which was often hand to hand after each attack. Dawn came and the Marines, although 144 men fewer than the 880 which had started the battle, still held that last bit of high ground. The Japanese had been repulsed with appalling casualties. Fifty percent of an estimated 3,450 troops.

“Red Mike,” who had been personally exposed to heavy enemy fire for over ten hours, stood on the ridge that dawn, the sleeves of his shirt in shreds from bullets. Yet he had not been hit.

That ground became known as “Edson’s Ridge” and later as “Bloody Ridge”. The battle was one of the turning points of the war. If the Japanese had regained the airfield and kept it, the battle for Guadalcanal would have been lost and the war would have been delayed for months, possibly years.

For the now-famous action, “Red Mike” was awarded the Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism above and beyond the call to duty.” For his exploits on both Tulagi and Guadalcanal he was also decorated with the Distinguished Service Order by Great Britain.

A few days later “Red Mike,” who had been promoted to full Colonel, left the Raiders to take command of the Fifth Marines. He called his men together for a brief farewell to thank them for their magnificent efforts. Dirty, dog-tired Raiders, hardened to war, and to its killings, openly wept.

As Commanding Officer of the Fifth Marines, he again displayed exceptional brilliance and tactical skill by outguessing, outmaneuvering and outfiring the cunning and desperate enemy in the Second and Third Battles of the Matanikau River.

After the First Marine Division had been redeployed to Australia for a retraining and rest period, General Edson was detached and in July, 1943, assigned duty as Chief of Staff, Second Marine Division, then preparing for the Gilberts (Tarawa) operation. His outstanding performance of duty and exemplified skill in battle as Commander of Troops ashore during this operation, earned for him not only his first Legion of Merit, but also a spot promotion to Brigadier General and assignment as Assistant Division Commander of the Second Marine Division. In this capacity he participated in the Saipan-Tinian operations from January through August, 1944. For his outstanding valor and skill in battle during this operation he was awarded the Silver Star.

On leaving the Second Marine Division in late August, 1944, he was assigned duty first as Chief of Staff, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and then as Commanding General, Service Command, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, from July through December, 1945. It was during this year and a half period that he was awarded his second Legion of Merit for his outstanding contributions and leadership.

General Edson served 44 months in the combat zone, more than any other Marine officer. During this period he was awarded the Medal of Honor, one Navy Cross, one Silver Star, two Legion of Merit awards, two Presidential Unit Citations and the Distinguished Service Order of Great Britain.

In 1946, General Edson returned to the States and was assigned duty on the Staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. His battles hardly over in the Pacific, by late 1946, he was engaged in another type of action on Capitol Hill. The Marine Corps had been threatened with near abolishment, its post war role to be only that of a small police force, and the nation threatened as well with a General Staff and “single service” concept alien to the forthright beliefs of the freedom loving Vermonter that General Edson was. Unable to stand idly by and see his ideals smashed, he spearheaded the Marine Corps counterattack to save not only the Corps for its traditional role as a major instrument of national defense, but also the separate service and Joint Chiefs of Staff concept of both the Navy and Marine Corps. He did this job so well that legislation was enacted insuring the future of the Corps as a well-manned amphibious striking force. To him must go credit for fully acquainting Congress with the precarious position which the Marine Corps was then in. Feeling that he was unable to fully participate in this Congressional battle over “unification” while on active duty, he twice submitted his request for retirement. It was finally accepted, taking effect in August, 1947. In so doing he sacrificed what probably would have been many more years of illustrious service in the Marine Corps.

In 1951, General Edson left his beloved state of Vermont for a second time and was back in Washington, D.C. with one of his old loves, the rifle, as Executive Director of the National Rifle Association. Under his expert guidance and aggressive leadership, the Association greatly increased its membership, its activity and its international participation. The National Rifle and Pistol Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio, took on a new and larger meaning and shooters once more took interest in international meets such as the Olympics.

In 1951 and in 1953 General Edson once more participated in Congressional Hearings on defense matters, again influencing their outcome. An indefatigable worker, he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War as a personal representative of the Commandant, United States Marine Corps, conducting an inspection tour of Marine Forces then in the Far East. He also served on active duty during May, June and July of 1955 as a member of the Presidential Commission formed to study and recommend standards of conduct for American prisoners of war.

An autographed photo of Richard M. Nixon accepting a Frontier Colt revolver from Herb Glass while Major General Merritt Edson of the NRA watches. - Credit National Rifle Association 1600 Rhode Island Ave., N.W Washington, D.C.

An autographed photo of Richard M. Nixon accepting a Frontier Colt revolver from Herb Glass while Major General Merritt Edson of the NRA watches. – Credit National Rifle Association 1600 Rhode Island Ave., N.W Washington, D.C.

General Edson was an active participant in many organizations and clubs, giving many of them the benefit of his experience and abilities. Over the years he formed associations with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Army and Navy Union, National Rifle Association, Patrons of Husbandry, Masons, Alpha Tau Omega, First Marine Division Association (past president), Edson’s Raiders Association (past President, Honorary President), National Skeet Shooting Association, Army and Navy Club, Columbia Country Club, National Press Club, and the University Club.

“Red Mike” had so won the hearts of those who served with him that the Edson’s Raiders Association was formed a few years after World War II. Reunions are held annually at Quantico, Virginia, and even today he is still carried on the roster as Honorary President, his spirit never seeming to leave this band of men fused together by his great leadership.

Edson's tombstone

Edson’s tombstone

The General was one of the Marine Corps’ most illustrious officers and leaders of all time. He was an outstanding example of those who, unsung, keep the nation’s ramparts strong in peace, and who are summoned in time of war to rally our forces and defend our liberty at all costs. As a United States Marine Corps officer, gentlemen and patriot, he considered it a privilege and an honor to so serve. He was a man of vision and resourcefulness. He was a man of extreme loyalty to his high ideals and to his country. He was an example of leadership and accomplishment, of courage, forthrightness, loyalty and fighting spirit to every young Marine with whom he came in contact.

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