1 Last Post Major General Merritt Austin Edson USMC A

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                      Major General Merritt Austin Edson USMC
                              A Distinguished General
                                   Hap Rocketto

       He was a trim warrior in a trim Corps, and when not fighting in the two

great wars of the twentieth century he fought in the small ones in between. He

had, in the words of Tom Wolfe, the right stuff. When in uniform, worn pendent

about his neck, was the watered blue silk ribbon of the Medal of Honor. His

chest bore the gold wings of a Naval Aviator atop rows of ribbon bars, and the

substantial gold and enameled Distinguished Marksman Badge was pinned

above his left breast pocket. What was not displayed on his tunic was the moral

courage that led him to sacrifice his career for the greater good of his service.

More recent events and characters may have over shadowed his exploits and

contributions, but his place of honor in the fabric of Marine Corps and shooting

history is assured.

       Major General Merritt Austin Edson USMC, the only person to be awarded

both the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Marksman Badge, entered the

world in Rutland, Vermont on April 25, 1897. Edson grew up an active boy who

delighted in the outdoors. He did well in high school, graduating third in his class

and entered the University of Vermont in the fall of 1915.      As The Great War

raged in Europe Edson was required to learn the rudiments of soldiering because

UVM, as a condition of the Morrill Land–Grant College Act, required all males to

take two years of military studies. By coincidence, the Congressman who wrote

the original bill in 1862 was Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont.

         Attracted by the military, Edson enrolled in a special Reserve Officer

Training Corps company that required simultaneous membership in the Vermont

National Guard. About this time, along the United States-Mexican border,

Pancho Villa‟s revolutionary forces fell upon Columbus, New Mexico razing the

town. President Wilson federalized the National Guard and Edson found himself

on a troop train bound for the border. He was soon engaged in monotonous

garrison duty in the arid southwest. This first taste of the martial life, full of

hardship and sacrifice as it was, only whetted his appetite. The Guard returned to

Vermont leaving Edson with experiences that would benefit him sooner than


         When Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare President Wilson

broke off diplomatic ties and, on April 6, 1917, the United States Congress

approved a declaration of war. Edson applied for a commission in the Marines

and it was suggested to him that he should enlist so that he would be

immediately available for training upon passing the officers examination. This he

did.     However, in the rapid expansion of Marine Corps Headquarters his

paperwork went adrift and he was not notified to report to Parris Island for

several months. Arriving too late for his officer candidate class, he was assigned

to a regular enlisted boot camp but a week later he was ordered to Quantico

where he was commissioned on the 10th of October and assigned to the artillery.

         During the next months Edson studied the military arts and qualified as

both a Marine and Navy Expert Rifleman, allowing him to pin the first of many

military awards to his tunic. By early 1918 he was a captain bound for Europe

with his artillery unit, now converted to infantry to meet the sudden demands for

manpower caused by the German spring offensive. Edson entered the war zone

in mid October but did not see action. He remained overseas with the Army of


       Returning to the United States in December of 1919 he reported to

Quantico where he became involved in an educational program for Marines that

would evolve into the Marine Corps Institute. Edson took leave in August of

1920, returning to Vermont to attend to a personal matter. He and Ethel Robbins

exchanged wedding vows and enjoyed a two-week canoe trip honeymoon before

returning to Quantico. He soon learned that he would be retained in the sharply

reduced peacetime Marine Corps, although he would revert to the rank of first


       Having done well during rifle qualification in 1921 Edson set himself to

earning a position on the Marine team. With steady determination he mastered

the Springfield ‟03, learned how to „dope the wind‟, and prepared himself both

physically and mentally as he advanced through local, Division, and the Marine

Corps matches. He made the cut and reported for training to the Navy ranges at

Wakefield, Massachusetts, a site chosen because it replicated conditions that

would be found at Camp Perry in late summer.

       The time spent at Wakefield paid off for Edson and the Marines. He was

good enough to be selected for the ten-man team to compete in the National

Trophy Team (NTI) Match. The NTI required the team members to fire ten shots

slow fire standing and ten shots rapid fire sitting from the 200 yard line, a ten shot

rapid fire string prone at 300, followed by two prone slow fire 20 shot strings at

600 and 1,000 yards. During this summer his love of shooting grew into a life

long passion. He returned to his duties with the recognition and status of a

national shooting champion in an organization that holds that particular military

virtue in high regard.

       After a short stint of duty guarding the U.S. Mail he was ordered to

Pensacola Naval Air Station as a flight student. He proudly pinned on the gold

wings of a Naval Aviator in June of 1922. The needs of the service dictated his

assignment to Guam but he was able to delay his move until after the birth of his

first child, a son, Merritt Austin Edson, Jr.

       The Edsons arrived at Guam after a nine-week journey and were soon

settled into comfortable quarters. His duties with Scouting Squadron One

included flying and supervising aircraft maintenance.      Although the tour on

Guam was generally pleasant and rewarding there was some financial hardship,

as most things on the island had to be imported. He extended his tour on Guam

for a year to postpone the expense of change of station.

       The Edsons left Guam in July of 1925 for Quantico. For the next two

years bad luck, and an occasional bad judgement call, would result in several

aircraft accidents that would dog his aviation career. At the time aviators were

only allowed five years on flight status before a mandatory return to line duty so

Edson‟s career was not adversely effected when he was ordered to the Company

Officers Course.     He left aviation, never to return, with a love of flying and

invaluable experience.

      Soon Edson had orders to the 1927 Marine Corps Rifle Team where he

assumed some of the team‟s administrative duties. He excelled on the firing line

and by the end of the season he earned the coveted Distinguished Marksman

Badge. At the end of the summer shooting season Edson was detailed to

command the Marine Detachment of the light cruiser USS Denver (CL-16).

       In February of 1928, as the creaky old coal fired cruiser plied the

Caribbean; Edson received the welcome news that he had been promoted to

captain.   Ashore civil unrest had broken out against the pro-American

Nicaraguan government of Adolpho Díaz.        Lead by Augusto César Sandino

these rebels engaged in the classic method of the weak against the strong-

guerrilla warfare. The new captain soon found himself faced with trying to defeat


      Edson decided that the best way to bring Sandino to bay was to take the

battle to him. He suggested a series of aggressive patrols up the Coco River,

supported by Marine aviation.     Given permission to proceed, he eventually

completed three long arduous campaigns noted for their ferocity, hardship, and

success.    Edson‟s small command lived off of the land, endured malaria,

survived capsizing and floods, and effectively denied Sandino sanctuary.

       Edson would leave the Nicaragua with a Navy Cross, the second highest

decoration for gallantry, and several lesser awards. He had gained considerable

experience in field operations, been hardened by adversity, and was one of many

Marine officers who would rise to command in the Pacific Theater in World War II

after being tempered by the heat of the “Banana Wars”.

       Edson next reported to the cruiser USS Rochester (CA-2) to command its

Marine Detachment. After a placid few months of showing the flag in Central

America he was ordered to Philadelphia to join the staff of The Basic School in

the fall of 1929. Given his recent success in the field he became the tactics

instructor   to   the   fledgling   Marine   officers   undergoing   the   nine-month

indoctrination course. In this billet he influenced future generals and had an

immediate effect on those junior officers that went directly from Philadelphia to

Central America.

       When the Marine Rifle Team finished a disappointing third in the 1929

National Matches Headquarters detailed Edson to the rifle team for the1930

season. It was thought his expertise could effect a turn around of the team‟s

fortunes. Although he was still a hard holder his real duty was to understudy the

team captain Major Harry L. Smith, who had captained five winning teams. As

Edson assumed greater responsibility with the shooting program he also gained

greater visibility. The Marine team would win the National Championship in both

1930 and 1931.

       Edson was transferred from the Basic School staff to serve as ordnance

officer at the Depot of Supply after the 1930 season, a perfect place to be to

insure the future success of the shooting program. He would spend the next six

years in this job, making significant contributions to the Marine marksmanship


       As it did everything else the Depression effected competitive shooting,

funds became dear and there would be no National Matches from 1932-34. The

Corps still held its annual matches and Edson helped keep the competitive

embers glowing, so well that when the National Matches were restored in 1935

the Marines won, as they would again in 1936 and 1937.          Edson had great

success with the shooting program and made a significant contribution to the

tradition of excellence enjoyed by Marine teams since.        Although he would

maintain a life long interest in competitive marksmanship the 1935 matches

would be his last trip to the firing line as a competitor.

       After serving eight years as a captain Edson was advanced to major in

1936. The promotion brought overseas duty with the Fourth Marines in China.

Edson reported to Shanghai within a day of the Sino-Japanese clash at the

Marco Polo Bridge, viewed by many as the opening actions of the Second World

War. During this tour of duty he would learn a great deal about his craft and the

Japanese. Of special interest to Edson were the Japanese Special Naval

Landing Forces, the rikusentai. After three rewarding years in China Edson was

ordered home in 1939 to take the post of Inspector of Target Practice.

       Under Commandant Thomas Holcomb, a Marine marksman of great

repute, the Inspector of Target Practice was a high profile position.    Edson was

not only responsible for the competitive shooting program but all small arms

training within the Corps. He set about to improve rifle training, he investigated

the selection of a rifle to succeed the Springfield ‟03, and he was the principal

author The Small Wars Manual during this time.

       Just as his arrival in the Far East was marked by the start of war in China

his arrival at Marine Corps Headquarters was highlighted by the Nazi invasion of

Poland. As the war clouds continued to build Edson chaffed at his desk job and

successfully wrangled commanded of the first battalion of the Fifth Marines.

       Edson would bring the 1/5 to a high state of readiness while developing

the concept of small mobile forces similar to the British Commandos. The Marine

Raider Battalions, the First lead by Edson and the Second commanded by Evans

Carlson, were a direct result of his efforts. Carlson‟s command would garner

greater public recognition, including the Hollywood movie Gung Ho. Perhaps the

fact that the executive officer of the Second Raiders was a reserve captain

named James Roosevelt whose father, the President, was a friend of

Commandant Holcomb, had something to do with the attention.

       Eight months, to the day after Pearl Harbor, Edson‟s 1st Raider Battalion

began the United States offensive against Japan. Operation Watchtower, the

invasion of Guadalcanal, began on the morning of August 7, 1942 with a Raider

assault on the island of Tulagi. Later that morning, the bulk of the Marines,

Springfields held at “High Port”, would scramble through the surf onto

Guadalcanal itself. After the lightly opposed landings things turned tough for the

Marines. The Japanese regrouped, resupplied, and on the night of August 8 th

sank three Allied ships in Sealark Channel.

       Pressure mounted on the defenders of recently captured Henderson Field

so Edson‟s troops were brought over from Tulagi to strengthen its defenses.

Edson deployed his Raiders, the 1st Parachute Battalion, and some engineers

and artillery crews along a ridgeline a mile south of the airfield and had them dig

in.   Around 2100 hours on the night of September 12 th some 3,500 battle

hardened Japanese infantry fell upon the thinly manned Marine lines for the first

of three assaults. When dawn broke Edson led a counterattack but was unable

to budge the larger force. During the day Edson reestablished his defenses

while Marine close air support punished the Japanese and protected the Raiders.

The enemy was so close that aircraft took off, dropped their bombs, and landed,

never having time to raise their landing gear

       On the night of the 13th the Japanese again tried to break through to

Henderson Field. The Marines repulsed three major and two secondary attacks.

As the sun rose the Raiders and parachutists were still hanging on to the ridge

while 1500 dead or mortally wounded Japanese lay victim to their devotion to the

Emperor and Marine determination.

       Edson‟s conduct of the defense exhibited tactical expertise, command

presence, and personal courage. The sparse narrative awarding him the Medal

of Honor for the action on the ridge stated that,        “When the enemy, in a

subsequent series of violent assaults, engaged our forces in desperate hand-to-

hand combat with bayonets, rifles, pistols, grenades, and knives, Col. Edson,

although continuously exposed to hostile fire throughout the night, personally

directed defense of the reserve position against a fanatical foe of greatly superior


       Edson was promoted to the command of the Fifth Marines, replacing a

less effective commander. Edson‟s leadership skills quickly instilled confidence

and competence in the Fifth Marines‟ officers and men. The first test for the new

command would center about the Matanikau River. Over the next six weeks the

Marines would hotly contest the area in three successive seesaw actions and

eventually persevere. The now successful, but combat worn regiment, would

leave Guadalcanal in early December of 1942 for Australia, where they would


         In the aftermath of Guadalcanal, Edson‟s star began to rise, both

metaphorically and literally.     Even though he had been recently promoted

colonel, his name was bandied about for a quick advancement to brigadier. His

exploits appeared in professional and popular literature of the day. The Marine

Corps Gazette and Life Magazine ran features on him. Richard Tregaskis made

a point of highlighting Edson in his book Guadalcanal Diary. John Hersey wrote

in Into the Valley that Edson was probably “…among the five finest commanders

in all the U.S. Armed Forces.”      To cap things off, on February 3, 1943, two

Distinguished Marksmen stood opposite each other in front of an assembly of the

officers of the First Marine Division and dignitaries.   Major General William

Rupertus, acting division commander, who had earned his badge in 1915,

draped the Medal of Honor about Edson‟s neck.

         Edson moved to the Second Marines in August 1943 as the Chief of Staff.

He began an intense program of working up the division for Operation Galvanic,

the capture Tarawa Atoll. Edson spent most of the training time in the field

concentrating on developing physical fitness, night fighting ability, and

marksmanship. He worked hard melding his men into a finely tuned fighting

machine where the most competent man, regardless of rank, was in the best

position to utilize his skills.

      During the early hours of November 20, 1943 the Tarawa invasion force

responded to Japanese fire from bird shaped Betio Island. After several hours of

sea and air bombardment the first wave of amtracs made for the beach followed

by landing craft. Within minutes of the lifting of naval gunfire, the Marine‟s plan

began to unravel. Communications broke down, air support was inadequate, and

again the Japanese proved to be a tenacious adversary. Worst of all the

expected high tide did not occur forcing the troops to disembark some 1,000

yards from the beach.     The painfully slow advance across the lagoon‟s chest

high water gave the Japanese a clear field of fire to flay the advancing Marines.

      Edson‟s training paid off for the severely mauled force. In top physical

condition and trained to be both responsive and reactive to fluid situations, the

Marines formed fire teams regardless of unit and forged forward. Tarawa would

come close to being a disaster, saved only by the courage of the well-prepared

Marines. The battle was short, just 72 hours, and sharp, 990 U.S dead and

2,391 wounded. The lessons learned during these terrible three days would

serve to make future amphibious assaults less costly.

      To answer the public clamor for information about Tarawa and insure that

the Marine Corps image would not be tarnished, Edson was brought home to

report to the people. An articulate, well-known, and respected combat hero, he

proved he was just as fearless facing reporters as he was facing enemy gunfire.

On his way to Washington he received word of an early Christmas present,

promotion to brigadier general.    Within a month, his mission to Washington

accomplished, he returned and assumed the position of assistant Division

Commander of the Second Marine Division. His role as ADC was not as exciting

or as personally rewarding as the Chief of Staff‟s job. Edson also had an uneasy

relationship with Major General Thomas Watson, the division commander.

      The 2nd Marine Division was involved in capturing the island of Saipan in

the Marianas. By mid afternoon of June 15 th, Edson was ashore with a small

staff and established a command post for Watson who arrived a few hours later.

The 2nd and 4th Marines and the Army‟s 27th Division faced a strong foe that

would fight fiercely for almost four weeks before the island was declared secure.

Siapan was the decisive campaign of the Pacific war highlighted by what became

known as “The Battle of the Smiths”.        Marine General Holland Smith, after

consulting with his superiors, relieved Army Major General Ralph Smith of

command of the 27th Division.

      After Siapan, Edson was offered the job of Chief of Staff of the newly

created Fleet Marine Force Pacific (FMFPAC). The position had great potential

to show case Edson‟s administrative skills as well as the promise for further

promotion. Based in Hawaii, Edson sorted out the duties of his new office and

organized the new headquarters. His influence and importance grew as a result

of both the position and his personal connections at Marine Headquarters.

      Exemplary work in establishing the new command lead to his appointment

to command the Marine Service Command in June of 1945.               Edson was

disappointed, for he still had aspirations for a combat command and further

promotion. Six weeks later an atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Edson‟s

chance for promotion.      With the war‟s end would come the inevitable

demobilization and with it the specter of reverting to his permanent rank. Edson

would continue his work with Service Command until ordered home at the end of


        Arriving at Headquarters in January of 1946, Edson found himself at the

center of the storm of service unification. The idea of unification had begun in

November of 1943 when General George Marshall signed a memorandum

concerning unification that advocated for a single Department of War. With the

death of President Roosevelt the Marines had lost a friend in the highest of

places. President Harry Truman was a strong advocate of unification and viewed

the Marines as merely the Navy‟s “police force”. His Secretary of Defense, Louis

B. Johnson, was an outright foe of the Marines. The Army and Navy wanted

Marine money, manpower, and equipment and led a massive campaign to

accomplish the deed.

        Edson was asked by Commandant Alexander Vandegrift to lead a group

to devise a strategy for saving the Corps. Called the „Edson Board‟, the carefully

selected group of senior and junior officers began the fight of their lives on an

unfamiliar battlefield of conference tables, Congressional chambers, and smoke

filled rooms. An order forbade Navy and Marine officers from publicly opposing

the upcoming unification legislation. Sensing that his future in the Corps was

limited since he had made powerful enemies on Capitol Hill because of his

opposition to unification, and knowing that someone had to be the point man, he

resigned his commission so that he could speak his mind in open forums.

       Edson received his second star under circumstances that few would have

believed or preferred. Quietly retiring on August 1, 1947 he was promoted to

major general, on the retired list, by virtue of legislation that granted “tombstone”

promotions to officers decorated for gallantry. While many of his subordinates

and friends told him of their personal and professional sorrow at his departure

Edson left the Corps without even a farewell parade.          He then went about

publicly speaking his mind on the unification plan, which went down to defeat.

       After retirement Edson received tempting job offers from both the State of

Vermont and The National Rifle Association and opted to return home to become

Vermont‟s first Commissioner of Public Safety.        He was responsible for the

creation of the state police force and took interest in all aspects of the new

organization, from the design of the uniform and emblem through the creation of

its training school and radio network.

       When the Korean War broke out, Edson attempted to return to active duty

but was told that recall was unlikely, and if it did occur, it would be to

headquarters as a brigadier.     The National Rifle Association turned to Edson to

fill the vacancy created when Executive Director C. B Lister died in May of 1951.

Edson‟s credentials as a competitor and war hero, as well as his political and

military connections made him a perfect fit. The NRA offered him twice the

salary he was making in Vermont and, with that tipping the balance, he accepted.

As he did when he retired from the Marines he left Vermont quietly but with the

respect and admiration of all.

         Back in Washington Edson moved up through the NRA hierarchy and

was soon holding the reins of power. Under Edson‟s stewardship, the NRA

increased its membership and broadened the scope of its various shooting and

training programs.    He continued emphasis on firearms legislation-vigorously

supporting laws that provided stiff penalties for criminal use of firearms and

opposing any law that denied or limited the ownership of firearms by law-abiding

citizens. A position the Association holds to this day.       His attention to detail

pushed the NRA to be more efficient and more useful as a civic organization.

       He never lost his interest in the Marines and when his old subordinate

Lemuel Shepherd became Commandant in 1952, Edson was again made to feel

welcome and useful. Asked to go to Korea and inspect the 1st Marine Division he

was able to spend some time with his son Austin who was serving in his father‟s

old unit. He became a frequent guest speaker at Marine functions and on one

occasion he and his sons Austin and Bob were all on active duty at Quantico at

the same time. When Shepherd found problems with the non-profit corporation

that was charged with the construction of the Marine Corps Memorial, Edson was

asked to take charge and soon had the project on track and presided over

groundbreaking ceremonies.

       The Secretary of Defense enlisted Edson as a member of a committee to

investigate the conduct of prisoners of war and to develop a policy for future

POWs. Edson favored a strict code that allowed a POW to divulge his name,

rank and serial number. The end result was the brief, but comprehensive, Code

of Conduct for POWs that is now a part of all military recruit training.

       Late in the evening of August 13, 1955 Edson went to his garage, sat

behind the wheel of his car, and turned on the ignition. The next morning his wife

found him slumped over dead. Edson‟s death was ruled a suicide but few could

accept the fact. It seemed out of character.      Three day later his ashes were

buried in Arlington with all the ceremony and honor the Marine Corps could


       Edson has not been forgotten. Edson Hall at Quantico, the USS Edson

(DD-946) and a rifle range at Camp Pendleton all bear his name in official

recognition. In light of recent combat developments his forward thinking Small

Wars Manual has been rushed back into print, 50 years after it was first written.

       Of all the memorials perhaps the finest are the words of one his junior

officers who rose to Commandant.             General Wallace Greene, the 23rd

Commandant, said, “Edson was a brave and daring Marine Officer-ice cool,

calm, and collected during danger-a winner-and a personification of the great

fighting tradition of our Corps.”

Author’s note: General Edson was a complex man who is not done justice by this
short article. Those who are interested in delving deeper are directed to the
seminal Once A Legend “Red Mike” Edson of the Marine Raiders by Jon T.


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