On December 8, 1941, the day after Imperial Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on the island nation during his celebrated “Day of Infamy” speech. Quickly mobilizing, the U.S. counterattacked in 1942, and by the fall of 1944 American forces were within two thousand miles of Japan. Vicious fights had raged from the beginning, but some of the fiercest battles still lay ahead. In mid-September U.S. troops landed on a six-mile coral and limestone landmass in the Palau Islands of the western Pacific known as Peleliu. Among those who fought their way ashore before pushing inland was a U.S. Marine officer from Massachusetts. He knew well the Japanese’s ferocity, for he had previously witnessed their determination to die rather than shame themselves, at least in their eyes, by surrendering. He soon found himself in the battle of his life. His name was Everett Pope. This is the story of how his gallant assault and then defense of Hill 154 won him the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Even before the United States entered World War II, Everett Pope embarked on a career in the U.S. military. He was born in July 1919 in Milton, Massachusetts but later moved to the Boston suburb of North Quincy. After high school, he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the alma mater of Gettysburg hero Joshua L. Chamberlain who won the Medal of Honor for his defense of Little Round Top. While there, Pope captained the championship tennis team and earned a degree in French. He graduated magna cum laude and a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society in 1941. Soon after, having been captivated by the presentation of a Marine recruiter he met on campus, Everett enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. During basic training, he demonstrated such natural leadership that his superiors recommended him for Officer Candidate School. On November 1st he was commissioned a second lieutenant and posted to Quantico, Virginia, and later the Marine base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for additional training. He was still there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, hurtling the United States into World War II. With the outbreak of war, it was only a matter of time before Everett received orders to ship out for distant battlefields.
In June 1942 Lieutenant Everett Pope, leading a platoon in the 1st Marine Regiment’s 1st Battalion, boarded a troop ship bound for the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific as part of the U.S. invasion of Guadalcanal. The campaign was designed to protect Allied forces in Australia. On August 7th Pope and his “leathernecks” stormed the beach and surged inland to secure the island’s airfield, labeled Henderson Field in honor of Marine pilot Lofton Henderson who was killed in the June Battle of Midway. Within days, however, the new officer found himself face-to-face with an intransigent Japanese Army. Along with his fellow servicemen, Pope doggedly engaged enemy troops across the island. He proved so ferocious a fighter that he later won the Bronze Star for meritorious service. The platoon stayed on Guadalcanal until early 1943 when it was sent to Melbourne, Australia for much-needed rest and relaxation.
During this time of rejuvenation, Pope was promoted to captain and assumed command of Company C. That fall, he and his men prepared to attack a second Japanese bastion — Cape Gloucester in New Britain. American commanders sought to isolate Japanese forces on Rabaul and thereby safeguard the sea-lanes linking New Britain with New Guinea. Fighting raged from the last days of 1943 until April 1944. As the campaign ended, Pope was charged with sweeping through the wild countryside to ensure no pockets of enemy resistance remained. On one patrol across twelve miles of jungle trails, he and fourteen comrades killed twenty enemy combatants. More amazing, however, he successfully captured seven Japanese soldiers and marched them back to American lines for interrogation. With New Britain secure, Pope’s company boarded transports and embarked for the western Pacific to join other U.S. forces in launching the first stages of a drive on Japan itself.
By late 1944 U.S. forces had driven Japan out of the South and Central Pacific, and U.S. commanders began debating future military operations. Despite the Navy’s objections, General Douglas MacArthur pressed for and achieved permission for a long-awaited attack to reclaim the Philippines. In preparation for the invasion, MacArthur sought to stabilize his right flank with an assault on the Japanese-held island of Peleliu. The island would also serve as a base from which U.S. aircraft could launch air raids on the Japanese homeland. Once the strategy was approved, vessels carrying the 1st Marine Regiment, including Captain Pope and his 235-man Company C, anchored offshore. There, the troops waited for the moment when they would spill onto the coral beaches facing them. On September 15th Everett Pope charged ashore at the head of his Marines and doggedly fought inland, set on capturing the island’s strategic airfield. Once the airfield was secured, he faced an even more daunting and costly task — clearing the Umurbrogol ridges of Japanese troops. During the next four days, Company C suffered thirty percent casualties. The loss of so many skilled fighters forced Pope to employ cooks, bakers and clerks as riflemen. In addition, Japanese soldiers infiltrated American lines on the night of September 18th, preventing the captain and his men from getting even a little sleep. The next morning, Captain Everett Pope received the orders that would change his life forever.
As dawn broke on September 19th, the 1st Marine’s legendary commander, Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller, directed Pope to lead his remaining 90 men against a coral outcropping, labeled Hill 154, along the slope of what came to be called, for obvious reasons, Suicide Ridge. Despite the climate’s oppressive heat, which consistently rose above 100 degrees, and the lack of suitable drinking water, the company prepared to carry out its orders. Pope led the way through a swamp and then up the hill. Despite covering fire from American mortars and machine guns, Japanese mortars and field guns opened enfilading fire from adjacent heights along the ridge and inflicted heavy damage. Additionally, Japanese troops emerged from their caves dug into the hillside and fired on the Marines. As men fell around him, Pope knew he could not remain where he was and ordered his men to fall back. Still, he determined to achieve the objective, and after regrouping, he charged forward a second time. Again, the enemy met him with fierce opposition, but Pope refused to back down this time. Exhorting the Marines around him, he secured a foothold and began pushing the Japanese back. No matter how hard they tried, Japanese soldiers could not dislodge the stalwart Marines. As the sun sank towards the horizon, Captain Everett Pope and thirteen fellow Marines stood atop Hill 154. He had taken the hill at a huge cost, but even so he knew the battle was not over yet.
Surveying his position, Pope saw the hill was open to attack on three sides, and the barren terrain allowed Japanese troops to pour unobstructed fire on the Marines. Knowing he must hold out as long as possible, the captain deployed his men at vital positions across the hill and listened for the enemy’s approach. The first wave of attackers came just after darkness fell. In ones and twos, the Japanese stealthily climbed the hill wearing black uniforms and split-toed shoes with rubber soles. The defenders were ready though and opened fire using a handful of tommy guns, rifles, one light machine gun and several hand grenades. Pope watched as these small teams fell back, only to repeat the same strategy minutes later. Scattered fighting continued until midnight when the Japanese rejected such spoiling raids in favor of all-out assaults. Waves of twenty-five soldiers stormed the American position again and again, but each time Pope’s men fired on the enemy and repulsed the surges. During one attack, shrapnel struck Pope in the thigh; despite excruciating pain, however, Pope stayed in command and refused to abandon his men until the life or death contest was decided.
As the night progressed, Japanese soldiers proved so determined as to come within the Marines’ lines, resulting in hand-to-hand fighting on occasion. Still, the Americans held their ground, but by the early hours of September 20th, the troops were running low on ammunition. Worse, they could see Japanese officers had redoubled their efforts to recapture Hill 154. Flares erupted overhead in the darkness, allowing the Japanese to direct small-arms fire on the Marines. Pope’s men returned fire with their few precious grenades. As the Japanese lobbed their own grenades at the defenders, the Americans threw them back before they could detonate. Soon, however, the supply ran low. Refusing to give up, Pope ordered his men to throw rocks to keep the enemy off balance. Due to the darkness, the Japanese were unable to tell if the Marines were throwing rocks or the real thing — grenades. Still the enemy was undeterred, and under orders from their officers, they swarmed up the hill again.
As the Japanese closed in, Pope and his men fired off their last rounds of ammunition. In desperation, he ordered empty ammunition boxes hurled at the attackers, but in moments, enemy soldiers were amongst his own men. There was now only one course of action left. The injured Pope raised his fists and led his few able-bodied men in hand-to-hand combat. A bare-knuckled brawl erupted. Overwhelmed by the unexpected tenacity, the Japanese fell back. As they did so, dawn appeared on the horizon. As the morning sun dispelled the darkness, Japanese troops spied the crest of Hill 154 and gaped openly at the sight before them — only nine U.S. Marines stood atop the hill. Japanese commanders immediately rallied almost one hundred soldiers to attack en masse. Looking on, Pope knew he and his men would not survive what was coming. Suddenly, however, orders arrived for him to fall back. Not wasting any time, he led his troops down the hillside and back to American lines.
In the days after his heroic defense of Hill 154, Captain Everett Pope continued to battle the Japanese across Peleliu, returning to Hill 154 nearly two weeks after leaving to bury his dead. He remained in the Pacific theatre until November. Two months later, in January 1945, he was promoted to major and assigned to a Japanese language course at Yale University in anticipation of the U.S. invasion of Japan itself, scheduled for later that year. At the same time, word of his valiant actions on Peleliu had reached the highest corridors of power in Washington, D.C. On June 15, 1945 President Harry Truman presented Everett Pope with the nation’s highest award for bravery — the Congressional Medal of Honor — for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” The war ended two months later with the Japanese surrender. Though placed on inactive duty in July 1946, he commanded the Marine Corps Reserve’s 2nd Infantry Battalion in Hingham, Massachusetts, and with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, he briefly returned to active duty as executive officer of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He resigned from the Marine Corps in 1951 and spent twenty-five years as a Boston, Massachusetts bank president. He later served on Bowdoin College’s governing boards where he established a scholarship as well as an award honoring classmate and fellow Marine Captain Andrew Haldane, who had been killed on Peleliu. Major Everett Pope died in Bath, Maine on his 90th birthday in July 2009 and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his devoted service to the United States during World War II.
Throughout his military career, Everett Pope proved himself the quintessential combat officer willing to face any peril. On numerous islands across the Pacific, the gallant commander charged headlong into Japanese positions, but nowhere was his bravery more evident than on Peleliu on September 19-20, 1944. Despite seemingly impossible odds, Pope and just a handful of men first took Hill 154 and then proceeded to hold it against repeated Japanese onslaughts. Even in the face of annihilation, he refused to back down. Through his unflagging courage and devotion to duty, U.S. Marine Corps Captain Everett Pope not only became a national hero but also joined an elite band of warriors decorated for giving of themselves far above and beyond the call of their country. As such, his actions should live forever in the memories of his countrymen.