I recently had the absolute privilege of having a Congressional Medal of Honor in my office at the University of Illinois Library. This medal was awarded to Major Kenneth M. Bailey of Danville, Illinois who was killed in action during the battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on September 1942.
Bailey was a 1935 graduate of the University of Illinois and is the only Illinois alumni to ever be awarded the Medal of Honor. After graduation from Illinois, Bailey joined the United States Marine Corps and was commissioned a second lieutenant on July 1, 1935.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor Hawaii and our participation in WW II had begun. The 1st Marine Raider Battalion, of which Bailey was a member, were ordered from San Diego to Tutuila, American Samoa, arriving there April 30, 1942
By the summer of 1942, the Allies had made plans for a major offensive in the Solomon Islands, which were held by the Japanese. These Islands were vital for supply lines which the allies needed to resupply and support their troops.
On August 7, 1942, 8 months to the day after Pearl Harbor, the allied forces invaded at several locations in the Solomons under an offensive designated Operation Watchtower. Part of Operation Watchtower included taking a very small island known as Tulagi. Company C, 1st Marine Raider Battalion under the leadership of Bailey was given this task. The allies had surprised the Japanese and fierce fighting ensued. Bailey was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his heroism at Tulagi.
As Bailey and company C were fighting in Tulagi, other Marine units had invaded Guadalcanal and could take the airfield which was later named Henderson Field. Guadalcanal was a small but strategic location within the Solomon Islands. The Japanese forces had been building an airfield and base that was intended to cut off vital Allied supply lines.
But the Japanese were determined to retake Henderson Field and attacked the Americans’ relentlessly. Company C having left Tulagi was sent to Bloody Ridge on Guadalcanal to help the allies hold and defend Henderson Field.
September 12-14 saw fierce fighting with the Japanese who had penetrated some of the American lines on Bloody ridge near Henderson field. Bailey led his men in repulsing a Japanese attack on their position. Two Japanese bullets pierced his helmet. Exhausting hand to hand combat continued for 10 hours. The Marines had repulsed the Japanese attack and held Henderson field.
On September 27, 1942, Major Bailey was killed by a Japanese sniper as Company C was fighting along the Matanikau River. For his actions in the battle at Bloody Ridge he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Holding Major Bailey’s medal was a humbling experience. I couldn’t help but think about his tremendous story of service and sacrifice to ensure that our country and freedoms would endure for future generations.
Thank you, Major Bailey, for your dedication, service and personal sacrifice to ensure the United States of America remains a free nation and beacon of light for the world.
WB Gregory J. Knott is the Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No. 970 in St. Joseph (IL) and a plural member of Ogden Lodge No. 754 (IL), Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL) and Naval Lodge No. 4 in Washington, DC.