There were a lot of World War II “firsts” in 1942, as the U.S. sent its first special operations force to launch the country’s first amphibious offensive. That operation, known as the Guadalcanal campaign, captured strategic islands from the Japanese and kept vital lines of communications open for Allies in the Pacific.
The campaign also earned Marine Corps Maj. Kenneth D. Bailey the Medal of Honor.
Bailey was born Oct. 21, 1910, in Pawnee, Oklahoma, but his parents eventually moved to Danville, Illinois, where he grew up with two older brothers and two younger sisters.
According to the Kenneth D. Bailey Academy, a school named in his honor, Bailey was about as active as a teenager could get. He swam and played football for Danville High School, where he was also a member of the student council, the glee club and the yearbook staff. He even spent some of his high school years with the Illinois National Guard.
Bailey attended the University of Illinois, where he participated in ROTC all four years. Shortly after graduating with a degree in agriculture in 1935, he was commissioned into the Marine Corps.
The young Marine’s first six years were spent serving at Quantico, Virginia; Parris Island, South Carolina; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and as part of a Marine detachment on the USS Pennsylvania. In 1941, Bailey had worked his way up the ranks to become a company commander of the 5th Marines, which was redesignated the 1st Marine Raider Battalion when the U.S. entered World War II. It was the first special operations force in the U.S. military.
In April 1942, Bailey and his battalion were sent to war in the Pacific, and he was promoted to major the next month.
By August 1942, Bailey’s unit had landed on Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. There, he earned the Silver Star for leading Company C of the 1st Raider Battalion in battle, despite suffering serious wounds.
After capturing Tulagi, the battalion was moved to Guadalcanal to defend Henderson Field, a crucial airfield. The campaign’s most notable fight, the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, took place on Sept. 12-13, 1942, and that’s when Bailey earned the nation’s highest military honor.
On Sept. 12, the battalion was tasked with protecting a ridge to keep Japanese forces from pushing inland through dense vegetation to reach the airfield. By nightfall, the enemy had begun shelling the airfield’s perimeter and attacked three times, just to be pushed back at each attempt.
The next morning, upon orders from battalion commander Lt. Col. Merritt Edson, Bailey reorganized Company C and got into position as the reserve battalion between the main line of defense and the airfield. Company C represented the last line of defense against the superior enemy forces.
Within an hour, the company was threatened by enemy fighters who had pushed into a gap in the main line of defense. But Bailey’s men didn’t give in. They fended off the threat while improving their own precarious position. Bailey then used every weapon he had to cover the main line forces as they withdrew due to the assault. Despite a head wound, Bailey repeatedly led his men into fierce hand-to-hand fighting that lasted 10 hours. Finally, the Japanese forces gave up.
Bailey’s ability to protect the airfield despite the intense barrage of fighting proved to be an invaluable asset to Edson. For their courage under fire, both men earned the Medal of Honor.
Unfortunately, Bailey didn’t survive to receive his in person. The Marine Corps major died less than two weeks later on Sept. 26 while fighting Japanese forces along Guadalcanal’s Matanikau River. He was a month shy of his 32nd birthday.
Bailey was initially buried on Guadalcanal, but his remains were moved and reinterred in Springhill Cemetery in his hometown of Danville in June 1948.
On March 24, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented the Medal of Honor to Elizabeth Bailey, the major’s widow, at a ceremony at the White House. The medal is currently kept at the Vermilion County War Museum in Danville.
Aside from the school that bears his name, Bailey has had two Navy ships named in his honor. The construction of the first, a destroyer escort, was canceled in 1944. Instead, the Gearing-class destroyer USS Kenneth D. Bailey received his name. It was commissioned in July 1945 and deployed across the world for more than 20 years.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.