Tribute to Edwin Cole Bearss
Branch of Service: US Marines
Units: Marine Raider Battalion; 7th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division
Edwin Cole Bearss was born in 1923 on a ranch on Sarpy Creek, Montana, 35 miles east of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. A rural farm and ranch area with dirt roads, no electricity for most and few with indoor plumbing, it nevertheless was an area rich in history and fertile ground for a young boy's active imagination. Ed attended several schools during which time his exceptional memory began to be noticed. He became strongly focused on military history which was encouraged by his father, Omar, who himself was a Marine Corps veteran of WWI. Ed closely followed world events in newspapers and on the radio and plotted their progress on maps. When Hitler launched WWII with the 1939 invasion of Poland, young Ed took notice. He graduated high school in Hardin, Montana in May of 1941 and, following the military bent of his family, began to think of his own service to his country. His father continued to emphasize the proud history of the USMC and of his own service as well as that of an older cousin: Hiram Bearss, a Marine Corps veteran of the Philippine Insurrection during which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism, and also a veteran of WWI.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941 triggered in Ed a call to carry on the Bearss family tradition of military service to his country, and the United States Marine Corps was his natural focus. With family permission due to age and after a stubborn illness, Ed finally joined the USMC on 28 April, 1942. Ed arrived at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot for seven weeks of Boot Camp training. This was to be an intensive seven weeks reduced from the normal twelve, courtesy of the Japanese. After graduation he sought and was given a spot in a newly formed raider battalion. Ed was now just nineteen years old. Several duty stations on Guadalcanal, the Russell Islands and in the New Hebrides followed. A bout of malaria and yellow jaundice intervened which caused his reassignment to the First Marine Division, Seventh Regiment. September 1943 found the unit headed for New Guinea in preparation for a planned assault on the island of New Britain.
In the early morning hours of 02 January 1944 at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, his platoon advanced into the jungle toward a stream that ran perpendicular to their movement with Ed on the point position. Sudden bursts of Japanese machine gun fire hit Ed and those nearby and killed several Marines and wounded Ed in four places. He fell in a position from which he could not move without again being hit from a nearby Japanese gun. That gunner knew Ed was wounded, and continued to fire in Ed's direction. In Ed's own words: "Another Marine coming up was hit and others were falling. There were now dead men lying all around me. It had not been a good day for our platoon. Man after man had been killed or wounded. It had been a hellhole. We called it Suicide Creek." Finally, continued Marine action allowed others to reach Ed and drag him to safety. In extreme pain, Ed was spared the fate of many of his companions. He would not fight another day however, as his disabling wounds resulted in twenty-six months of hospital stays and rehab and finally, and Honorable Discharge on 15 March 1946 with the rank of Corporal.
Pictured below are the medals and ribbons awarded to Edwin Cole Bearss:
From left to right: Purple Heart Medal, Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with four battles stars. The four battle stars represent the following battles: Closing Phase of Guadalcanal, Central Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago - Cape Gloucester
During his lengthy medical rehab Ed spent many hours thinking about and reading the American history he had always loved so much. After discharge from the USMC, he studied at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. where he earned a Bachelor Degree in 1949. While pursuing a Masters Degree in history, a most important moment occurred during a visit to the Civil War battlefield at Shiloh, Tennessee. He and the park historian walked that battlefield while Ed listened to his host's narration of what had taken place there so long ago. Ed now realized that what he was seeing and hearing was different from the impressions he had formulated from earlier readings about that same battle. Knowing that this difference would also apply to other locations, he now realized that seeing the battlefields and walking them for himself would be an absolute necessity to understanding what took place there. His natural bent for history now began to focus on the National Park Service. When an opening for Park Historian occurred at the Vicksburg battlefield in Mississippi, he applied, was accepted and what became his life's career was now launched.
Using that bear-trap memory that God gives to so very few, Ed now plunged into our Civil War history at Vicksburg as well as other area locations. He hosted tours for visitors while continuing with hands-on research that he knew was so very important. Park Service superiors quickly noticed this newcomer's talent, and soon Ed was mapping out new locations in and around Vicksburg, walking the ground and designating new boundaries. The major reward for this talent occurred when Ed located the long sought resting place of the Union ironclad gunboat, USS Cairo. This warship had been sunk in the Yazoo River near Vicksburg in December of 1862 after striking two Confederate mines. Entombed in the muddy river bottom, Ed located the site in late 1956. Raising the vessel and its restoration took several years more along with the assistance of many and considerable funding. Calling on his bear-trap memory, Ed went on a popular quiz show, "The $64,000 Challenge" and easily defeated his opponent, thus winning $20,000 for the Cairo's cause. The end result of his efforts and those of his historian-wife Margie, have given American generations a priceless historical relic which is today on permanent display at the Vicksburg National Military Park.
Ed's work had long been noted by his Park Service superiors and in the mid 1960s he was elevated to a senior post that involved new assignments. His jurisdiction of inquiry now had expanded to include all National battlefields and included several of World War II. In keeping with the lesson he learned at Shiloh, all of these new locations have known the foot prints of Historian Bearss. He has also done extensive research at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Texas, and has led numerous history tours there for an inquiring public. While many other presidential sites have also received his attention, the L.B.J. site remains his favorite.
In his position as Chief Historian for the National Park Service, Ed became a national resource of valuable information. He has been called upon to testify before the U.S. Congress in matters regarding to National Park issues. Preservation has always been of primary concern and he has worked tirelessly to insure that our American Heritage will be available to our postertiy. In 1995, after more than a half century of service to his country, Ed Bearss decided it was time to retire. A life of ease in retirement is the view of many, but "ease" has no place in the Bearss lexicon.
While he still does on-scene research and champions the preservation cause at every opportunity, Ed began spending considerable time with history touring companies as the historian authority for groups of people interested in learning more about our country. From coast to coast, northern border to southern and on the major rivers in between, Ed has accompanied an increasing number of such groups. He also leads tours to European and South Pacific World War Two battlefields, to American Revolutionary War sites to include Canada, as well as the War of 1812 and others. His schedule keeps him on the road (and water) for up to about 300 days a year. His booming voice, dramatic style and bear-trap memory continue to amaze all who accompany and to create new fans of our history. Never preaching from above, always explaining in a personal face-to-face manner, Ed delivers a message that makes you want to know more. Whether explaining history at a site or traveling on the bus, Ed will answer all questions. His tour members quickly notice that unlike many, Ed works without notes or other prompts, relying on his encyclopedic-like memory and lighting speed recall to field questions that range from the Revolution to Korea and Viet Nam, World War II to the Plains Indian Wars. In question/answer sessions his ability to rapidly change from one subject and time period to another in rapid succession is amazing.
To summarize Ed Bearss is difficult at best. Honors, tributes, accolades--they have been heaped upon him in great numbers and are so numerous as to necessarily preclude their individual listing here. A fine personal biography of Ed has been written by historian John C. Waugh, titled: Edwin Cole Bearss: History's Pied Piper. Indeed some of the above material has been taken from this fine publication, as well as from our own experiences with Ed. Among fond and wonderful memories lingers a wish: ...that an Ed Bearss had been my history teacher early in my school years. Thanks for the memories Ed, from two members of the Bearss Brigade. Semper Fi.
Submitted by Bill and Karen Ortlund, Batavia, Illinois (friends)