Edwin (Ed) Cole Bearss (pronounced ‘bars’) was born June 26, 1923, in Billings, Montana, to Omar and Virginia Bearss. He grew up on a 10,000 acre ranch, the B bar S, located 90 miles west of Billings. The Little Bighorn Battlefield was 35 miles southwest of the ranch. He had a younger brother, Pat, and there was a time Ed and Pat would ride together on horseback to and from the Sarpy Creek School a distance of six miles from the ranch.
Ed Bearss was born into a lineage of family members who served in the United States (US) Marine Corps. His father, Omar, was a Marine in WWI. Omar’s cousin Hiram “Hiking Hiram” Bearss was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1901 for extraordinary heroism during the Philippine-American War (February 4, 1899 – July 2, 1902); Hiram Bearss was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1918 for his valor in WWI (1914 -1918).
Omar Bearss would read history books to his boys on subjects including WWI, the American Civil War, and the US Marine Corps. Ed developed an intense interest in history that infused his life. Charles Crawford of the Georgia Battlefields Association said about Ed, “There was a Marine in Ed before Ed was ever in the Marines.”
On December 7, 1941, the National Football League was finishing its season. Three games were played that day: the Chicago Bears (34) against the Chicago Cardinals (24), the Brooklyn Dodgers (21) versus the New York Giants (7), and the Washington Redskins (20) played against the Philadelphia Eagles (14). During these three games public address announcers broadcast early reports of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, or paged government and military personnel to report to their units.
The Bearss family on December 7, 1941, was listening to the Chicago Bears playing against the Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois.
On April 28, 1942, Ed Bearss enlisted in the US Marine Corps.
Ed arrived at the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, on April 30, 1942. After seven weeks training in Boot Camp Platoon 369, he was assigned to the newly activated 22nd Marine Regiment (22nd Marines). On June 18 the 22nd Marines began deployment to the WWII Pacific Theater of Operations. In September 1942 Ed requested and was assigned to the 3rd Raider Battalion which was being formed in the Samoas. [The Samoan Islands are an archipelago in the central South Pacific Ocean.]
In April 1943 when the 3rd Raider Battalion was based in New Hebrides (an island group off the northern coast of Australia now called Vanuatu), Ed was diagnosed with malaria and sent to New Zealand for six weeks to recuperate.
Ed didn’t return to the 3rd Raiders after convalescence but was assigned to the 2nd Platoon of L Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. The 1st Marine Division would deploy to New Guinea to plan the assault on Cape Gloucester in New Britain, Territory of New Guinea.
[The Battle of Cape Gloucester (December 26, 1943 – January 16, 1944) codenamed Operation Backhander had the objective to capture a major Japanese airstrip near Cape Gloucester and to defeat elements of the Japanese 17th Division in control of the area. The battle was in support of Operation Cartwheel (1943 – 1944).
Operation Cartwheel was a major Allied plan to neutralize and then to isolate and bypass Rabaul (far eastern end of island of New Britain) as the Allies moved northward towards Japan.
Rabaul was a Australian naval base that was captured by the Japanese in 1942. It became a major Japanese air and naval installation and was the most heavily defended Japanese fortification in the South Pacific. It was also the assembly point for convoys of ships, known as the “Tokyo Express,” that would race south to bring troops and supplies to areas of conflict in the Solomon Islands.]
On December 26, 1943, the 1st Marine Division would spearhead an attack at Cape Gloucester.
January 2, 1944, the Marines were driving eastward through dense jungle terrain. Corporal Bearss’ platoon was advancing through the jungle — Ed was walking point — when they approached a creek that would become known as Suicide Creek.
In the 2003 book Edwin Cole Bearss History’s Pied Piper by John C. Waugh, Ed tells of being wounded as the Japanese, dug into the bank on the other side of Suicide Creek, opened fire:
“I was on my knees when the first bullet struck. It hit me in my left arm just below the elbow, and the arm went numb. It felt like being hit with a sledgehammer. It jerked me sideways and then I was hit again, another sledgehammer blow to my right shoulder. I fell, both arms shattered, and my helmet slipped down over my eyes. I couldn’t see. But there were now dead men lying all around me.
It seemed a long time that I lay there, in fierce pain, pinned down by Japanese fire… Unable to stand it any longer and afraid of bleeding to death, I decided to risk getting up; the Japanese gun just in front of me was firing off to the right. As I wiggled around trying to rise, another bullet grazed my butt and another hit my foot. I quit moving…”
After lying in an area without possible rescue for what seemed like hours, bleeding, and afraid he was going to die, Ed decided to try to move again.
“They [the Japanese] saw me [move] but couldn’t get their gun depressed fast enough before, without the use of either arm, I went over the lip of a knoll and slid down the other side, … I still don’t know how I did it. If that ground had been level, I would be dead. I realized then how important terrain was in a battle.”
Having moved to a different position, Lieutenant Thomas J. O’Leary and a US Navy corpsman named Hartman, crawled over to Ed and pulled him back behind the lines far enough so stretcher bearers could reach him and carry him to the battalion aid station.
Ed received medical treatment at military facilities in the South Pacific and would eventually arrive back in the US for continued medical care and rehabilitation. During his hospitalization Ed would spend countless hours reading history books. After 26 months recovering from his war wounds, Edwin Cole Bearss was discharged from the US Marine Corps on March 15, 1946. [But for those of us who have known a US Marine, “Once a Marine always a Marine.”]
Ed Bearss graduated from Georgetown University in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Foreign Service Studies. In 1955 he would earn a Master of Arts Degree in History from Indiana University.
After working at the Naval Hydrographic Office and the Office of the Chief of Military History, in 1955 Ed sought a position working for the National Park Service. He was assigned to the Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as a historian.
In 1957 a young schoolteacher born in Brandon, Mississippi, arrived at the Vicksburg National Military Park with a US Civil War question about Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Meridian Campaign. Her name was Margie Riddle. Her question and their discussion involved a campaign “cannonball,” and she was proved correct on the issue. Ed and Margie were married July 30, 1958, and they would be a formidable team in the field of American Civil War history.
In 1958 Ed would be promoted to Regional Historian for the Southeast Region of the National Park Service working out of Vicksburg.
While at Vicksburg, Ed studied Civil War maps and located what he thought was the sunken Union gunboat United States Ship (USS) Cairo (named after Cairo, Illinois). A ironclad warship, she was sunk on December 12, 1862, when clearing mines in the Yazoo River for the planned attack on Haynes Bluff, Mississippi. [It was the first ship sunk by a mine that was remotely detonated.] Along with Don Jacks, a maintenance man at the Vicksburg National Military Park, and Warren Grabau, US Army engineer and geologist, the USS Cairo was located buried in Yazoo River mud.
With support from the State of Mississippi the ship was salvaged and can now be viewed at the USS Cairo Museum at the Vicksburg National Military Park.
In 1966, Ed, Margie, and their three children moved to Washington, D.C., where he became the Historian for the National Park Service’s historical sites. In 1981 he was named Chief Historian of the National Park Service. He held the position until 1994.
In the 1990 Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War, Ed Bearss was featured as one of the Civil War historians.
After retiring from the National Park Service Ed Bearss continues to share his love for history and vast knowledge by leading battlefield tours, writing, lecturing, participating in Civil War Roundtables, and encouraging remembrance of our national history. He has received numerous awards and has been called by many “A National Treasure.”
In an earlier quote from Ed Bearss in this story about his wounding and survival at the 1944 Battle of Suicide Creek, he said, “I realized then how important terrain was in a battle.” On his battlefield tours today he says, “You can’t describe a battlefield unless you walk it.”
Thank you to the Bearss family, Robert Desourdis, and Nova Science Publishers, Inc., for use of the Bearss family photograph.
Thank you to the US Marine Corps University Research Center for assistance in the research for this story.
Thank you to Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Military Historian and Professor Emeritus of History, at Abiliene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. He is the Director of the East Anglia Air War Project.
I first met Ed Bearss on a 2006 History America Tours cruise “Invasion of Italy.” The tour started in Valletta, Malta. We sailed on the Clipper Adventurer to Sicily where we walked WWII Allied invasion beaches and visited battle sites. The ship then sailed from Messina, Sicily, to the mainland of Italy, and the tour travelled north with excursions to the WWII battle sites of Salerno, Monte Cassino, Anzio, the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, and other WWII history locations.
After daily trip excursions with Ed, I was filled with information about WWII. I became a member of the “Ed Bearss Fan Club.” I learned a great deal about WWII from him and was motivated to pass on the history I learned to others interested in WWII history. In 2015 I started my website World War 2 History Short Stories and named Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service Ed Bearss as one of the people who inspired me to undertake the project.