Maj. Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler and Sgt. Maj. Daniel Joseph Daly: Each Marine has a strong claim to the title of America’s greatest fighting man. Between the two of them they were awarded four Medals of Honor, the Marine Corps Brevet Medal, the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy and Army Distinguished Service Medals, the Haitian Medal of Honor and the Médaille Militaire, France’s highest combat decoration. These are among the most legendary of U.S. Marine Corps heroes, and during the first two decades of the 20th century their careers intertwined, each man earning his second Medal of Honor only days apart in the same campaign against rebels in Haiti.
Smedley Butler was born on July 30, 1881, in West Chester, Penn. He was from a prominent Quaker family and would later earn the moniker “The Fighting Quaker.” His father, Thomas Stalker Butler, was an attorney, a district judge and a Republican congressman. Serving in the House of Representatives for 31 years, the elder Butler was chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs for most of the 1920s.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, young Smedley quit school and tried to join the Army and the Navy.
Both services rejected him because he was still short of his 17th birthday. Lying about his age and wielding his father’s political clout, he managed to get a temporary wartime commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. After a three-week crash training course at the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., Butler sailed for Guantanamo Bay. By the time he arrived in July 1898, however, the bay was secure and the fighting almost over. Butler saw no action in Cuba and was discharged from the Corps the following February.
The regular Marine Corps at the time consisted of only about 2,000 men, but due to its performance in the war, Congress tripled its end strength. Applying for one of the new regular commission slots, Butler was reappointed a first lieutenant in April 1899. Within weeks he shipped out for the Philippines, where he experienced combat for the first time during the attack to capture the Nationalist-held fort at Noveleta. The 18-year-old lieutenant celebrated his initiation into the Brotherhood of War by having a huge Marine Corps Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem tattooed on his torso.
Dan Daly entered the Corps three months before Butler secured his regular commission. Born on Nov. 11, 1873, in Glen Cove, N.Y., Daly was 25 when he enlisted for the Spanish-American War. Although he stood just 5 feet 6 inches and weighed a notch over 130 pounds, Daly had a good record as an amateur pugilist.
Daly’s and Butler’s paths first crossed in China in the summer of 1900, during the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion. Daly was already in China, as part of the U.S. Legation Guard at Beijing at the start of the rebellion. On Aug. 14, 1900, during the epic 56-day siege of the international compound, a fierce Boxer assault pushed back a German outpost, which created an open flank for the American position. In order to buy time to reestablish the defensive line, Daly volunteered to assume a lone post on the Tartar Wall, about 100 yards in front of the Marines’ main line. Armed with only a bolt-action rifle and a bayonet, he spent the night alone on the dangerously exposed position while the poorly armed Chinese repeatedly attacked him. By morning the front of Daly’s position was littered with the bodies of dead Boxers. Marine Corps legend puts the number at around 200, which is undoubtedly an exaggeration—though probably not that much of one. In a masterpiece of understatement, Daly’s Medal of Honor citation reads, Daly distinguished himself by meritorious conduct.
Butler, meanwhile, had landed in China two months earlier with an expeditionary force sent to relieve Tientsin. On June 21, Butler, Lt. Carl Gamborg-Andresen and four enlisted Marines rescued under fire a wounded Marine private and then held off a force of several thousand Boxers for four hours. On July 13, Butler led his company in the attack on Tientsin, where he again rescued one of his men under fire, this time taking a bullet in the thigh. Recovering in the hospital, Butler was promoted to brevet captain a couple days short of his 19th birthday. By August he was back out of the field with his company during the relief attack at Beijing. He was again wounded, this time in the chest. The main force of the bullet, however, was deflected by a brass uniform button, which in turn gouged out a chunk of skin from the Latin America portion of his Marine Corps emblem tattoo.
For their heroic actions on June 21, the four enlisted Marines received the Medal of Honor. Butler and Gamborg-Andresen received recommendations for brevet promotion to captain. Under the statutes that governed establishment of the Navy version of the Medal of Honor in 1861, naval and Marine officers were not eligible for the award. Until 1915, brevet promotions were the only way the Marines had to recognize an officer’s combat valor above and beyond the call of duty. In 1921 the secretary of the Navy established the Marine Corps Brevet Medal to recognize Marine officers who had received brevet promotions. Butler and Gamborg-Andresen each received one of the only 23 such medals ever awarded.
After China, Butler and Daly served with the Marines in all the far corners of the world.
Butler went to Honduras in March 1903, where he defended the U.S. Consulate from local insurgent attacks. It was there he earned the nickname “Old Gimlet Eye,” for his fierce battle stare. He returned to the Philippines from 1905 to 1907, and in December 1909, as a 28-year-old major, he commanded the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, in Panama. Butler served in two expeditions to Nicaragua in 1910 and a third in 1912. During that period of foreign expeditions, Butler developed his high-profile and long-running feud with the upper echelons of the Navy Department. Whenever he believed that the Navy’s ignorance of the Corps’ basic mission and capabilities led to misuse of his Marines, Butler never hesitated to complain to his father on the House Naval Affairs Committee. Such tactics earned him the enduring animosity of those he derisively called “swivel-chair admirals.”
In April 1914, Daly led a platoon of Marines ashore at Vera Cruz, Mexico, in response to a diplomatic incident at Tampico. Butler served there too, but he had gone ashore much earlier. Arriving in Vera Cruz bay with his battalion aboard USS Minnesota in January, Butler went ashore clandestinely in civilian clothes to gather intelligence. Posing as an American railroad official, Butler penetrated deep into the Mexican interior and spent three days in Mexico City, mapping out key military installations. When the local police grew suspicious of him, he made it back to Vera Cruz one step ahead of the Mexican secret service. He had to fight his way through a local mob before reaching the docks, where a launch was waiting to take him back to his ship.
When the Americans landed on April 22, Butler went ashore in command of a company of sailors and a company of Marines from another battalion. As his force moved into the city, hidden riflemen pinned them down. Armed with only a swagger stick, Butler calmly walked down the center of the main street fully exposed. Whenever he drew fire, he used his swagger stick to designate the target to his own riflemen.
Under the new criteria, Butler received his first Medal of Honor for his actions at Vera Cruz—but he refused the award and sent it back. The Navy Department returned the medal to Butler, testily ordering him to accept and wear it.
Daly, meanwhile, had logged a number of tours at sea, including service aboard USS Newark, Panther, Cleveland, Marietta, Mississippi, Ohio and Machias. While serving on USS Springfield in 1911, he saved the ship when he spotted and extinguished a gasoline fire near the ship’s main powder magazine.
In 1915 the 42-year-old gunnery sergeant participated in the peacekeeping Haiti Campaign. On October 22, he was the senior NCO of a reconnaissance patrol of 38 mounted Marines sent into the interior of the island to locate the Fort Dipitie and Fort Capois strongholds of the Cacos rebels. At dusk on the 24th some 400 Cacos ambushed the small force as it was crossing a river in a deep jungle ravine. The Marines managed to get ashore without losing a man, but they lost 12 horses and the mule carrying their only machine gun. Moving away from river, Daly pulled his troops into a tight defensive perimeter.
Once the perimeter was established, Daly slipped outside the Marine lines and made his way back to the river in the dark. Along the way he silently knifed several Cacos waiting in ambush. Reaching the riverbank, Daly slipped into the water and repeatedly dove to find the patrol’s machine gun. Working in the dark and under Cacos fire, Daly finally located the dead mule, detached the machine gun and ammunition, and brought the load ashore in several trips. He then picked up the 200-pound load—which outweighed him by nearly double—and returned through the jungle past more Cacos to the Marine position. Before daylight he assembled and emplaced the machine gun. When dawn broke, the Marines moved out and attacked Fort Dipitie, killing 75 Cacos and scattering the rest.
As it turns out, Butler was commander of that same detachment, and it was he who recommended Daly for his second Medal of Honor. Butler’s two subordinate officers, Captain William Upshur and 1st Lt. Edward Ostermann, also received the Medal of Honor for their actions in the battle.
Several weeks later Butler led another force back into the interior to capture Fort Rivière, the remaining Cacos stronghold. The old French fort was a formidable objective. Commanding a mountaintop with steep, rocky slopes on three sides, it was only approachable from the front. Most of the Marine officers in Haiti were certain it would take an entire regiment supported by artillery to capture the position. Butler convinced Colonel Eli Cole, overall commander of the Marine force, to let him try it with just 96 men supported by two machine gun sections.
Butler moved his small force into position on November 17. While conducting his pre-attack reconnaissance, he discovered a drainage culvert that broached the west wall of the supposedly impregnable fort. Following Sergeant Ross Iams and Private Samuel Gross into the culvert, Butler crawled into the interior of the fort. The three emerged shooting and engaged the surprised defenders in fierce hand-to-hand combat that lasted 15 minutes. Their chaotic diversion enabled the rest of Butler’s force to storm the fort. By the time it was over, more than 50 of the Cacos rebels were dead. One Marine was injured when a rock knocked out his front teeth. Gross and Iams both received the Medal of Honor for their actions. Butler received his second Medal of Honor, as well as the Haitian Medal of Honor.
When America finally entered World War I, Butler, by then a lieutenant colonel, flooded the Navy Department with requests for a combat command. He initially went to France as commander of the 13th Marines, but the Marines in World War I operated under U.S. Army command, and many in the Army leadership considered Butler too much of a loose cannon. To Butler’s disgust, General John J. Pershing personally detailed him as commander of Camp Pontanezen in Brest, the main American replacement depot. The job was a brigadier general’s slot, however, and at age 37 Butler became the youngest general officer in the Marine Corps.
When Butler assumed command of Pontanezen, it was a pestilence-infested mud hole. With 100,000 Americans packed together and sharing inadequate sanitation facilities, an average of 25 doughboys a day were dying from influenza and other diseases. Although Butler didn’t want the job, he nonetheless threw himself into it with his usual determination and frenetic energy. In short order Butler turned the camp into a model of order and efficiency. His efforts undoubtedly prevented the severe illness and deaths of thousands of Americans. When the war ended, the camp became the central American debarkation depot. For his able leadership, Butler received both the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals, as well as the French Order of the Black Star.
Daly had arrived in France in November 1917 as first sergeant of the 73rd Machine Gun Company, 6th Marine Regiment, which along with the 5th Marines formed the 4th Marine Brigade under the command of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. On June 5, 1918, during the Battle of Belleau Wood, the 44-year-old Daly risked his life to extinguish a fire in an ammunition dump near Lucy-le-Bocage.
Two days later, with Marine positions under heavy German bombardment, Daly visited all his machine gun positions, rallying his men. At one point, while leading a local counterattack, Daly urged his men forward, shouting the now famous line, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?!” On June 10 a German machine gun section advanced close to Daly’s company and pinned it down. Daly, armed with only a .45-caliber automatic pistol and hand grenades, single-handedly charged and eliminated the Germans. Later that day he brought in under heavy fire several wounded Marines during a German attack near the village of Bouresches.
Daly was wounded on June 21 but later fought in the St-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives. He was wounded twice more on October 8, which took him out of combat. For his actions at the Battle of Belleau Wood, Daly was recommended through Army channels for his third Medal of Honor. Someone in the chain of command, however, just could not accept the idea of anyone having three Medals of Honor, so Daly was instead awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and later the Navy Cross and France’s Médaille Militaire.
After the Armistice, Daly served in the Army of Occupation in Germany. His wounds and his age finally caught up with him, and in 1919 he was placed on the list of the Fleet Marine Corps Reserve. He then worked as a bank guard on Wall Street and lived quietly with his sister in New York City, officially retiring from the Marine Corps on Feb. 6, 1929.
When the war ended, Butler returned stateside to assume command of the Marine Barracks at Quantico, Va., transforming what had been a temporary wartime camp into a permanent Marine installation. From January 1924 to December 1925, Brig. Gen. Butler was granted a leave of absence from the Corps to serve as director of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Safety, overseeing both the police and fire departments. He accepted the position reluctantly and only after President Calvin Coolidge personally urged him to do it and assured Butler he would be able to return to the Corps.
It was at the height of Prohibition, and Philadelphia was among the nation’s most corrupt cities. Butler fired corrupt police captains and lieutenants wholesale, and he closed down not only the working-class speakeasies, but also the upper-class clubs frequented by the social elite. Arrests for liquor violations increased sixfold, although convictions actually dropped, as Butler’s zealous brand of anticorruption alienated local judges and political bosses. Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick ultimately fired him, and Butler returned to the Corps, saying, “Cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I was ever in.”
Returning to active duty in early 1926, Butler assumed command of the Marine base at San Diego, and a year later returned to China as commander of a Marine Expeditionary Force sent to protect American interests in Shanghai during a period of intense Chinese nationalist revolutionary activity. Not a traditional military expedition, this was among the first of what would now be called American peacekeeping missions. To the surprise of many, Butler executed his duties with great sensitivity and diplomatic skill. Twice the Chinese awarded him their ceremonial Umbrella of Ten Thousand Blessings. Butler was most likely the first foreigner ever to receive that honor.
Returning to the United States in 1929, Butler earned promotion to major general and resumed command at Quantico. His experiences in China, however, had completely altered his view of American military interventions over the previous 30 years, and he began openly criticizing U.S. foreign and military policy. Butler especially incurred the wrath of President Herbert Hoover and Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson when he publicly stated that the Marines, under State Department orders, had used strong-arm tactics to rig the 1912 elections in Nicaragua. Butler had, by that time, lost his political protector, as his powerful congressman father had died in 1928.
When Maj. Gen. Wendell C. Neville, the Marine Corps commandant, died on July 8, 1930, Butler was the next most senior major general in the Corps and the logical successor.
But it was payback time for Butler’s large contingent of political enemies, and the appointment went instead to Maj. Gen. Ben H. Fuller. That was just the start of Butler’s troubles. In a January 1931 speech, Butler criticized Italy’s fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini, recounting secondhand an incident in which Mussolini allegedly ran down and killed a child without stopping his car. The Italian government protested, and Stimson issued a formal apology on behalf of the United States. President Hoover ordered Secretary of the Navy Charles Adams to court-martial Butler, who became the first general officer since the Civil War to be court-martialed. Public reaction, however, ran strongly in Butler’s favor, and he received only a formal reprimand. Butler retired from the Corps on Oct. 1, 1931.
No longer constrained by his active duty status, Butler became an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy and a staunch advocate of isolationism and strict neutrality. He turned stridently antiwar, though not anti-military. Butler never became a pacifist; he opposed disarmament in any form and advocated a strong national defense. He came to regard his foreign service in the Corps, particularly in the Central American “banana republics,” as having made the world safe only for American big business. “I spent most of my time as a high-class muscleman for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers,” he once said. “In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.” His 1935 book, War Is a Racket, was presented as an exposé of the profit motive that drove modern warfare. In a famous speech in 1933 he said: “Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do is operate his racket in three districts [of Chicago]. I operated on three continents.”
Despite Butler’s open contempt for big business, a group of wealthy industrialists in 1934 actually tried to recruit him to lead an army of 500,000 disgruntled veterans in a bizarre but half-baked coup d’etat plot against newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal social programs were anathema to many of America’s elite. Butler instead exposed the scheme and testified against the plotters during a closed session of the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities—also known as the McCormack-Dickstein Committee. The committee essentially believed Butler’s testimony but in the end took no action against the alleged plotters. The affair remains exceptionally controversial.
Butler remained a high-profile critic of big business and the U.S. government throughout the 1930s. On May 23, 1940, he entered the Philadelphia Naval Hospital for a checkup and died four weeks later, on June 21, most likely from intestinal cancer. He was only 58.
In his retirement Daly had led as low profile a life as possible, shunning all forms of publicity. He intensely disliked any fuss over his decorations, calling all medals “a lot of foolishness.” Dan Daly died on April 27, 1937, at the age of 63.
During World War II the U.S. Navy commissioned a destroyer honoring each of the Marine Corps’ two great heroes: USS Butler (DD-636) in 1942 and USS Daly (DD-519) the following year. Daly was also honored on a U.S. postage stamp issued in 2005.
Either man quite conceivably could have wound up with three Medals of Honor. If the rules had been different in 1900, both Butler and Lt. Carl Gamborg-Andresen would have received the Medal of Honor along with the four enlisted Marines in their rescue party. The now obsolete Marine Corps Brevet Medal they both later received was intended as something of a substitute for the Medal of Honor. The brevet medal ribbon bore the same design as that of the Medal of Honor, though in red instead of blue. Daly, of course, was actually nominated for his third Medal of Honor, but the recommendation was downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross for the most arbitrary of reasons.
Despite their magnificent and almost equal combat records, Butler and Daly were two very different men. Butler was the flamboyant and charismatic officer who always spoke his mind and didn’t care how many boats he rocked. Daly was the very model of the professional, self-effacing NCO. Offered a direct commission many times, he always declined, saying he would rather be “an outstanding sergeant than just another officer.”
Butler delivered the definitive assessment of Sgt. Maj. Dan Daly, referring to his old comrade as “the fightingest Marine I ever knew.… It was an object lesson to have served with him.”
For further reading, David Zabecki recommends: Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History, by Hans Schmidt, and General Smedley Darlington Butler: The Letters of a Leatherneck, 1898-1931, edited by Anne Cipriano Venzon.
This article was written by David T. Zabecki and originally published in the January/February 2008 issue of Military History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Military History magazine today!