By the time he died in a hail of German machine-gun fire on France’s Blanc Mont Ridge on Oct. 4, 1918, 1st Lt. Henry L. Hulbert was already a Marine Corps legend. And though his courage and leadership on the meat-grinder battlefields of World War I had further burnished his martial reputation—and earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross and France’s Croix de guerre—it was during a savage fight in a forgotten conflict on a faraway Pacific island that this most atypical of Marines first distinguished himself.
Hulbert was born into wealth and privilege in 1867 in Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire. Groomed to be a proper English gentleman, he received a classical education and at 18 joined Britain’s colonial service in Malaya. His drive, competence and charm won him quick promotion and marriage at age 21 to the sister of a senior British colonial official. Hulbert seemed destined for a meteoric rise in his chosen profession.
That ascent ended, however, when in 1897 Hulbert was caught having an affair with his wife’s sister. Dismissed from the colonial service, he lost everything in the ensuing divorce and was ordered to leave Malaya. Hulbert hopped the first boat out and within months wound up in Canada’s Yukon Territory goldfields. Having no luck there, he worked his way to San Francisco where, in March 1898, the 31-year-old English gentleman joined the Marines. After boot camp, the newly minted Leatherneck was assigned to USS Philadelphia, flagship of the Navy’s Pacific Station.
The cruiser sailed for Samoa, which the 1899 Berlin Treaty had made a joint American-German protectorate. The August 1898 death of Samoa’s king and Germany’s effort to put a successor of its choice on the throne fanned a simmering civil war into open hostilities. Philadelphia was sent to protect Americans and, in cooperation with several British warships, to counter German influence and quell the civil strife ashore.
On April 1, 1899, Private Hulbert was one of 20 Marines and 36 sailors sent ashore as part of an American-British operation to confront Samoan insurgents. Leading the Americans were Navy Lieutenant F.V. Lansdale, assisted by Ensign John Monaghan and Marine 1st Lt. Constantine Perkins. The column swept through the village of Fagali’i, burning the huts of presumed insurgents.
Once clear of the village, the force— with Hulbert and fellow Marines as the rear guard—started toward Apia. After fording a river, the column was ambushed by heavily armed Samoans, and what had been a routine operation degenerated into a brutal, close-range brawl. The column began withdrawing toward the nearest beach, and Perkins ordered Hulbert and Sergeants Michael McNally and Bruno Forsterer to defend an opening in a fence through which the main body of the column had to pass.
Last to the fence were Lansdale and Monaghan, who were cut down within yards of Hulbert. He moved toward them, shooting and bayoneting warriors in his way. Seeing that the officers were dead, and wounded himself, Hulbert fought his way back to the fence and covered McNally and Forsterer as they crossed. Out of ammunition, he used his rifle as a club. Finally, seeing his chance, he rushed to rejoin the column. For his actions he received the Medal of Honor.
Hulbert stayed in the Corps, volunteering for World War I combat at 50. His time in France brought additional decorations and promotion to officer rank, and he led from the front until his death. Henry L. Hulbert, the gentleman Marine, was ultimately interred in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.