It’s October 1899 during the Philippine-American War, and Smedley Butler, a first lieutenant of the U.S. Marine Corps, is about to get his first taste of combat. In fact, Butler – who’s responsible for 300 men – has orders to capture the town of Noveleta from Filipino insurgents. And fortunately for him, the lieutenant and his troops soon put the rebels to flight. Yet while this becomes the officer’s first military success, it will be far from his last.
But let’s go right back to the beginning. You see, Smedley Darlington Butler came into the world in July 1881 in the Pennsylvanian borough of West Chester. His father, Thomas, and his mother, Maud, were actually both from Quaker backgrounds and members of the state’s elite. As a matter of fact, Thomas was elected to Congress in 1897 and served there as a Republican representative until his death in 1928.
So Butler started his schooling at the West Chester Friends Graded High School. He then moved on to the Haverford School, which is an institution favored by Pennsylvania’s moneyed upper classes. And while there, Butler proved to be an accomplished sportsman. In fact, the future Marine played quarterback for Haverford’s football team and also captained the baseball team.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Butler’s ambitions apparently didn’t lie in the field of academia. And so in 1898 the 16-year-old student dropped out of school to sign up with the Marine Corps. Butler actually had to make himself seem older in order to do this, since he was really too young to join the service.
It seems that the teenaged Butler had been nurturing a strong desire to serve his country for much of his life, though. And the final spark that motivated him to sign up was apparently the public enthusiasm generated by the Spanish-American War, which broke out in April 1898. The main issue at stake in this conflict was the Cuban bid for independence from Spain – an aspiration backed by the U.S.
Initially, Butler was commissioned as a second lieutenant and posted to the Marine barracks in Washington for training. But by the time Butler arrived at Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay in July 1898, the hostilities had already ended. So the soldier then enjoyed a brief respite before serving aboard the USS New York for four months.
Then, in February 1899, Butler was discharged from the Marines. Yet just two short months later, he immediately rejoined with a promotion to first lieutenant. The Marines then posted Butler to Manila in the Philippines. At that time, you see, Filipino nationalists were mounting an armed rebellion against the Americans, who had replaced the Spanish colonialists in the country after the Spanish-American War.
At first, though, Butler found himself on garrison duty, which is an obligation that the Marine seemingly found more than a little tedious. In fact, he’s even said to have turned to drink to lighten his boredom. And Butler reportedly got drunk enough on one occasion that, for a short time, his job was taken away from him.
But fortunately for him, Butler managed to regain his equilibrium and soon faced his first active combat mission. And as we saw earlier, the Marine was ordered to seize control of a Filipino town called Noveleta from the hands of the rebels. So Butler and his 300 Marines attacked the town.
Almost as soon as the assault began, however, the unit’s first sergeant got injured. And for a few moments, Butler was reportedly overcome by panic; the first lieutenant was still only 18 years old, after all. But Butler seemingly quickly found his courage and then led his remaining men to victory. In fact, the first sergeant was the only casualty to have been inflicted upon his unit that day.
This was far from the only time that Butler saw action, though. The Marine’s next foray into battle, in fact, saw him traveling to China aboard the USS Solace to suppress the Boxer Rebellion. This nationalist insurgency had erupted in 1899 and saw Chinese rebels fighting against foreign colonialists and Christian missionaries. The “Boxer” epithet actually came from the fact that many of the rebels were martial arts exponents.
During his tour of duty in China, Butler fought in the Gaselee Expedition of August 1900. And in one dramatic action against the rebels, the soldier left the safety of his trench in order to retrieve an injured Marine. Butler was subsequently hit in the leg for his troubles – but still managed to help get his wounded comrade out of the firing line. Later, as a result of this engagement, four soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Butler’s superior also recommended him for the medal for showing courage in the face of hostile fire. According to the Medal of Honor rulings then in force, though, commissioned officers were not permitted to earn the prize. So Butler was instead promoted to captain as he lay recuperating from his wound in hospital.
And after Butler was fully recovered, the soldier became involved in what is now known as the Banana Wars. This was a series of American military interventions and so-called “police actions” in the Caribbean and Central America. The main aim of these actions was seemingly to preserve the commercial interests of U.S.
The United Fruit Company, for instance, was an American conglomerate that had important investments in products such as sugar cane, tobacco and bananas in the region. Intriguingly, in later life Butler became a bitter critic of the way he felt American military policy had been manipulated to suit commercial interests.
Throughout the course of the Banana Wars, though, Butler was variously posted to Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico. Yet in spite of this busy schedule, the Marine also found time in 1905 to marry one Ethel Peters. In the coming years, too, the couple went on to have two sons and a daughter together.
But Butler’s burgeoning marriage and military career undoubtedly contributed to his suffering a mental collapse in 1908 while serving in the Philippines. This therefore meant that he had to take a nine-month leave of absence from the Marines. Butler seemingly made good use of his time, though, as he ran a West Virginia coal mine. But the career military man nevertheless returned to service just as soon as he was able.
In 1914, however, Butler actually became a spy. He was in fact ordered into Mexico to pretend to be a railway worker with the cover-name of “Mr. Johnson.” The soldier’s mission was to gather intelligence, with a view to feeding his information into plans for a future military incursion into Mexican territory.
Butler therefore toured Mexico City on the pretext of searching for a railroad worker who had supposedly gone missing. And this cover story gave him the opportunity to collect a variety of militarily useful information. Butler then returned with his intelligence to Veracruz, the Mexican port city that he’d started out from.
In the end, though, the invasion of Mexico was canceled. But the Americans then got wind of a shipment of weapons that was due to arrive at Veracruz. The Marines, including Butler, were therefore ordered to prevent the delivery of this shipment. And from April 21, 1914, there was fighting on the streets of Veracruz as the Marines moved to occupy the city’s harbor.
The now-Major Butler was involved in the fighting on April 22. And his courage on that day was rewarded with his own Medal of Honor. “Major Butler was eminent and conspicuous in command of his battalion,” the award’s citation read. “He exhibited courage and skill in leading his men through the action of the 22nd and in the final occupation of the city.”
Yet some in the military, including Butler himself, felt that the Medal of Honor was handed out a little too readily after the Veracruz action. These critics pointed out that no fewer than 56 Medals of Honor were awarded for the Veracruz battle. During the First World War, in fact, Butler attempted to hand back his medal, believing it undeserved. But the Marine was commanded to retain and wear it all the same.
And so the soldier moved on to his next mission. This occurred in Haiti in 1915. You see, the country’s president, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, was murdered by angry crowds in July 1915 and so the United States later decided to intervene in the country. Butler, along with a unit of Marines, was subsequently ordered into the territory, sailing aboard the USS Connecticut.
So on October 24, 1915, Butler and 44 marines were on patrol when a force of some 400 rebels ambushed them. And after a night of besiegement, the Marines finally broke out of their position and put the much larger force of Haitians to flight. Then, a month later, Butler returned with 700 Marines to clear the enemy from the area altogether.
Yet even after Butler’s mopping up operation, one last stronghold of the rebel Haitians remained. This was Fort Rivière, which stood at the summit of Montagne Noire. So Butler’s next move was to march on the fort with 72 Marines and an assignment of sailors, giving him a complement of around 100 men.
The men subsequently surrounded the fort, and Butler, with one of the Marine companies, discovered a gap in the walls. So the Marines then crept through the hole and engaged the defenders. And after more fierce fighting, Butler and his men quickly took Fort Rivière. The major’s bravery was once again recognized with a Medal of Honor too.
“Reaching the fort on the southern side where there was a small opening in the wall,” the citation read, “Major Butler gave the signal to attack, and Marines from the 15th Company poured through the breach, engaged the Cacos in hand-to-hand combat, took the bastion and crushed the Caco resistance. Throughout this perilous action, Major Butler was conspicuous for his bravery and forceful leadership.”
On this occasion, so far as we know, Butler was happy to accept this bravery award without feeling as though he didn’t deserve it. And the medal also put Butler firmly in the pantheon of outstanding Marine heroes. To this day, in fact, Butler is one of only a pair of Marines ever to have won two Medals of Honor in separate battles.
Other Marines have received two Medals of Honor for bravery during the same action, of course. But the only other Marine with two Medals of Honor from different actions is Sergeant Major Daniel “Dan” Daly. Daly actually won his first Medal of Honor fighting in China at the Battle of Peking in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion.
And Daly’s second Medal of Honor came in 1915 during a military engagement in Haiti. According to the citation, Daly had earned this award for “extraordinary heroism in action” while with his regiment on a reconnaissance mission. His men had, you see, been ambushed in darkness by a force of Haitian rebels.
Daly and his Marines had spent an uncomfortable night under fire from the rebels too. But they’d fought their way out of the entanglement by attacking at dawn and putting the enemy to flight. And, as reported in his Medal of Honor citation, on that day Daly had shown “exceptional gallantry against heavy odds.”
But back to Butler. When America joined WWI in April 1917, then, Butler was desperate to take command of a unit on the Western Front in Europe. But his hopes were unfortunately dashed. That’s because while his superiors undoubtedly regarded him as courageous, there seems to have been question marks about his reliability.
So instead of being posted to the frontline trenches, Butler, now 37 years old, earned the rank of brigadier general. And he was therefore given a posting in the rear. In this new role, in fact, Butler was able to put his organizational skills to excellent use.
So Butler was put in charge of Camp Pontanezen at the French port of Brest. This was where American troops disembarked on their way to the front. But when Butler took charge of the camp it was in chaos, with terrible sanitation and living conditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the major vastly improved the situation for the men.
And Butler’s efforts were later recognized by yet more decorations. The Marine was even awarded both the Army and Navy versions of the Distinguished Service Medal and the French Order of the Black Star for his work at Camp Pontanezen. He also earned the nickname “Old Duckboard,” as the trooper had made judicious use of duckboards to separate the men from the mud that the camp had been built on.
Butler continued in the military after the war too. From 1927 to 1929, in fact, the major took command of the Marine Expeditionary Force in China. Its mission there was to protect U.S. interests at a time when the Chinese revolution was under way. And after Butler returned to the States, he earned a promotion to major general.
In a bizarre 1931 episode, though, Butler was nearly court-martialed for loose talk about Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. You see, Butler had publicly related a story about Mussolini in which he alleged that Il Duce had run down and killed a child with his car.
At the time, of course, this was diplomatically unacceptable, and the Italians subsequently complained. President Hoover, who apparently harbored a strong animosity towards Butler, therefore ordered Navy Secretary Charles Francis Adams III to court-martial the major general. In the end, though, an apology was enough to get Butler out of hot water. Butler had, however, achieved the distinction of being the first officer of his rank since the Civil War to be arrested.
That hadn’t been the first time that Butler had courted trouble, though. In 1924, you see, Butler had taken leave from the army and became Philadelphia’s police and fire department head. The military man had taken to his new duties with typical enthusiasm, too, ordering the police to break up over 900 speakeasies during his first 48 hours in office. But after almost two years, during which he had fallen out with the city’s mayor, Butler had been forced to resign.
So 1931 actually marked the end of Butler’s military career. And after this, Butler, free to speak his mind, campaigned tirelessly against what he saw as the corrupt use of U.S. military might. The soldier even crystallized his ideas in his 1935 book, War Is a Racket. “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service, and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers,” Butler wrote. Certainly one of America’s more colorful military figures, then, Butler died in 1940.