It’s August 14, 1900 and U.S. Marines are defending an official American building in Beijing from armed Chinese insurgents. Enemy action has exposed one flank to attack. Private Daniel Daly volunteers to defend the breach single-handed. With nothing more than a bolt-action rifle he holds hundreds of rebels at bay throughout the night. This is only the first of many outrageously brave feats that Daly will perform in a long career.
We don’t know a great deal about Daniel Joseph “Dan” Daly’s childhood and youth but he was born on November 11, 1873 in Glen Cove on New York’s Long Island. He’s believed to have worked as a newsboy and to have been a keen amateur boxer.
Daly wasn’t a large man, just 5 feet 6 inches in his bare feet and weighing in at around 132 pounds. But his diminutive size clearly didn’t dampen his fighting instincts. This much is evident from the fact that he signed up for the notoriously tough U.S. Marines in January 1899 at the age of 25.
Some sources say that Daly joined up in the hope of seeing action in the Spanish-American War which ended in U.S. victory in August 1898. Since that was five months before Daly enlisted, that seems unlikely. Perhaps he was inspired by the Marines’ actions there. In any case, the future would offer plenty of opportunities for Private Daly to show his mettle in the intense arena of armed combat.
Once his training was complete, Daly was assigned to the Asiatic Fleet. In May 1900, he boarded the USS Newark, bound for China. Once the Newark had docked, Daly along with his Marine comrades traveled by train to Beijing. Their mission there was to relieve the American Legation from a lengthy siege. For those who don’t know, legations were rather like embassies, but they were headed by a minister rather than an ambassador.
Why, you might well ask, did American Marines need to travel all the way to Beijing to free the American Legation in 1900? The answer is: the Boxer Rebellion. This Chinese nationalist uprising had erupted in 1899. The rebels were motivated by a desire to overthrow the foreign powers whose influence effectively ruled China.
Outbreaks of anti-foreigner violence, sometimes especially aimed at Christian missionaries, started in the plains of North China. As the rebels grew in strength and confidence they began to march on the Chinese capital Beijing, or Peking as it was known to Westerners at the time.
Expatriates now flocked to Beijing’s Legation Quarter to escape the Boxers. That’s hardly surprising since one of the rebels’ declared aims was to exterminate foreigners. However, for her part the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi had initially been reluctant to get involved in this popular uprising.
But now, on June 19, Cixi ordered the Europeans and others to leave the Legation Quarter forthwith. What’s more, when Baron Klemens Freiherr von Ketteler, the German representative, went to the Chinese imperial palace to complain, he was attacked and murdered in the street. Unsurprisingly, the others holed up in the legation buildings decided to stay put.
The siege of the legations by the Chinese army and the Boxer rebels started on June 20, 1900. Subsequent news of an invading international relief force, including soldiers from America, Britain, Japan and other countries, prompted Cixi to declare war on the foreign nations. The die was cast for a bitter struggle.
Besieged in the legations were a rag-tag military force of 409, 473 civilians from various countries and some 3,000 Chinese Christians, all in fear for their lives. To protect themselves, the defenders had various small arms, three machine guns and an antique cannon. That was all they had to hold off the Chinese attackers in a siege that would last for 56 days.
And that was where Private Daly and the Marines came in. They were part of an international force of close to 20,000 that had been deployed to lift the siege. The American part of the mission was known as the China Relief Expedition. Early in August, the force began to move to Beijing, reaching the city on August 12, 1900.
It was in Beijing that Daly got his first taste of armed combat on August 14. The Marines were in the Legation Quarter and a key position was the Tartar Wall, a 45-foot-high structure around 100 yards further forward from the Marine’s main line of defense.
A determined assault by the Boxers had driven German soldiers from the wall, creating a dangerous weakness in the defenses. Daly now stepped forward and offered to hold the key position. All on his own, he spent the night repulsing countless attacks by the Boxers armed with only his rifle and bayonet.
According to Marine mythology, come the morning no fewer than 200 Chinese dead lay at the foot of the wall. This number seems implausibly high, but that Daly defended the position successfully against the odds is not in doubt. And for this singular act of bravery, Daly won the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest award for bravery.
In the following years, Daly had tours of duty on a variety of U.S. Navy vessels including Panther, Mississippi and Marietta. In 1911, he was serving on USS Springfield when he spotted a fire burning near the gunpowder store. The quick-witted Daly swiftly put out the fire, likely saving the ship from being blown to kingdom come.
Then in 1914 Daly was in command of a Marine platoon which landed at the Mexican port of Veracruz. American troops had been ordered to seize the harbor so as to intercept an armaments consignment. Daly hunted down Mexican snipers, allowing soldiers to march into the city safely.
The next highlight in Daly’s military career came the following year, 1915. The U.S. became involved in the affairs of Haiti after disaffected citizens turned on the country’s dictator, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. Sam hadn’t lasted long – he’d only been president for five months when violent death abruptly ended his tenure.
Fearing a possible German invasion, President Woodrow Wilson was anxious to maintain U.S. influence in Haiti, which was descending into anarchy. Wilson ordered Marines stationed on ships berthed in the capital, Port-au-Prince, to take control of the island. On July 28, 1915, the day that Sam was brutally murdered, 330 Marines disembarked to carry out those orders.
The Haitian Army put up little resistance to the Marines. Just one of their number was shot dead. But resistance to the Americans did come from bands of irregulars known as the Cacos. While U.S. forces controlled the towns and cities of Haiti, the Cacos continued to defy them from the mountain forests in the north of the island.
It’s unclear exactly when Dan Daly, now 42 and a gunnery sergeant, arrived on the island, but he was certainly there towards the end of 1915. On October 22, Daly went out on a reconnaissance mission with a force of 38 mounted Marines. The commander of the detachment was Major Smedley Butler. Like Daly, Butler had previously won a Medal of Honor, in his case at Veracruz in 1914.
On October 24 Daly and his comrades were patrolling near Fort Dipitie, a Caco stronghold. As they crossed a river which ran through a steep-sided gully, the enemy sprang an ambush. There were something like 400 rebels involved in the night attack and they launched their assault from three separate positions concealed in the undergrowth.
Greatly outnumbered, the Marines were forced into a retreat. They made it to higher ground and there set up a defensive position which they were forced to maintain through the night. Although they had escaped without human casualties, the Americans had lost 12 horses, and, importantly, the animal which had been carrying their one machine gun.
Under cover of darkness Sergeant Daly now crept out of the Marines’ defensive perimeter. Making his way back to the river where the soldiers had earlier been ambushed he encountered several Cacos whom he dispatched with his knife. Once at the river, he entered the water, diving multiple times to find the lost weapon.
Eventually, Daly located the gun, still attached to the dead animal. It took several sorties to bring the weapon and bullets to the riverbank and all under heavy fire. Assembling his load, Daly now faced returning to his comrades’ position under the burden of some 200 pounds of machine gun and ammo.
Daly made it back to the defensive position and at first light the Marines counterattacked the forces surrounding them. Splitting into three attack groups, with guns blazing the men charged the Cacos and the rebels dispersed in the face of this fierce assault. They retreated into nearby Fort Dipitie, but not before the Americans had inflicted several casualties on their number.
Shortly after this action, Daly, Butler and the other Marines succeed in capturing Fort Dipitie. For his bravery during what came to be known as the Battle of Fort Dipitie, Sergeant Daly was awarded his second Medal of Honor. The citation read, “Gunnery Sergeant Daly fought with exceptional gallantry against heavy odds throughout this action.”
This put Daly into a very exclusive club, one with only a single other member. For Daly had become one of only two Marines to win Medals of Honor in separate engagements. The other Marine who could lay claim to that distinction was none other than his comrade-in-arms, Major Smedley Butler.
As we’ve seen, Daly had won his first Medal of Honor in China. Smedley, on the other hand, had won his first one in Mexico. But now Smedley also won his second in Haiti, just weeks after Daly earned his. Smedley’s came for his bravery in seizing the last Cacos stronghold on Haiti, Fort Rivière.
It was on November 17, 1915 when Butler, at the head of around 100 Marines and sailors, approached Fort Rivière. The major identified a break in the fort’s walls through which the Marines were able to infiltrate. After fierce hand-to-hand fighting in a battle lasting 20 minutes, 51 of the Caco rebels lay dead and their rebellion was over. Only one Marine sustained minor injuries, losing two teeth.
And in a pleasing piece of serendipity, it was actually Butler who put forward Daly’s name for the award of the Medal of Honor after the Fort Dipitie engagement, thus neatly tying up the tale of these two exceptionally brave Marines. Two other men also won Medals of Honor for their bravery at Fort Dipitie, First Lieutenant Edward Ostermann and Captain William Upshur.
Daly next found himself in the thick of things in France in 1917. In April of that year, the U.S. had joined the First World War. Americans were sent to fight in Europe on the Western Front against the Germans. Daly arrived in France in early November with the 6th Marine Regiment’s 73rd Machine Gun Company, serving as First Sergeant.
Daly saw action from March to May 1918 around Toulon and then at Aisne in June where the Battle of Belleau Wood became one of the U.S. Marines’ most famous and bloodiest actions. On June 5, in an incident uncannily reminiscent of his brave action aboard USS Springfield in 1911, Daly put out a fire next to an ammunition dump near the town of Lucy-le-Bocage.
And it was during the Battle of Belleau Wood that Daly did something which arguably made him more famous down through the years than even his two Medals of Honor. The sergeant and his comrades were under heavy German fire when the time came to attack the enemy positions.
Showing his customary indifference to his own safety, Daly leapt up to lead the charge against the Germans, shouting to his men, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” This phrase came to inhabit a hallowed position in Marine lore.
On June 10, 1918 Daly, now 44 years old, was still fighting. That day his unit was trapped by a German machine gun. Daly took matters into his own hands. Brandishing only his .45 pistol and some grenades, Daly charged the German position, putting it out of action. Later the same day, he rescued some of his wounded buddies in the face of heavy enemy fire.
Daly’s outstanding courage had not gone unnoticed by his superior officers and he was now recommended for an unprecedented third Medal of Honor. But it seems that the authorities decided that no man should be allowed to own three of these most coveted of bravery awards. Daly was instead accorded other decorations including a Distinguished Service Cross.
Finally, the seemingly indestructible Daly was wounded in action on June 21. Yet he recovered and took part in two more major offensives against the Germans. But he was wounded again on October 8 and this time his injuries were serious enough to end his fighting days. It was little more than a month before the end of the war.
First World War hostilities finally came to an end with the armistice which started on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in other words November 11, 1918. That just happened to be the day of Daly’s 45th birthday. He was said to have remarked that it was “not a bad birthday present.”
After the end of the war, Daly served on the occupation force in Germany. He retired from the army in 1929, and died in 1937. He was never married, except perhaps to the Marine Corps. Smedley Butler offered the most fitting of epitaphs, reportedly saying Daly was “the fightin’est Marine I ever knew…It was an object lesson to have served with him.”