Valor Friday

| January 17, 2020

Major General Smedley Butler

Here’s Mason’s final article on those who have been awarded The Medal of Honor, twice. Today’s VF honors an indomitable Maine’s career of valor, Major General Smedley Butler.

This article concludes our look into those who received two Medals of Honor for separate acts during war time. We’ve looked at nine men so far.

In part one we looked at Civil War MoH recipients Captain (brevet LtCol) Thomas Custer (USA), Quartermaster John Cooper (USN), and Boatswain’s Mate Patrick Mullen (USN). In part two we covered the heroism of Major General Frank Baldwin (USA) and Fireman First Class John Lafferty (USN). Part three we covered some early 20th Century heroics, those of Lieutenant Commander John C McCloy (USN) and Sergeant Major Daniel Daly (USMC). Last week in part four we highlighted First Sergeant Henry Hogan (USA) and Sergeant William Wilson (USA).

You’ll recall at the beginning I said we’d look at ten men. Our final honoree in the series is certainly deserving of his own article.

Smedley Butler was born in Pennsylvania in 1881. His father was a lawyer and later a long serving member of the US House of Representatives. Butler’s maternal grandfather was also, for a time, a Congressman representing Pennsylvania. Butler’s ancestry on both sides extended back to English immigrants in the 1600’s.

When the Spanish-American War started in April 1898, Smedley was weeks away from finishing high school. He ran away and enlisted with the Marine Corps in an attempt to see action during the conflict. Despite his absences from school for the last few weeks of classes, they did graduate him.

Lying about his age to receive a direct commission as a second lieutenant, Butler was trained at the Marine Barracks, Washington, DC. In July, Butler was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, shortly after its capture. After serving there for a time, the company was sent back stateside and Butler served aboard an armored cruiser for four months before being mustered out in February 1899. In April 1899 though Butler accepted a commission with the Marine Corps as a first lieutenant and would remain in the service for the next three decades.

Sent to Manilla, Butler found garrison life to be boring. As most young Marines do, he turned to the siren song of alcohol. At one point he was briefly relieved of his command after becoming drunk in his room.

October 1899 saw Butler lead men into battle for the first time. Three hundred Marines under his command were sent to the town of Noveleta to take it back from some rebel forces. His first sergeant becoming wounded early in the conflict led his men in pursuit of a fleeing enemy. By noon they had secured the town, suffering only one KIA and 10 WIA. They had lost nearly five times that many to heat stroke.

Returning to garrison work, Butler’s boredom saw him start a massive Eagle, Globe, and Anchor tattoo on his torso. He also made the acquaintance of Major Littleton Waller (later Major General). Waller was soon selected to command a company of Marines in Guam and was allowed to select five officers to accompany him. Butler was one of those he chose. Before the men were able to embark though, the Boxer Rebellion in China has besieged the Legation Quarter.

Arriving in China, Butler was sent to Tientsin where he participated in the battle there on July 13, 1900. During the battle Butler saw a Marine officer fall wounded. Butler climbed out of his trench to rescue him when he himself was shot in the thigh. A third Marine came out to help the two fallen officers and was also shot. Despite being wounded, Butler maintained his composure and assisted in bringing the other two wounded men back to the rear.

For acts during the battle, four men would receive the Medal of Honor, but policy at the time prohibited officers from receiving it. Instead, he received a brevet promotion to captain “for the admirable control of his men in all the fights of the week, for saving a wounded man at the risk of his own life, and under a very severe fire.”

In 1921, the US Marine Corps created a medal to recognize those officers who had received a brevet promotion for battlefield bravery. Called the Marine Corps Brevet Medal, it was inferior only to the Medal of Honor and considered above the Navy Cross. Awarded retroactively to 1863, only 23 officers qualified and were approved for the medal. Three of those men died before being awarded the medal. Of the 20 Brevet Medals awarded, three of the men also received Medals of Honor. Butler is the only dual Medal of Honor recipient who also received the Brevet Medal, which by many metrics was awarded for acts that would have warranted a Medal of Honor.

Marine Corps Brevet Medal

Next Butler served in Central America, in what became known as the Banana Wars. This was a series of interventions America undertook in the region to secure American business interests. He spent these years in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Philippines. It was during this time that he returned home to Philadelphia to marry Ethel Conway Peters, also of Philadelphia. They would eventually have three children.

In early 1914, Butler and his family were stationed in Panama. He was tasked, along with Navy Lieutenant Frank J. Fletcher (a future admiral and recipient of the MoH and Navy Cross) to join a battleship squadron off the Mexican coast at Veracruz to monitor the ongoing civil war there. Going ashore on March 1, 1914, the two men met an America railway executive and posing as civilians rode in his private rail car 75 miles inland and back. The two men conducted preliminary reconnaissance for a possible invasion of Mexico at Veracruz.

A plan was hatched, with Butler’s enthusiastic support, for Butler to conduct a more detailed reconnaissance of the area. Setting out for this spy mission, Butler posed as “Mr. Johnson”, an American railroad official. They scoured Veracruz for a “lost railroad employee.” Said employee didn’t exist, but the access Butler gained allowed him to update maps, verified railway lines, and identify weapons caches of the Mexican forces there as well as their size, location, and readiness.

A few weeks later, Butler was part of the invasion and occupation of Veracruz, Mexico. After a few days of combat, the Mexican forces were cleared from the city with low American casualties, likely due to Butler’s intrepid spy mission.

Butler received the Medal of Honor for his performance in the Battle of Veracruz. Later, during World War I, Butler tried to give the medal back saying he had done nothing to warrant it. The Marines returned the medal to him with orders to wear it.

Navy Marine Medal of Honor

After Veracruz, Butler was ordered to the First Brigade Marines in Philadelphia, but departed soon after that to participate in military action in Haiti. By 1915 Haiti was on its fifth president in as many years. Haitian President Vilbrun Sam was fighting an insurrection that was protesting closer economic and strategic ties to the US. Sam was a repressive leader, executing scores of political prisoners. The citizenry rose up and chased Sam into the French embassy where he received asylum. Storming the embassy, the mob dragged Sam out, viciously beat him, then threw his lifeless body over the embassy fence to the waiting mob that literally ripped his body to pieces and paraded through town with them. Chaos erupted.

US President Woodrow Wilson ordered American forces to seize the capital once word of the assassination and resulting pandemonium reached DC. Ostensibly this was done to prevent a supposed German invasion of the island, with the First World War raging in Europe. The invasion was nearly bloodless, with only one Hatian soldier resisting and being shot by Marines for his trouble.

Butler was part of the occupation force. In October, a patrol of 44 mounted Marines Butler was leading was ambushed by 400 rebel forces. Surrounded, the Marines maintained a defensive perimeter through the night. The next morning Butler ordered his men to break out in three directions and charge the much larger enemy force. The tactic worked. They startled the Hatian rebels, causing them to flee.

A few weeks later Butler returned to those mountains to root out resistance. Leading 700 Marines, Butler’s headquarters fended off an attack made up of 100 enemy fighters. Finally, only an old French fort remained to be cleared.

Taking a force of 100 men, Butler’s forces circled the fort and gradually closed in. On the south side of the fort Butler was in personal command and discovered a hole in the wall. Entering through this small opening, the Marines engaged in hand-to-hand combat with those held up inside.

Butler and his men conquered the fort in less than 20 minutes with only a single friendly casualty (a Marine who was struck with a rock and lost some teeth). All 51 Hatian rebels in the fort were killed. Butler’s performance impressed none other than the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D Roosevelt, who recommended him for the Medal of Honor. The medal wasn’t awarded until 1917, which means that Smedley Butler is one of only two Marines to ever receive two Medals of Honor for two acts. The other Marine to have this honor is none other than Sergeant Major Dan Daly.

After Haiti had been secured, Butler was the first organizer and commander of the Haitian Gendarmerie, the country’s national police force, marking him as a capable administrator.

The war in Europe called him next. A man who had thrice been awarded with the Marine Corps’ highest honors shouldn’t have had trouble getting posted to a front line unit. Despite his attempts to join the fight, Butler was seen by superiors as unreliable, though undoubtedly brave. In response, he was kept from the fighting.

Promoted to brigadier general at just the age of 37, Butler was placed in command of Camp Pontenazen at Brest, France. The camp was notoriously unsanitary and disorganized. Butler tackled the problems head on. First was the issue of the mud. Mud in Brest was the scourge of the foot soldier. Duckboards had been used to keep the trenches navigable, but stepping off them could be a death sentence.

Butler requisitioned duckboards from a nearby wharf that were no longer needed. By accounts he carried the first load himself four miles uphill to the camp so that the soldiers tents could be up off the earth.

The camp became the largest embarkation port in the world during the war, and Butler saw to its orderly management. He received the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals in recognition.

After World War I, Butler was assigned to the Marine Corps Barracks in Quantico. He helped to transition it from a wartime post to a permanent base. Interestingly, he had been told by a local that Stonewall Jackson’s arm was buried in a field in western Virginia near where the Marines were on exercise. He attempted to call the man’s bluff and took a work party of Marines to the spot and dug it up. In the ground they found an arm in a wooden box. They reburied in the arm in a metal box and erected a plaque to mark the location.

Butler next served in China for several years, winning acclaim from competing Chinese interests.

In 1924 Butler was persuaded to leave the Marine Corps and take over as the Philadelphia Director of Public Safety. The city, notoriously corrupt, was rife with crime at the height of the prohibition era. Butler came in and enacted sweeping anti-crime reforms and utilized military-style tactics. Though his leadership saw a reduction in crime, many citizens didn’t like his blunt style and use of profane language in radio addresses. He only served in the post for two years before returning to the Corps, but his impact on the city and the police and fire departments there was lasting.

He was promoted to major general in 1927 at age 48, the youngest major general in the Marines (at the time also the highest rank in the Corps) and returned to Quantico. His national image was boosted when he would lead (often from the front) thousands of Marines on foot marches to famous Civil War battle sites where the men would reenact the war.

In 1930 Wendell Neville, the Commandant of the Marine Corps died. Butler was the senior major general in the Marines at the time, but his brashness when he was public safety director in Philadelphia, his alleged unreliability from superiors when he requested a western front posting in WWI, and some words he’d said against Benito Mussolini (which had caused a bit of an international incident and resulted in his arrest and nearly court martial) saw him passed over for the post in favor of a less controversial candidate. In 1931 Butler retired from the Marine Corps.

After his service he lectured, served on several commissions, and ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate from Pennsylvania. He was an outspoken critic of American participation in wars for economic reasons, writing War is a Racket in 1935.

In 1934 he publicly claimed that he had been approached by several business leaders to lead an overthrow of President Roosevelt. Butler alleged that the coup was backed by a 500,000 man strong private army (consisting of many veterans). Known as the Business Plot, congressional hearings were undertaken, but there is much doubt even today if there was any legitimate discussion or plan of a military overthrow of the US government. Nobody was ever charged or prosecuted for their involvement.

He spent his retired years living in Pennsylvania. In 1940 he checked into the hospital after being sick for a few weeks. He had an upper gastrointestinal illness, most likely cancer. His family in close attendance, he passed away on June 21, 1940 at the age of just 58. In his final days his family brought his new car to the hospital so he could see it from the window. Sadly, he never got to drive it.


1st row Medal of Honor Medal of Honor
2nd row Marine Corps Brevet Medal Distinguished Service Medal (Navy) Distinguished Service Medal (Army) Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal
with three bronze service stars
3rd row Spanish Campaign Medal China Relief Expedition Medal Philippine Campaign Medal Nicaraguan Campaign Medal
4th row Haitian Campaign Medal Dominican Campaign Medal Mexican Service Medal World War I Victory Medal
with maltese cross
5th row Yangtze Service Medal National Order of Honour and Merit, Grand Cross (Haiti) Military Medal (Haiti) Commander of the Order of the Black Star (France)

Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

Thanks again, Mason!

Category: Guest Post, Marine Corps, Valor

Comments (7)

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  1. Arby says:

    Interesting in that the second award of an MOH is another entire ribbon instead of a device on the foirst.

    • AW1Ed says:

      It’s likely a second award is such a rarity that a protocol was never established.

      • Mason says:

        The protocol is to wear a second ribbon (or the second medal if full medals are worn). Though this will likely never happen as DoD policy now is that one can only be awarded one MoH.

        Historically, the second MoH citation for John Laver Mather Cooper’s award specified that he was to wear a “bar” on the medal he’d previously been awarded. A bar is the traditional British way of denoting subsequent medals. I don’t know if Cooper ever wore a bar or if one was designed.

        Briefly during the 2010’s it was DoD policy that should someone receive a second MoH that they would wear the MoH ribbon with a “V” valor device. That has since been returned to the policy of wearing a second ribbon.

        • AW1Ed says:

          Thanks Mason. Wearing the MoH with a “V” device seems a bit redundant, and it certainly has enough stars already.

  2. Ex-PH2 says:

    Brash and unapologetic, but as bold as a grizzly bear.

    I think I like this guy!

  3. 5th/77th FA says:

    A Marine’s Marine. BZ Devil Dog. Interesting side bar on Haiti being a sh^t hole from way back. Pretty much since it was founded. I even find the alluding to an overthrow of FDR credible. Back in the ’30s there were a lot of folks who didn’t like him, or the direction he seemed to be taking the country.

    Thanks again Mason. I like these Valor Friday History lessons.

  4. Valerie says:

    Smedley Butler, the Marine Corp’s warring Quaker? He who said “war is a racket” and is quoted by many left wingers and Libertarians? That Smedley Butler?