Smedley D Butler, part 1
Smedley was born on the 30th of July, 1881 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and was the oldest of three boys. His family had been in the United States since the 1600s and his parents were from local Quaker families. Smedley's father and grandfather were both congressmen and his father was also the chair of the House Naval Affairs Committee during both the Harding and Coolidge Administrations. While attending the Haverford School, Smedley became the captain of the baseball team and quarterback of the football team. Thirty-eight days before his seventeenth birthday, he left school and enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Spanish-American War. Haverford awarded Smedley his high school diploma before the end of his final year and stated that he completed the scientific course “with Credit”.
Smedley had lied about his age in order to receive a commission as a second lieutenant and went on to train in Washington DC. He soon deployed to Cuba and arrived shortly after its invasion and capture. Smedley and his company returned to the states for a short break and after a four month assignment on the USS New York, Smedley was supposed to be mustered out of service but he instead accepted a commission as a first lieutenant.
The next assignment was in the Philippines where there was little to do for Smedley. To relieve boredom, he turned to alcohol but this had its consequences when he had become so drunk that he was relieved of his command. Nevertheless, Smedley led his first combat action when he took the town of Noveleta with 300 marines from the Filipino rebels known as the Insurrectos. His first sergeant was quickly wounded and Smedley briefly panicked but quickly led his Marines to pursue the enemy that was fleeing. This led to the rebels being dispersed and the town being taken by noon.
Soon after, Smedley had received orders to deploy to Guam with Littleton Waller, whom had chosen Smedley and four other officers to go with him. Just before they were to go, their orders were changed and they were sent to China instead. During the Battle of Tientsin on the 13th of July, 1900, Smedley climbed out of a trench to rescue a wounded officer and was then shot in the thigh as well. Since commissioned officers were not eligible for the Medal of Honor at this time, he instead received a brevet promotion two weeks before his nineteenth birthday to captain while he recovered in the hospital. He later received the newly created Marine Corps Brevet Medal in 1921 for those actions.
Once recovered, Smedley would spend time in the Carribean and Central America, better known as the Banana Wars, and in Honduras, and Puerto Rico. He also spent time in Mexico and received his first Medal of Honor for his actions in Veracruz in 1914, but that is a story for another time. The following year, the Haitian President had been assassinated and Smedley was on the USS Connecticut headed to Haiti. It was his actions on the 17th of November, 1915 that would earn him the Medal of Honor for the second time. The citation reads:
For extraordinary heroism in action as Commanding Officer of detachments from the 5th, 13th, 23d Companies and the Marine and sailor detachment from the U.S.S. Connecticut, Major Butler led the attack on Fort Rivière, Haiti, 17 November 1915. Following a concentrated drive, several different detachments of Marines gradually closed in on the old French bastion fort in an effort to cut off all avenues of retreat for the Caco bandits. Reaching the fort on the southern side where there was a small opening in the wall, 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
He would receive the Medal of Honor in 1917 and this made him and Daniel Daly the only two Marines to have ever received the Medal of Honor twice for separate actions. These actions would be the last bit of combat that Smedley would be involved in personally as he was denied a combat command on the Western Front during World War 1. In October of 1918, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and took charge of the massive sanitation problems of Camp Pontanezen in France. Smedley started by hauling a duckboard, which were no longer needed for the trenches of the war, up a four mile hill in order to provide the men with dry sleeping areas under their tents. Not only did this earn him the nickname of “Old Duckboard”, but also the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals and the French Order of the Black Star.
Smedley went on to command the Marine Barracks at Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, the Marine Expeditionary Force in China, and became the youngest Major General, a two star general, in Marine Corps history at the age of 48. He also became the first general officer to be arrested since the Civil War because of publicly spreading gossip about Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Smedley apologized to the secretary of the Navy and his court martial was canceled.
From 1924 to 1926, Smedley served Philadelphia as the director of public safety and crime and police corruption did take a serious dive. However, due to his very militant and aggressive tactics, Smedley resigned after a lot of pressure and later stated that cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle that he had ever been in. He went on to run for a senate seat in 1932 and even though he lost, one of the topics he spoke out about was in regards to a bonus that was due to veterans of the first world war. Many veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression and Service Certificates were granted to them in 1924. Each Certificate was valued at the veteran's promised payment plus compounding interest. The main problem was that these certificates had a 20 year maturity, making them redeemable in 1945. About 43,000 people marched on Washington DC in June of 1932 in protest and Smedley and his son went and visited the veterans to let them know that they were indeed right to protest this and to not do anything that would cost public sympathy. The following day, on the 28th of July, cavalry units were dispatched to the protesters and gas was used to disperse them.
When Smedley retired from the Marine Corps, he had purchased a house in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and he lived there with his wife until June of 1940. He checked himself into the hospital after being sick for a few weeks and the illness was described as an incurable condition of the upper gastro-intestinal tract. His family stayed with him and even brought his new car so that he could see it from his window. He never got a chance to drive it because on the 21st of June, 1940, Smedley died in the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia. His funeral was held at his house and to this day, his family maintains the house as it was when he died. Smedley Darlington Butler is buried in the Oaklands Cemetery in West Chester, Pennsylvania; Section B, Lot 1.
For part two of Smedley’s story, visit episode 234 HERE.