The number of colorful, legendary figures of the United States Marine Corps is amazing. One of these legends was Herman Henry Hanneken, who hailed from St. Louis, Missouri —born there on 23 June 1893. He enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1914 at the age of 21 and after serving five years attained the rank of sergeant.
The United States invaded the island of Haiti in 1915, ultimately maintaining a military presence there for 19 years. The initial invasion encountered armed resistance by rebel bandits called Cacos under the leadership of Charlemagne Masséna Péralte (1886-1919). For four years, the Marines chased Péralte from one end of Haiti to the other, but by his clever use of mountainous terrain and his popularity among local populations, Péralte was able to elude them. Péralte was much like a ghost: he was everywhere; he was nowhere. The Marines finally concluded that no progress could be made to pacify the rebels until they tracked Péralte down and killed him.
This task landed on the desk of Sergeant Herman Henry Hanneken, who was then serving as a captain of the Haitian Gendarmerie. Hanneken knew that the problem wasn’t going to be killing Péralte; the problem would be finding him. He hatched a plan to do exactly that.
Hanneken ordered black gendarmes Jean-Baptiste Conzé and Jean-Edmond François to defect and join Péralte’s forces. Hanneken fully realized that Péralte was no dummy, however, and in order to bolster the story of Conzé, Hanneken arranged a successful attack against U. S. forces, and an astounding victory. Hanneken himself appeared in public as a seriously wounded and grateful survivor of the attack —with the assistance of some quantity of red ink.
In this way, Péralte was convinced to lead an attack against an American position at Grand Rivière de Nippes on 31 October 1919; finally the door of opportunity was finally opened to locate and destroy the rebel bandit.
As the battle raged through the night, Hanneken and another white Marine blackened their faces with charcoal and, armed with the passwords provided to them by Conzé, infiltrated the Cacos perimeter. After a nerve-racking penetration of the enemy line, Hanneken reached Péralte’s own camp and lost no time locating Péralte and gunning him down. Miraculously, Hanneken and his accomplice made it back to their own lines undiscovered. For his role in locating and destroying Péralte, Hanneken earned a commission to 2nd Lieutenant and the Medal of Honor:
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in actual conflict with the enemy near GRANDE RIVIERE, Republic of Haiti, on the night of October 31st-November 1st, 1919, resulting in the death of Charlemagne Péralte, the supreme bandit chief in the Republic of Haiti, and the killing, capture, and dispersal of about 1,200 of his outlaw followers. Second Lieutenant Hanneken not only distinguished himself by his excellent judgment and leadership, but unhesitatingly exposed himself to great personal danger, and the slightest error would have forfeited not only his life but the lives of the detachments of Gendarmerie under his command. The successful termination of his mission will undoubtedly prove of untold value to the Republic of Haiti.
Six months later, Hanneken was again cited for extraordinary heroism, receiving his first (of two) Navy Cross citations:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant Herman Henry Hanneken, United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism displayed on the night of March 31 – 1 April 1920, by advancing into the camp of Osiris Joseph, a notorious bandit leader, while serving with the First Provisional Brigade of Marines (Gendarmerie d’Haiti). With admirable disregard of danger, Lieutenant Hanneken, leading a small detail, advanced to within about fifteen feet of Osiris Joseph, who was surrounded by his followers, shot and killed him, thereby ridding the country of a bandit who had long terrorized Northern Haiti. In addition to the courage displayed, the resourcefulness shown, and the careful planning necessary to accomplish his mission are worthy of the highest praise.
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Navy Cross to First Lieutenant Herman Henry Hanneken, United States Marine Corps, for extraordinary achievement, zeal untiring and most successful efforts during active service in the Northern Area of the Republic of Nicaragua from 11 December 1928 until 30 June 1929. In command of a combined Marine and Nicaraguan Voluntario combat patrol First Lieutenant Hanneken had many successful contacts with the bandits during which he distinguished himself by his gallantry. His courage and ability are exceptional and his operations against bandits were of great value in the suppression of banditry in this area.
Lieutenant Hanneken continued to serve during the so-called Banana Wars through the 1920s. In the following decade, Hanneken served at various posts and stations throughout the Corps, attended grade-level professional schools, and in 1936 was advanced in grade to Major. From 1939 to 1940, he served as Commanding Officer, Marine Barracks, Naval Ammunition Depot, Hingham, Massachusetts and was subsequently ordered to command the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Harry Lee.
In June 1941, LtCol Hanneken reported to the 1st Marine Division where he served in various assignments. While commanding the 7th Marines on Guadalcanal, he received the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy. During the Peleliu campaign he received Legion of Merit, and during the Cape Gloucester operation, he received the Bronze Star Medal, with combat “V” device.
Colonel Hanneken concluded his 34 years of Marine Corps service in 1948. Having been specially decorated for heroism in combat, Colonel Hanneken was advanced to Brigadier General on the Retired List. He passed away on 23 August 1986 at the age of 93. He was accorded full military honors at his interment at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California.