As a youngster watching Saturday-afternoon matinee films, I never gave much thought as to the social implications of alcohol in western or war film presentations. Nor did anyone ever suggest to me that I should refrain from watching John Wayne films, given that by reputation, he was a hard-drinking fellow in real life. I do recall in several Wayne films in which he (as a crusty old cavalry officer) and Victor McLaglen (as an equally crusty old top sergeant) were able to consume copious amounts of whiskey and still perform their duties as military leaders. In one film, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Sergeant Stryker had been busted in rank from sergeant-major —this the result of a drinking problem no one in the Marine Corps would countenance (from a senior enlisted man).
The scenario I have described above was not beyond the pale; I have seen this very same thing happen in real life where the Marine Corps reduced senior NCOs with significant alcohol problems to a lower pay grade, or forced them into retirement. Of course, such punishments were never gleefully effected and certainly not without due and appropriate warnings and if we are honest, circumstances were almost always more than merely drinking to excess. The range of difficulties frequently involved civil or military arrest for driving under the influence, spouse abuse issues, showing up for duty while inebriated, or maybe not showing up for duty at all.
None of these sorts of things bode well for a careerist —unless you happened to be an officer with a den-daddy. Lieutenant Colonel Earl H. Ellis was one of these —protected by none other than two Commandants of the Marine Corps, Major Generals George Barnett and John A. Lejeune. Lejeune, in fact, protected Ellis so well that Ellis eventually drank himself to death.
As previously mentioned, Marines were long known for their hard-drinking (and fighting among themselves in the absence of soldiers or sailors), but in fairness, hard drinking was quite normal in all services, and apparently, in most westernized nations. For many years, rum rations were issued to the crews of American and British warships. The American navy halted this practice in 1862; the British navy followed suit nearly 100 years later. Booze was also issued to ground troops, but suspended during periods of temperance movements in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
A decision to reintroduce rum rations during the harsh winter of 1914-1915 caused a fierce controversy in the United Kingdom. Medical doctors were divided between those who saw rum rations a morale-boosting measure, and those who considered it harmful to health and performance. I wasn’t there of course, but from what I read about the trench warfare of World War I, a daily tot of rum was the least of their problems —and it is difficult to imagine that anyone would send an inebriated rifleman/sniper out on a critical mission. On the other hand, under circumstances of such stress, one can see the likely calming effect from a tot of rum. Of the total numbers of British and American troops killed in World War I, the percentage of those who died from exposure to rum must be miniscule.
Still, there is a favorite argument among temperance fanatics and teetotalers to the effect that anyone unable to control his (or her) intake of alcohol lacks spiritual strength. I’ve heard the same argument about those who smoke in the face of overwhelming evidence of the health risks. No doubt, Marcus Aurelius would agree; several of his fourteen virtues would seem to make that argument. Still, should we assume that a drinking man is without any virtues at all?
Let me now introduce you to a fellow by the name of Hiram Eddings Bearss. In his day, Marines nicknamed him “Hiking Hiram.” As a youth, Hiram hated his name; he much preferred being called “Mike.”
Bearss was born in 1875 in Peru, Indiana. He was a troublesome young man, prone to fighting and not doing very well in school … but he did well enough to finish his education (if that is ever possible). In his youth, he had a knack for horsemanship and sports. Over several years, Bearss attended college at Notre Dame, Perdue, Depauw, and Norwich Military, where it seems he finally settled down. Most of his problems at university stemmed from the fact that he liked rough and tumble sports and the kind of drinking associated with those interests. At age 21 Bearss had finally learned how to learn, and while he was known as a bright young man, this only applied to the things that held his interest. Bearss’ father wanted him to study law, and he did that for a period of about 18 months. Although he gained admission to the bar in Indiana, the law did not hold his interest. A restless Bearss began looking around for something more exciting to do with his life. A news headline captured his attention: The Maine Blown Up!
Inspired to serve his country, Bearss organized a volunteer company from among his friends in Peru and together, with bands playing and flags flying, they marched off to Indianapolis to offer their services to the United States. Not a single individual was accepted for military service, however, and Bearss decided to enlist as a private. He was refused that, as well. His family finally appealed to a local congressman by the name of George Steele, who in turn offered Bearss an appointment at the U. S. Naval Academy. Bearss turned this offer down: he was not going to waste another four years of his life in yet another college.
A few weeks later, Steele telegrammed Bearss that he had secured for him an appointment as a temporary second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Like many Americans back then, Bearss wasn’t sure what a Marine was; Steele advised him, “It is as close to committing suicide as you will ever get.” After successfully passing stringent examinations at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC, Bearss was accepted for a commission in late May 1898. With his appointment at the age of 23, he was no longer referred to by his nickname. He simply became Mr. Bearss, Lieutenant Bearss, or Hiram (shown right, 1898). Within a year, owing to the end of the Spanish-American War, the military services began downsizing to a peace time strength; Lieutenant Bearss was ordered home and then, in February, the Marines discharged him from further service.
There were important consequences to the Spanish-American War; one of these was a decision by Congress to spend more money on an adequate wartime structure, especially since the United States had inherited the Philippine Islands —and not all was going well there. Naval bases had to be defended and an expanded Navy meant an expanded Marine Corps.
On 2 June 1899, Bearss received his commission to first lieutenant and four days after that he reported for duty aboard the USS New York. After several weeks of public relations stops along the eastern seaboard of the United States, in October 1899, Bearss was ordered to report to Major Littleton W. T. Waller, Commanding the 3rd Battalion of Marines being formed at the Washington Navy Yard for service in the Far East.
The voyage to the Philippine Islands was a rough one, but it was here that Bearss and Frederick Wise first met and established their life-long friendship. Of Bearss, Wise wrote: “It was on the USS Solace that I first did duty with Hiram I. Bearss, then, like myself, a second lieutenant. There never was another like old Hiram in the world. Wild as you make them. Irresponsible to an incredible degree. Absolutely fearless. Seldom in funds. Always with some scheme afoot. He never had the proper clothes. He was forever playing practical jokes. His energy knew no control. He was always borrowing anything and everything from everybody he could. Yet, he was loveable beyond words to describe.” What Wise didn’t tell us was that Bearss was one of those drinking fellows; over time, his drinking became legendary.
By the time Waller’s battalion arrived in the Philippines, the United States had been engaged with insurrectionists for quite some time. The Filipino did not appreciate being under the thumb of the Spanish before 1898; they didn’t care about being under the thumb of the Americans afterwards, either. What Bearss found upon arrival in these islands was a brutal guerrilla war. Hiram Bearss is shown right while likely serving as a Major, U. S. Marine Corps.
Within his twenty years of service, Bearss received four of our nation’s highest awards for distinguished conduct during combat operations, including the Medal of Honor. He additionally received high honors from France, Italy, and Belgium. That he was a hard fighter there can be no doubt; he was one of the most decorated officers to serve at that time. During World War I, Bearss briefly commanding the 5th Marine Regiment, and later served as executive officer of the 6th Marines, but most of his combat service was with Army units. He commanded two separate battalions within the 9th US Infantry, commanded the 102nd US Infantry Regiment and 51st US Infantry Brigade. Bearss was so effective as a combat leader that General Pershing attempted to promote him on several occasions, but since Bearss was a Marine officer, Pershing had no influence with the Marine Corps’ promotion system.
As previously mentioned, Bearss was also a hard drinker and this likely explains his difficulties not long after he returned home from France. Bearss was assigned to command the Marine Barracks at Philadelphia. Bearss found the barracks unacceptably lax and Bearss, a strict disciplinarian, refused to tolerate any organization that failed to maintain the high standards for Marines. Within a short time, subordinate officers filed charges against Bearss, claiming he was drunk on duty, that he used profanity while berating his officers in front of enlisted men.
Whether true, a hearing was convened at the orders of Major General George Barnett, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. At the time, it was well-known that Barnett did not like Bearss (in the same way he protected Ellis), and the issue suddenly became an internal political struggle. Bearss had his highly-placed supporters, Barnett had his.
Still, after twenty-years of service, Colonel Hiram Bearss (shown right) suffered from the maladies attributed to almost any Marine with two or three decades of hard service, but in the case of Hiking Hiram, he’d been seriously injured from a fall from a horse, suffered injuries from the explosion of a mortar during the war, and suffered from painful feet. The solution to this unhappy disciplinary problem was to order Bearss into medical retirement. Colonel Bearss’ difficulties with Barnett (and others) may explain why he was never advanced to flag rank until 1936 (well after his retirement from active military service). In any case, Colonel Bearss accepted a medical discharge in 1919. He was killed in an automobile accident in 1938.
Two excellent accounts of Bearss can be found in two books by George B. Clark. They are titled Hiram Iddings Bearss, U. S. Marine Corps: Biography of a World War I Hero, and His Road to Glory: the life and times of Hiking Hiram Bearss, Hoosier Marine. Both books make excellent companions to such other works as The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood: U. S. Marines in World War I by Dick Camp and A Marine Tells It to You, by Colonel Frederick M. Wise.
 The Medal of Honor was awarded to him for service in the Philippine Islands in 1901; at the time of this action, Bearss was serving as a captain. The medal was not awarded to him until 18 years later when Bearss was serving as a colonel.