Louis Cukela, U.S.M.C.

Ven I vaunt to send a damned fool, I send myself.

One of the Marine Corps’ “colorful” characters of the past was Major Louis Cukela.  Cukela was born in the kingdom of Dalmatia on 1 May 1888 (modern-day Croatia).  A “mustang,” Cukela rose in ranks from Private to Major over a career spanning 29 years.  Three things made this officer a colorful character: his broken accent, short temper, and unquestioned courage and valor in combat.   

Louis Cukela received his primary education in Dalmatia with further schooling at the Merchant Academy and Royal Gymnasium.  In 1913, he migrated to the United States with his brother, both young men deciding to settle in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  There may not have been many job opportunities in Minneapolis in the early part of the 20th century, which could explain why Cukela decided to join the U.S. Army in 1914.  Corporal Cukela accepted his discharge from the army in 1916.

Seven months later, before the United States officially entered Europe’s Great War, Louis Cukela enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.  Officially, the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917.  In late May, President Wilson directed the Secretary of the Navy to issue orders detaching a Marine regiment for service with the U.S. Army in France.  The regiment would be known as the 5th Regiment of U.S. Marines.  And, as a demonstration of the combat readiness of these Marines, the regiment sailed for France sixteen days later.[1]

Cukela served in the 66th rifle company in the Norfolk, Virginia area.  As the Marines reformed for service with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), Marine rifle companies formed as part of infantry battalions within regiments.  The 15th rifle company (Pensacola) joined the 49th, 66th, and 67th companies to create the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  The 1stBn embarked aboard the U.S.S. DeKalb, arriving at St. Nazaire on 26 June.

Initially, the Army assigned these Marines to the U.S. First Infantry Division.  Many of these Marines had combat experience, but not as part of a land army.  This necessitated that the marines undergo training to familiarize them with land operations. This training involved instruction by French infantry officers and N.C.O.s in offensive and defensive operations, trench warfare, grenade throwing, bayonet fighting, and infantry-artillery coordination. Until this training could be accomplished, the Marines performed communications duties (as messengers) and certain other logistical duties.

In September 1917, the 5th Marines was assigned to serve under the U.S. Second Infantry Division.  In October, the regiment became part of the 4th Brigade of Marines (one of two infantry brigades in the 2nd Division).  Despite the regiment’s pre-combat training, General Pershing had no confidence that the 5th Marines were ready for service in the line.  In March 1918, the Marine Brigade relocated to the relatively quiet area of Toulon.  To acquaint Marines with combat service opposing German troops, the regiments rotated battalions into the trenches for a set period of time.  When the Marines were not standing watch, they were kept busy improving or repairing their trenches.

On 19 – 20 March, during a battalion relief operation, the enemy launched a raid in force.  The extraordinary effort of the 49th Company, 3rd Battalion, sent the enemy reeling back to their own trenches.  At this time, the German high command began paying closer attention to those American Marines.  On 30 May, the A.E.F. assigned the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division to the French Sixth Army, after which the Marine Brigade received the mission of stemming a German thrust toward Paris.  Retreating units and civilian refugees clogged up the lines of communication, requiring the Marines to disembark from their motorized vehicles and proceed toward  Meaux.[2]

Gunnery Sergeant (later Second Lieutenant) Cukela fought in every engagement in which his regiment participated. That’s what Marines do — but it was just as well they were focusing their attention on the Germans because, according to Major General James G. Harbord, commanding the U.S. Second Infantry Division, the French high command was a disaster.  No one knew anything — and didn’t seem to care.

On 2 June, the battalions of the 5th Marines occupied reserve and line duty north of the Marne River and west of Chateau-Thierry.  Harbord struggled to organize the lines of the French XXI Corps and cover the withdrawal of French infantry/artillery units.  Harbord finally accomplished this by mid-day on 4 June 1918.  That afternoon, 2/5 repulsed two German assaults against the withdrawing French and convinced the Germans to withdraw into defensive positions.

The French Sixth Army ordered the XXI Corps to straighten its lines; XXI Corps assigned the mission to the 2nd Infantry Division, and Harbord handed it off to the Marine Brigade.  Second Battalion, 5th Marines successfully mounted the first attack and straightened out the allied lines.  For the second attack, General Harbord sent the Marines into Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood).  The fight set a single American infantry division against five German divisions.  By the end of the battle on 23 June 1918, the 5th Marines had suffered 2,000 killed and wounded — but the struggle also set into motion a massive German withdrawal that continued until the Armistice.

Tiffany Cross
Medal of Honor

On 18 July 1918 at Soissons, the 66th Company operated in the Forêt de Retz some 50 miles northeast of Paris, near Villiers-Cotterets, when a German strong point held up the company’s advance.  Alone, of his own volition, Cukela crawled beyond the company’s lines toward the German defenses.  Despite the enemy’s bullets zipping just above his head, he captured an enemy machine gun by bayoneting its three-man crew.  Then, using German grenades, Cukela demolished the remaining part of the enemy’s strong point.  He silenced the Germans, captured four prisoners, and captured two undamaged machine guns.  For this action, the United States awarded Gunnery Sergeant Cukela two medals of honor — one from the U.S. Army and another from the U.S. Navy. [3]

In addition to his two medals of honor, Cukela also received three Silver Star medals and several French National/Military awards: Legion of Honor (Chevalier), Military Medal, and three Croix de Guerre.

Cukela may have been entitled to two purple heart medals, as well, for wounds received while engaged with the enemy.  He did not receive these awards because, believing his wounds minor, he never reported to sick bay for treatment.

On 1 November 1919, First Lieutenant Cukela joined the 1st Marine Brigade in Haiti.  Soon after arriving and being made aware of the mission of garrisoning Marines in Haitian towns, Cukela took aside one promising young second lieutenant and observed it was a waste of time.  Instead, the Marines should pursue the Cacos into the mountains and be done with them.  It was a logical proposal, and the young lieutenant — Lewis B. Puller — never forgot Cukela’s advice.

While serving in the Caribbean, Cukela’s brigade commander charged him with executing three Haitian detainees.  A medical officer examined Cukela and reported him as highly agitated and smelling of alcohol.  Reputation-wise, Cukela was thought to have a propensity for executing Cacos.  Cukela was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the “word,” having gotten out, prompted the Commandant to reassign him to the Dominican Republic.

His battlefield appointment to Second Lieutenant took place on 26 September 1918, and a regular commission was conferred on 31 March 1919.  He advanced to First Lieutenant on 17 July 1919 and Captain on 15 September 1921. 

In 1955, Warner Brothers cartoonist and story writer Warren Foster (1904 – 1971) developed a tale he titled Sahara Hare.  It was a continuation of the epic contest between Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam (who appears in the tale as Riff Raff Sam).  Bugs pops up in the desert, thinking he’s arrived at Miami Beach.  Meanwhile, while riding on a camel, Sam suddenly comes upon Bugs’ tracks and exclaims, “Great horney toads!  A trespasser is getting footy prints all over my desert.”  Sam orders the camel to slow down and loudly says, “Whoa camel, whoa!  Whoa!”  Ignored by the camel, Sam whacks him on the head and tells the half conscience camel, “When I say Whoa, I means WHOA!”

Funny stuff, if you enjoy Warner Brothers Cartoons — but it makes you wonder if Warren Foster ever served in the Marines and knew or ran across one of the great Cukela stories. Captain Cukela was no Cossack; he had little interest in equestrian pursuits and rode like a sack of rice. Assigned to attend the Army Infantry Officers School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army emphasized infantry tactics but also demanded that its officer students demonstrate mastery of the horse. One day, his mount took off at a gallop toward Alabama, and nothing Captain Cukela did could persuade the horse from the gallop.  He ordered “Stop Horse” on several occasions — to no avail.  Finally, Captain Cukela balled up his fist and whacked the horse as hard as he could on its forehead, and the animal sank to its knees.  Dismounting, Captain Cukela admonished the horse, “I am Cukela — you are the horse.  I tell you, stop — you stop.  You not stop, damn you, I break your head.”    

On 30 June 1940, the date of his retirement, Cukela was promoted to Major — but he was recalled to active duty a month later in anticipation of war with Japan. 

During World War II, Major Cukela served as a supply officer at Norfolk, Virginia, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  He was returned to the retired list on 17 May 1946 — achieving 32 years of active military service.

After Major Cukela suffered a stroke in 1955, he lay dying at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.  One afternoon, a prominent Lieutenant General visited his bedside.  Cukela, even in his weakened state, had no trouble recognizing Chesty Puller — but kept referring to him as “Lieutenant.” Cukela observed to Puller that he was dying.  General Puller answer, “That’s all right, old man.  You’re going to Valhalla — where all Marines go. 

Louis Cukela, aged 67 years, passed away on 19 March 1956.

Cukela made the famous quote, shown at the beginning of this post, after receiving a garbled and incomprehensible field message.  According to author and biographer Colonel Merrill Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Cukela’s strange comments caught on quickly in the A.E.F. — even to General Pershing, himself. 

Sources:

  1. Who’s Who in Marine Corps History.  History Division, HQMC
  2. Yingling, J. M.  A Brief History of the 5th Marines.  Washington, D.C., 1963, 1968.

Endnotes:

[1] The rapid organization, equipping, and embarkation of the regiment was the product of considerable forethought by senior Marine Corps planners. 

[2] The weather was hot, the roads dusty, and the Marines were over-burdened by carrying their supplies and equipment on their backs.  Morale was not improved with the dejected and terrorized looks appearing on the faces of French soldiers moving away from the battle site.  It was at this time when Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion told a French colonel that the Marines would not retreat — “We just got here.”

[3] Following World War I, the U.S. Navy decided to recognize two kinds of heroism.  One involving extraordinary courage in the face of the enemy, and the other recognition for non-combat service.  The ribbon pattern on the medal awarded for non-combat reflected an up-side-down star.  The new pattern medal was designed by the Tiffany Company (1919), reflecting actual combat.  It was known as the Tiffany Cross Medal of Honor but due to its similarity with the German Cross, the medal was unpopular, and several awardees requested a newer design once issued in 1942.