John Arthur Hughes

Introduction

Courage, pluck, grit, and sand — all have similar colloquial meanings.  They are terms one might have overheard in a conversation between two men (not among the ladies).  They are words that refer to someone who has stamina, is physically and mentally tough, someone with a strength of character.

Author Mark Twain used such terms as grit and sand.  In Huckleberry Finn, Clemens wrote, “She had the grit to pray for Judas if she took the notion — there warn’t no backdown to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion, she had more sand in her than any girl I ever seen; in my opinion, she was just full of sand.

Words reflect how we think, and Americans seem to admire someone who demonstrates a strength of character and physical and mental toughness. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Mr. Clemens wasn’t the first to use such expressions.  They were slang in common use as early as 1862 and 1825, respectively.

Years ago, a cartoon circulated where I worked depicting a tiny mouse sitting hunched on its two hind legs, looking up into the sky.  A shadow appeared over the little mouse; it was an outline of a bird of prey.  Seconds before its demise, the little mouse displayed its pluck by giving the bird “the finger.”  The cartoon was very popular.  I may even have a copy of it among my papers.

We marvel at the toughness and resolve of our fellow man because such characteristics and attributes are part of America’s values.  This is why we read novels and develop affinities for the “good guys” who fight for justice or defend the weak.  Well, we at least used to admire such qualities.

Speaking of Pluck

The U.S. Medal of Honor is the highest combat award bestowed upon members of the Armed Forces to recognize gallant conduct in combat.  There are three medals, one each for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.  The U.S. Navy was the first to award a medal of honor in 1861.  The last Medal of Honor issued was in December 2021.  In total, the Medal of Honor has recognized the gallantry of 3,525 Americans, 618 of those posthumously.

Nineteen servicemen have received two Medals of Honor — of those, five “double recipients” received both the Army and Navy Medal of Honor for the same action, all of which occurred during World War I.[1]  Fourteen men received two medals of honor for separate actions.  Two of those men were U.S. Marines: Major General Smedley D. Butler and Sergeant Major Daniel J. Daley.  Numerous others received the Navy’s two highest awards: the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.  One of these men was John Arthur Hughes.

John Arthur Hughes had grit.  Some might even argue that he had True Grit.

Born on 2 November 1880 in Brooklyn, John Arthur Hughes was the son of William H. T. Hughes, a director of the Ward Steamship Line, and his wife, Olive.  John was educated at the prestigious Berkeley School, graduating in 1900.  Although John received a congressional nomination to attend the U.S. Military Academy, he failed the entrance examination.  By then, his father had died — leaving attendance at college out of the question.  Joining the U.S. Marine Corps was not out of the question.

Curious to type

John Hughes joined the Marines on 7 November 1900.  He stood roughly five feet ten inches tall, weighed less than 136 pounds, and had a slender build — which was not altogether different than most other young Americans.  Initially, Private Hughes was serious about his role as a Marine.  He focused on his duties and earned high praise from his superiors.  In 1901, John Hughes sewed on the rank insignia of a Marine corporal — and four months after that, the Marines promoted him to sergeant.

The early twentieth century was a period of opportunity in the Marine Corps.  In 1898, the Marine Corps had taken an unexpected turn from that of a group of sea-going bellhops to an amphibious force of lethal capabilities while projecting naval power ashore.  See also the First Marine Battalion, 1898.  In 1901, John Hughes was what the Marines in the 1960s might describe as “A.J. Squared Away.”

Following the American Civil War, the primary source of Marine Corps officer commissions came from graduating students of the U.S. Naval Academy.  But it was also a time when naval power projection became exceedingly complex.  The Navy had transitioned from sail to coal-fired ships, demanding sophisticated operating systems with keen instruments and electrical capacities throughout their ships.  The navy required a steady stream of highly qualified naval architects and engineers to operate and maintain these ships.  This meant that the navy could no longer afford to offer Marine Corps commissions to Naval Academy graduates; they needed men wearing the navy uniform.  But the Marines needed qualified officers, too.

In 1898, Colonel Commandant Charles Heywood petitioned the Secretary of the Navy for permission to offer commissions to well-educated individuals from civilian life (not associated with a service academy) and to highly qualified enlisted men who had proven themselves as noncommissioned officers.  With the sizeable expansion of the Navy after 1900 came the growth of the Marine Corps, as well.  In 1900, the Marine Corps needed 18 Second Lieutenants.  Congress directed that only eight of these entrants could be civilian college graduates — the remaining ten had to come from either the Naval Academy or the enlisted ranks.  Since all of the Naval Academy’s graduates went to service with the Navy in 1900, Colonel Heywood turned to the Marine Corps NCO.[2]

Stepping Up

An insurrection was going on, and the American government needed its Marines to stop it. Sergeant John A. Hughes took his oath of office as a Second Lieutenant 0n 21 December 1901.  During the swearing-in ceremony, Hughes stood next to another former NCO named Earl H. Ellis, whom everyone called “Pete.”  After their training as newly commissioned officers, Hughes and others joined a replacement battalion bound for the Philippine Islands.

Upon arrival in the Philippines, Marine officials posted 2ndLt Hughes to the Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mancell C. Goodrell and the battalion under Major Constantine Perkins, a graduate of the Naval Academy.[3]  John Hughes’ impetuousness and unpredictability caused both Goodrell and Perkins some discomfort — much like too much gas after dining for a week on navy beans — because they had little patience for Hughes’ penchant for playing pranks.  Moreover, Lieutenant Hughes drank too much and did not appear to take to heart efforts to reform him in the mold of the Old Corps.[4]  It was then that Hughes’s reputation for “grit” began.  Some Marines began to refer to Hughes as Johnny the Hard; as we’ll see, he was one tough hombre.

According to researcher Colonel Merrill Bartlett, Major Perkins (of whom little is known) rated Hughes as an average officer, observing that Hughes was reckless and careless with a disposition toward boisterousness.  Apparently, Lieutenant Hughes and his running mates liked to sing loudly at 3 a.m., which irritated the senior officers billeted in officer’s quarters.

Despite his somewhat lackluster fitness reports, Hughes passed his examination for promotion, and a promotion board recommended him for advancement to First Lieutenant.  By this time, Hughes had become known, by reputation, as a hard ass.  He preferred to resolve minor disciplinary problems with his men through one-on-one instructional periods, often involving fisticuffs and somewhat harsh language. This type of behavior was the one drawdown among mustang officers: they knew what worked for them as sergeants and took those “successes” with them into the officer ranks — where they were not appreciated. In the modern Marine Corps, Hughes would likely face a court-martial for such conduct. The Marine Corps has every right to expect better of its commissioned officers.

After leaving the Philippines, Hughes reported to the Marine Barracks, Boston, where he served for two years as an assistant quartermaster and commissary officer.  In 1906, the Commandant posted Hughes aboard the U.S.S. Minneapolis and later detached him to constabulary duty with the 1st Provisional Regiment in Cuba.

Despite Hughes’ unwillingness to change his irresponsible behaviors, the Marine Corps promoted him to Captain in 1909 and ordered him to the Marine Barracks in New York City.  A short time later, Marine officials assigned him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, via the troop ship U.S.S. Hancock.

In Cuba, Hughes and his men transferred to the auxiliary cruiser U.S.S. Buffalo, which transported the leathernecks to Panama in March 1910.  Just thirty days later, while assigned to the Third Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Hughes participated in the bombardment and assault of Coyotepe Hill, Nicaragua.

The Marine Corps was a small service in the early 20th century; the officer corps was small enough that nearly every officer knew every other officer — particularly since these were men with whom they competed for promotion and assignment.  In this kind of environment, it wasn’t long before everyone knew about the incident involving Captain Hughes and his commanding officer, Major Smedley D. Butler. 

These two officers, each colorful in their own peculiar way, detested each other.  Butler opined that while Captain Hughes was efficient and knowledgeable, he was excitable and disloyal (to his commanding officer).  In April 1912, Hughes’ superior ordered him confined to quarters because of getting into a fistfight with a brother officer. Fighting among officers was strictly prohibited.

The Commandant is watching

In June, Hughes earned five days’ suspension from duty for “assumption of authority and insubordination.” The nature of Hughes’ alleged offense is lost to history, except as noted on his next fitness report.  But then, less than a month later, the impulsive Leatherneck absented himself from duty without authority and received another suspension from duty due to “unwarranted evasion of orders.”

Besides noting that he had been suspended from duty, Hughes’ reporting senior added that “he knows his profession thoroughly, but he is excitable and not always loyal, in his attention to duty, manner, and bearing, to his commanding officer.” But the incident that raised the hackles of his superiors occurred in April 1912, when Hughes was confined to his quarters as a result of a fistfight with a brother officer.  We believe the identity of this “brother officer” was Smedley D. Butler.

Major Butler cabled the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel William P. Biddle, stating that he considered Hughes a menace to the welfare of his command and requested that the Commandant order his return to Washington under arrest or a transfer out of his command with a preference for sending him as far away from Central America as possible — even to the extent of recommending the Philippines.  But Butler did more than that.  He turned to his father, U.S. Congressman Thomas S. Butler, who served on the House Naval Affairs Committee.

Congressman Butler turned to the Secretary of the Navy for assistance in relieving his son from the challenges caused by the unrepentant Captain Hughes.  Secretary Meyer was in no mood for tattling or seeking special favors.  He denied the congressman’s request and directed the Commandant to inform Butler that he’d have to learn to deal with his challenges without the help of his father.  Secretary Meyer also noted that Major Butler had attempted to embellish the charges against Captain Hughes by adding previous incidents for which he had already been punished.[5]

Nevertheless, at the end of 1912, officials ordered Captain Hughes to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for service with the Marine Barracks.  Within a year, however, the Commandant ordered all East Coast Barracks to provide the human resources needed to man two regiments of the Advance Base Force (A.B.F.) (forerunner to the Fleet Marine Force).

Captain Hughes reported to the Commanding Officer, 2nd A.B.F., at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where his commanding officer appointed him to command a rifle company.  The A.B.F. Commander was Lieutenant Colonel John A. Lejeune.

The purpose of these Navy-Marine Corps exercises was to test the concept of the A.B.F.  Still, a secondary objective, owing to declining political conditions, was to serve as a force in readiness for possible operations in Mexico.  With naval maneuvers judged successful, the A.B.F. set sail for New Orleans on 9 February 1914.  On 5 March, the A.B.F. received orders to proceed to Veracruz.

Veracruz, Mexico

In 1914, the Mexican-American War had been over for 66 years.  Still, diplomatic relations between those two countries remained strained — and the truth is that Mexicans, Texicans, and Americans had never gotten along.  Today, it is doubtful that they ever will.  U.S. policy toward Mexico hasn’t made many efforts to improve these relations, but neither has Mexico. 

In 1913, after assuming the office of president, Woodrow Wilson withdrew the United States’ official recognition of the government/presidency of Victoriano Huerta.  Wilson’s reasons for taking this action were that Huerta was using borrowed funds to purchase armaments and munitions for use against the people of Mexico to maintain his power over them.

Conditions deteriorated even more when Wilson imposed an arms embargo on Mexico in August 1913.  The final straw was the Mexican officials arrested nine U.S. sailors in Tampico, Mexico, for entering areas of the city marked as off-limits to foreign military personnel.  When this matter was not resolved to Wilson’s satisfaction, he ordered a naval force to capture Veracruz.

Captain Hughes led his 15th Rifle Company ashore on 21 April as part of the landing force.  For his conduct between 21-24 April, Captain Hughes was cited for conspicuous gallantry and was nominated to receive the Medal of Honor.[6]     

Major Butler was another nominee.  To his credit, Butler pleaded with his superiors to withdraw the medal, insisting he did nothing to deserve such a high-level award.  This issue of awarding the medal of honor to Marine officers had become political, and Butler’s complaints weren’t helping matters. Irritated, Butler’s superiors in the chain of command ordered him to stop moaning and wear the damn thing. Butler’s discomfort increased, however, when he learned that his superiors had also nominated Captain Hughes for the Medal of Honor. Modern historians believe Butler despised no man more than John A. Hughes.

While the Marine brigade was en route back to the north, Captain Hughes received orders that he would proceed to the Marine Barracks, Portsmouth.  In his final fitness report, despite his nomination for the Medal of Honor, Major Randolph C. Berkeley (also a Medal of Honor nominee) rated him poorly in leadership — for treating his men harshly.

In 1916, while serving as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Detachment, U.S.S. Delaware, Hughes landed with his Marines in response to civil unrest and banditry in the Dominican Republic.  President Wilson made a Marine presence in the Dominican Republic permanent after late October that year.

Meanwhile, Captain Hughes became eligible for promotion to major by achieving fifteen years of honorable service.  Amazingly — or possibly not, the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels denied Hughes’ advancement.  Historians suggest that usually, the Secretary of the Navy would take no hand in the matter of a Marine officer’s promotion, but in this case, it would seem that through his father, Smedley D. Butler was involved in urging Daniels to “do the right thing” for the Corps (and for Butler).

At this time, the Commandant, Major General George Barnett, received a telegram reporting that Captain Hughes had become a combat casualty — wounded by gunshot.  Barnett promptly took the telegram to Secretary Daniels and demanded that he release his hold on Captain Hughes’ promotion.

The Marine Corps promoted Hughes to Major on 16 March 1917.  Accompanying his promotion was a strongly worded memorandum from Secretary Daniels.  Merrill Bartlett tells us that the memo warned Hughes against any future drunkenness or harshness toward his men.

After Hughes recovered from his wound, he served as a staff officer at the headquarters of the A.B.F. in Philadelphia.  When the United States entered World War I, Hughes proceeded to Quantico, Virginia, to prepare for a substantial increase in Marine Corps manpower.

An Interesting Aside

Shortly after the U.S. entered the European war, Brigadier General John A. Lejeune wrote to this friend, Major Smedley D. Butler (then serving as a major general in the Haitian constabulary), informing him that he (Lejeune) expected to command a Marine brigade in the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.).  Should that happen, Lejeune wrote, he would offer Butler command of an infantry battalion.

Subsequent planning revealed that the A.E.F. commander, General “Black Jack” Pershing, reduced the Marine Corps’ footprint to a single regiment.[7]  Lejeune was sad to advise Butler that a colonel would command a single regiment and he had no further say in the matter.

Colonel Bartlett assures us that Lejeune’s letter to Butler was somewhat less than honest.  By then, Butler had burdened HQMC with a constant stream of requests for relief from his duty in Haiti and assignment to the A.E.F. in France.  Commandant Barnett was unsympathetic.  He first informed Butler that his position was vital to American interests in Haiti.  Secondly, he reminded Lejeune that Butler had used all of his political leverage to gain the coveted post to command the Gendarmerie d’ Haiti and that he could damn well remain there.

But General Barnett had a problem that needed a resolution.  He required the names of qualified officers for service in the A.E.F.  He needed Lejeune’s advice — and one of the officers suggested by General Lejeune was Major John A. Hughes.

World War

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the U.S. Marine Corps included 462 commissioned officers, 49 warrant officers, and 13,214 enlisted men.  Of those, 187 officers and 4,546 enlisted men served outside the continental limits of the United States.  Six weeks later, the Marine Corps had organized the 5th Marine Regiment (consisting of around one-sixth of the Corps’ total strength).  When the regiment sailed for France in June 1917, U.S. Marines accounted for one-fifth of the A.E.F.’s expeditionary force.

Closely following the 5th Marines in July and August 1917 was the 6th Marine Regiment and 6th Machine gun Battalion (M.G.B.)  Within one year of America’s entry into the war, the Marine Corps had placed as many enlisted Marines in France as had served on active duty at the outbreak of the war.  President Wilson’s policies in Central America and the Caribbean Sea demanded a massive increase in the number of Marines serving on active duty.  In June 1918, the authorized strength of the Marine Corps was 1,323 officers and 30,000 enlisted men.  The number of Marines serving on that date was 1,424 officers and 57,298 enlisted men.[8]

Colonel Albertus W. Catlin assumed command of the 6th Marine Regiment.[9]  Catlin assigned Major John A. Hughes to command the 1st Battalion, Thomas Holcomb (later, Commandant of the Marine Corps) to command 2/6, and Berton W. Sibley to command 3/6.

Upon arrival in France, Major Hughes settled his battalion at St. Nazaire.  He joined his fellow officers for temporary duty under instruction at the I Corps School of Infantry at Gondrecourt.  Hughes’ performance as a student prompted the Army to extend his temporary assignment through February 1918 so that he could serve as an instructor.  In mid-February, Hughes asked the Army to send him back to his battalion, and they refused — so Major Hughes packed his kit and returned to his battalion without orders.  The Army high command was unhappy with Hughes, but Colonel Catlin sorted it all out.

On 27 May 1918, Imperial Germany launched the third of its spring counteroffensive operations to bring the war to a close before the United States committed the total weight of its Army to the fight.  Within four days, German soldiers reached the Marne River at Château-Thierry.  Until this point, General Pershing had consistently refused to release any American forces to serve under foreign command, but with Imperial German troops sitting a mere 35 miles from Paris, Pershing rushed three American infantry divisions to Château-Thierry to halt the German advance.  One of those divisions was the U.S. Second Infantry with the 4th Marine Brigade.

Catlin’s 6th Marines occupied a position along the Paris-Metz highway, south of a small forest called Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood), with orders to dig in and hold at all costs.  Having halted the German advance, the Brigade received new orders: expel the Germans from Belleau Wood.  Thus began the Battle of Belleau Wood, one of the Marine Corps’ most contested and bloodiest fights.  Before the end of this battle, the Marine brigade suffered a 50% casualty rate — and it was during this fight that Major John A. Hughes earned both the Navy Cross and Silver Star.  He also suffered the effects of poisoned gas, thereby earning his second Purple Heart medal.

Following the Battle of Belleau Wood, the German high command foolishly decided to cut the highway between Soissons and Château-Thierry.  The Marines deployed south of Soissons on 18 July.  After two days of bitter fighting, the Brigade gave up an additional 2,000 casualties — with most of the dead and wounded from the 6th Marine Regiment.  One of those injured Marines was Major Hughes.

By this time, Johnny the Hard was a physical wreck.  His previous wound had opened up and made walking difficult and painful.  His gas-seared lungs sapped his strength, and he had reached the limit of his endurance.  But despite his pain and discomfort, he did his duty and persevered until his superiors ordered him returned to the United States.

Before that happened, however, again, according to Colonel Bartlett, Major Hughes took a nasty fall as a bunker collapsed.  The major cussed and asked the Marines, “Say, any of you birds got a pair of wire cutters?”  Using those wire cutters, Major Hughes sat down and cut off a shard of bone protruding from his leg.

Grit.

Second Medal of Honor Recommendation

Major Hughes’ promotion to lieutenant colonel, effective 28 August 1918, finally caught up with him — along with another Silver Star medal and two French Croix de Guerre.  But one Marine Corps icon thought that Hughes deserved more.  Colonel Hiram I. Bearss (shown right), believing that Hughes earned the Medal of Honor for his performance at Soissons, put that recommendation in writing and sent it directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.[10]

In writing his recommendation, Bearss reported, “During the engagement east of Vierzy, on the 19th of July 1918, Lieut. Col. Hughes (then major) conducted his battalion across open fields swept by violent machine-gun and artillery fire.  His entire commissioned and non-commissioned staff were either killed or wounded. Though suffering the severest pain from an old wound, he led his battalion forward and, by his dauntless courage, [and] bulldog tenacity of purpose, set an example to his command that enabled [it] to hold [its] position against the enemy throughout the day [and] night, though without food or water and with very little ammunition. Major Hughes’ battalion had been reduced to about 200 men, but due to this magnificent example of gallantry and intrepidity, this remnant of a battalion held a front of over 1,200 yards. As a battalion commander, he risked his life beyond the call of duty.”[11]

The Commandant returned Bearss’ recommendation, noting that it should have been submitted through the chain of command to Headquarters, A.E.F., but by then, too much time had elapsed, and Hughes did not receive a second Medal of Honor for his World War I service.[12]

After five months in the Army hospital in France, Colonel Hughes was ordered back to the United States for further treatment at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Philadelphia.  After an additional two months of treatment, Hughes attempted to ask for an assignment to the A.B.F., but to no avail.  Colonel Hughes was no longer medically qualified for Marine Corps service.  The Commandant transferred Hughes to the disability retired list on 3 July 1919.

In retirement, Hughes joined his brothers in the Hughes Trading Company[13] but left two years later to work for Mack Trucking in Cleveland — and later the first director of the Ohio Liquor Control Department.  In 1936, the square-jawed Marine became the Director of Safety at the Great Lakes Exposition.  Ill health relating to his military service forced Hughes to retire again in 1937, and he moved to Florida.  Johnny the Hard passed away on 25 May 1942 while undergoing treatment at the Veterans Hospital.

Meanwhile — back in July 1918 — Smedley Calls His Daddy

At about the time Colonel Hughes had fought his last battle in France, Smedley Butler finally made his way to France — but only after side-stepping the Commandant of the Marine Corps and calling on his father to help him achieve an assignment in the A.E.F.  Congressman Thomas S. Butler spoke with Secretary of the Navy Daniels, who ordered the Commandant to send Butler to France with the next replacement draft.  This interference resulted in Butler’s meteoric rise from major to full colonel and command of the 13th Marine Regiment.

In the summer of 1918, Secretary of War Newton Baker and his senior staff had no interest in another Marine Brigade in France, but on 15 September, within only a few weeks of his father’s interference, Colonel Butler and the 13th Marines embarked for France.

To Butler’s profound disappointment, however, General Pershing decided to break up the 5th Marine Brigade and use the Marines as replacements and for logistical duties behind the lines.  When Brigadier General Smedley Darlington Butler arrived in France, General Pershing placed him in charge of a supply depot.  Within only a few months, Butler was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star — no doubt arranged for by his daddy in recognition of his non-combat service.  General Butler continued to cry on his father’s shoulder for the balance of his career.

No pluck, no sand, and no grit.

Sources:

  1. Bartlett, M. L.  The Spirited Saga of Johnny the Hard.  Naval History, U.S. Naval Institute, 2007
  2. Catlin, A.  With the Help of God and a Few Marines: The battles of Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood.  Blue House Books, 2016.
  3. Sweetman, J.  The Landing at Veracruz, 1914.  U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1968.
  4. “A Brief History of the Medal of Honor, U.S. Army Center of Military History, online.

Endnotes:

[1] During World War I, Marines served with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), which placed these men under the operational authority of the Department of War, even though at the time, they were regularly assigned to the Department of the Navy.  It was a bit confusing back then, so it was possible for a Marine to receive a medal of honor from both the Army and the Navy.  After the war, service regulations changed to reflect that a medal of honor can only be awarded once for a single action.  It is still possible to receive two such medals, but only for separate actions. 

[2] The process of commissioning enlisted men to serve as officers resulted in the term “mustang,” denoting an individual who “came up through the ranks” rather than someone who was born with a silver spoon in their mouth.  A mustang was a feral animal, not a “thoroughbred.”  Over many years, the Armed Forces found that in terms of leadership, raw determination, and professional knowledge, former enlisted men made better officers.  A few former enlisted men found their way to general officer status, but for the most part, accession to flag rank was reserved for graduates of the service academies.

[3] My primary source for this information is retired Lieutenant Colonel Merrill L. Bartlett.  Were it not for his fine writing at Naval History Magazine, I would never have heard of Colonel Goodrell or Major Perkins.

[4] Certain individual Marines had severe drinking problems at the turn of the century; more than one officer succumbed to the effects of alcoholism, including Pete Ellis — which remarkably all seemed to originate in the Philippines. 

[5] The incident suggests that despite his demonstrated courage in combat, Smedley Darlington Butler would have made a perfect centerpiece for a bouquet of assholes. 

[6] The Medal of Honor is awarded by the President of the United States in the name of the Congress of the United States — hence, the medal is often termed the “Congressional Medal of Honor.”  After the incursion into Mexico, Congress amended its legislation for the Medal of Honor to include naval officers.  Within the Department of the Navy, the conflict provided an opportunity to shower the Medal of Honor on selected participants at Veracruz.  Of the Navy contingent deployed to Veracruz, 28 officers and 18 enlisted men earned the award — and nine Marine Corps officers.    

[7] History tells us that ultimately the Marines did provide an infantry brigade to the A.E.F, but in the planning stages, Pershing did all that he could to avoid having Marines in his command.

[8] The two regiments and separate battalion formed the 4th Marine Brigade, with an authorized strength of 258 officers and 8,211 enlisted men.  The brigade fought in eight major engagements and suffered 12,000 casualties.  At the same time, the Corps maintained the 5th Marine Brigade in the A.E.F. reserve, provided the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division with staff officers and enlisted men, and provided officers to command U.S. Army infantry and aviation units.

[9] See also: With the Help of God and a Few Marines by Colonel Albertus W. Catlin, USMC (deceased). 

[10] Bearss, himself a holder of the Medal of Honor, commanded an Army infantry regiment and the U.S. 51st Infantry Brigade in France.  His moniker in the Marine Corps was “Hiking Hiram,” famous for his trek across the Island of Samar in the Philippines in 1901.

[11] Source, LtCol Merrill L. Bartlett, USMC (Retired) Naval History Magazine, 2007.

[12] General Barnett was right, of course.  The recommendation should have been submitted through the chain of command.  It is also possible that Barnett knew that Secretary Daniels would never allow the approval of the Medal of Honor for Hughes.

[13] In retirement, Colonel John A. Hughes provided a falsified dossier for “Pete” Ellis’ ill-fated spy mission to the Central Pacific in 1923. (Ellis assumed the identity of a salesman for the Hughes Trading Company as a cover for his undercover and somewhat bizarre escapade).


Tampico & Veracruz, 1914

Porfirio Diaz

It is probably fair to say that Mexico and the United States, with few exceptions, never achieved the status of good neighbors.  There are reasons for this, of course.  For a summary of this long-troubled relationship, please visit Old West Tales.[1]  José De La Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori served as President of Mexico for 31 years.  Some historians claim that he was a ruthless dictator; others picture him as a bit kinder.  Either way, he was a Mexican patriot who developed a worldview that was consistent with his background and experience.  He first served as president from 1876 to 1880 and again from 1884-1911.  Throughout this period, Diaz was legally elected to the presidency.[2]  That he was a no-nonsense chief executive, there can be no doubt.  The reality of politics is that it is a ruthless business, and in Mexican history, there has never been a shortage of bandit revolutionaries.  This particular history, of course, helps to explain present-day Mexico.  In any case, circumstances forced President Diaz to resign from the presidency on 25 May 1911, and he subsequently fled to Spain, where he lived the balance of his life.

Beginning in 1911, Mexico suffered through a number of revolutionary contenders for the presidency, including Bernardo Reyes, Francisco Madero, Pascual Orozco, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Ricardo Magon, Jose Maria Pino Suarez, Venustiano Carranza, Aureliano Blanquet, Plutarco Calles, Mario Velasques, Felix Diaz, Victoriano Huerta, and Alvaro Obregon.  The Mexican revolution lasted until 1920.

President James Monroe (1817-1825) was the first executive to formulate US policy toward Latin America, referred to as the Monroe Doctrine.  President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) issued his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904, but we must credit President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) for implementing the US policy that refused to recognize any revolutionary leader not elected by popular vote.  In 1913, President Wilson refused to acknowledge the presidency of General Victoriano Huerta,[3] who had been installed as president (by agreement with U. S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson).[4]  According to President Wilson’s biographer, the president stated, “There can be no certain prospect of peace in America until General Huerta has surrendered his usurped authority.”

Admiral Mayo

Civil upheaval in Mexico threatened the safety of American citizens and the properties of Americans doing business there.  Owing to Wilson’s concern for American lives and business interests, Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commanding the US Fifth Squadron, Atlantic Fleet, was dispatched to Tampico, Mexico in 1914.[5]

Admiral Mayo’s squadron included USS Dolphin, USS Connecticut, USS Minnesota, USS Chester, and USS Des Moines.  Tampico, a central oil-producing region, was besieged by Constitutional forces.  Generally, the relationship between the U. S. Navy and President Huerta’s federal garrison remained cordial.  For example, on 2 April, Admiral Mayo directed the captain of his flagship USS Dolphin to render honors to Mexico to honor the commemoration of General Porfirio Diaz’s capture of Puebla from the French in 1867.  Dolphin fired a 21-gun salute.

Typically, at the end of duty hours, ship’s work permitting, ship captains allowed crew members to boat ashore and engage in recreational activities, such as baseball, with the local townsmen.  On 6 April, Constitutionalist rebel forces under Colonel Emiliano Nafarrete occupied La Barra, Doña Cecilia, and Arbol Grande.  General Ignacio Zaragoza, the Tamaulipas governor and commander of the federal garrison, sent his gunboat Veracruz to shell the rebel forces that had stationed themselves behind oil storage tanks.  Admiral Mayo played it straight.  He sent a letter to both leaders stating that while he intended to remain neutral, he would take all steps to protect American lives and property.  Admiral May began to evacuate Standard Oil Company executives, workers, and their families but refused to land troops to cover its refinery.

After additional rebel attacks near the Iturbide Bridge on 7-8 April 1914, foreign nationals began asking for refuge on Admiral Mayo’s ships.  The U. S. Consul in Tampico sent an urgent message requesting help in evacuating the American population.  On the evening of 8 April, Mexican rebels detained a Marine Corps courier from the US Consulate, but he was released unharmed after an hour.  Meanwhile, running short of fuel, USS Dolphin’s skipper, Captain Ralph Earle, visited the American Consulate on 9 April, where he arranged refueling from a German national named Max Tyron.  Captain Earle agreed to take fuel delivery from Mr. Tyron’s dock, located near the Iturbide Bridge.

USS Dolphin, 1914

The duty of taking possession of this fuel fell to Ensign Charles C. Copp, who organized a whaleboat and crew to proceed to Tyron’s dock, pick up the fuel, and return to Dolphin.  Ensign Copp and his crew were unarmed; the American flag was flying fore and aft on the whaleboat.  Neither Copp nor anyone in his crew was able to speak Spanish.  While loading the fuel, an armed squad of Zaragoza’s soldiers surrounded the sailors.  Two crewmen, Coxswain G. H. Siefert and Seaman J. P. Harrington, remained on the whaleboat, but they too were taken at gunpoint.  Mexican soldiers escorted the men to Colonel Ramón Hinojosa.  Hinojosa released the sailors to continue their work but informed them that they would not be permitted to leave the dock without Zaragoza’s permission.

Mr. Tyron took a launch out to Dolphin to inform Captain Earle and Admiral Mayo of what happened.  Mayo ordered Earle to seek the release of his men under strong protest to the government of Mexico.  Earle, accompanied by Consul Miller, met with Zaragoza, who apologized — offering that his soldiers were ignorant of the laws of war.  Within an hour, Hinojosa released the sailors, and they returned to their ship with the fuel.[6]

Admiral Mayo viewed the incident as an insult to American sovereignty, grave enough in Mayo’s opinion, to demand reparations.  Mayo ordered Commander William A. Moffett to deliver a note to Zaragoza informing him that seizing men from a naval vessel, flying the United States flag, was an inexcusable act of war.  Admiral Mayo further demanded a formal repudiation, punishment of the individual responsible, and that he hoist the American flag in a prominent position ashore and render a 21 gun salute, which Mayo would return from Dolphin.

General Zaragoza referred the matter to the Mexican ministry of war in Mexico City.  President Wilson learned about this incident from William Jennings Bryan.[7]  The president told Bryan, “Mayo could not have done otherwise.”  President Wilson then added that unless the government of Mexico complied with Mayo’s dictate, grave consequences might result.

At the time, Nelson J. O’Shaughnessy was the American chargé d’affaires in Mexico City.[8]  Roberto Ruiz, Mexico’s foreign minister, paid a visit to O’Shaughnessy on 10 April and informed him of the incident.  Ruiz’ opined that Admiral Mayo should withdraw his demand.  After all, Zaragoza did apologize.  O’Shaughnessy and Ruiz met with President Huerta later that day.  Huerta agreed with Ruiz.  After the meeting, Mr. O’Shaughnessy released a statement to the press that indicated Zaragoza had detained Marines, not sailors, and that the Mexicans had paraded them through the streets of Tampico.  None of that was true, but its effect on the American people was electric.

On 12 April, President Huerta decided that Zaragoza’s verbal apology was sufficient.  In his opinion, the United States was given ample satisfaction.  The Mexican government would not apologize further, nor would any Mexican officials salute the American flag.  The next day, O’Shaughnessy further informed the press that either the salute would be rendered — or else.  On 14 April, President Wilson ordered Vice Admiral Charles Badger to sail the Atlantic Fleet into Mexican waters.  When President Huerta learned of Wilson’s order, he was elated, thinking it was the best thing to happen during his administration. Still, on 16 April 1914, Huerta agreed to a simultaneous saluting which signified that both sides were satisfied with the end of a conflict which “at no time” had been severe.

Despite Huerta’s reversal, Wilson decided that the Atlantic Fleet would remain in Mexico to prevent any incidents of ill-will or contempt for the United States — which Huerta had exhibited in the past.  Wilson had misunderstood Huerta’s meaning by “simultaneous.”  President Wilson warned Huerta that he would consult with Congress on 19 April with a view of taking such actions as may be necessary to enforce respect for the flag of the United States if Huerta did not render proper honors to the flag of the United States.

True to his word, on 20 April, President Wilson sought Congressional approval for the employment of the Armed Forces.  President Wilson intended to seize Vera Cruz “to get rid of Huerta” and his illegitimate authority in Mexico.  Wilson also learned on 20 April that a large shipment of arms and munitions were en route to Mexico from Germany.  Thus, the unfolding incident was far more involved than the issue of Huerta’s disrespect to the nation’s colors.  Congress provided its consent that same evening, and President Wilson immediately ordered landings at Vera Cruz, seizure of the city’s customs house, and directed the interception of arms from Germany.[9]

On to Veracruz

On the morning of 21 April, Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher began preparations for the seizure of Veracruz.  His orders were simple and direct: seize the customs house, prohibit off-loading war materials to Huerta’s forces or any other Mexican political party.  Landing operations under Navy Captain William Rees Rush began at approximately 11:00 when Marines of the 2nd Advanced Base Regiment from USS Prairie and Bluejackets from USS Florida started their movement to shore.[10]  A provisional battalion was also formed from the Marine Detachments, USS Florida, and USS Utah, who accompanied the Bluejackets into Veracruz.

Commanding the port of Veracruz was Mexican General Gustavo Maass, who, despite the American Consul’s warning not to interfere, could not surrender his post to the Americans.  He ordered the 18th Regiment under General Luis Becerril to distribute rifles to citizens of Veracruz and prisoners in the La Galera military prison and then proceed to the waterfront.  He then ordered the 19th Regiment under General Francisco Figueroa to defend the piers.  Finally, Maass sent a telegram to the Minister of War, General Aurelio Blanquet.  General Blanquet ordered Maass not to resist the landing but withdraw his forces to Tejería.

Once ashore, Captain Rush exercised overall command of the Bluejackets while Lieutenant Colonel Wendell C. Neville assumed command of the Marines.[11]  In furtherance of Admiral Fletcher’s objectives, Rush dispatched three companies of Bluejackets to occupy the customs house, the post office, and the telegraph office.  Colonel Neville directed his Marines to capture the railroad terminal, roundhouse, train yard, cable office, and the power plant.

Although most of Maass’s troops accompanied him to Tejería, liberated prisoners under Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Contreras (and a few civilians) opposed the Marines as they made their way inside the city.  The first casualty was a navy signalman stationed at the top of the Terminal Hotel.  At around 13:30, the U. S. Navy intercepted and detained the ship Ypiranga before its crew could unload its shipment of arms and munitions.

At the end of the first day, American casualties included four dead and 20 wounded.  Given these shootings, Admiral Fletcher decided that he had no choice but to expand his operations to include the entire city.  The following day, Fletcher ordered Rush and Neville to occupy Veracruz.  To accomplish this, Admiral Fletcher signaled USS San Francisco, USS Minnesota, USS Hancock, and USS Chester to land their Marine Detachments, bringing the number of Marines and Bluejackets ashore to around 3,000 men.

Marines began their advance into Veracruz at 07:45 on 22 April.  The Marines, experienced in street fighting, made an orderly and tactical movement, but a regiment of Bluejackets under Captain F. A. Anderson, without experience in urban warfare, marched in parade formation toward the Mexican Naval Academy.  Mexican partisans, who had barricaded themselves inside the parade ground, easily targeted Anderson’s Bluejackets, which halted his advance.  After Captain Anderson signaled for naval gunfire support, USS Prairie, San Francisco, and Chester pounded the Naval Academy, ending Mexican resistance.

As Marines and Bluejackets continued their advance, Colonel John A. Lejeune led the 1st Advanced Base Regiment (originally bound for Tampico) ashore.  By nightfall, more than 6,000 Americans occupied Veracruz, including a small aviation detachment from USS Mississippi.  The aviation detachment’s participation marked the first time naval aircraft became targets of ground fire.

Meanwhile, Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton assembled the Fourth Marine Regiment (4th Marines) at Puget Sound.  The regimental headquarters units incorporated the 25th, 26th, and 27th Marine companies.  After sailing from Washington State aboard the USS South Dakota, the regiment added four additional companies from Mare Island (31st, 32nd, 34th, and 35th companies).  Along with USS Jupiter, the task group proceeded to Mazatlán (west coast of Mexico), joined later by USS West Virginia, and reinforced by the 28th and 36th companies.  Pendleton’s 4th Marines was a contingency reserve.  There was no landing by the 4th Marines in Mexico.

A third provisional regiment of Marines, assembled in Philadelphia, arrived at Veracruz on 1 May under the command of Colonel Littleton W. T. Waller, who, upon landing, formed a Marine Brigade and assumed overall command of the 3,141 Marines.  Pending the arrival of an Army brigade under Brigadier General Frederick Funston, Admiral Fletcher declared martial law.[12]  Once the Army arrived in Veracruz, seagoing Marines and bluejackets withdrew back to their respective ships, and Admiral Fletcher turned over control of the port city to General Funston.

After Venustiano Carranza overthrew President Huerta, the United States withdrew its armed forces from Veracruz on 23 November 1914.  Subsequently, relations between the United States and Mexico improved somewhat. However, the American occupation of Veracruz did lead to several anti-American revolts in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Uruguay.  Mexico expelled resident US citizens from Mexican territories, and the British government criticized Wilson’s policies in Mexico.  On a positive note, however, the US occupation of Veracruz did persuade Mexico to remain neutral during World War I.  After the Zimmerman affair, however, the United States and Mexico returned to their traditional rocky relationships.

Sources:

  1. Cooper, J.  Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.  New York: Vintage Books, 2011.
  2. McBride, W. M.  Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
  3. Millett, A. R.  Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps.  New York: The Free Press, 1991.
  4. Quirk, R.  An Affair of Honor: Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz.  Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1962.
  5. Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1970.
  6. Sweetman, J.  The Landing at Veracruz, 1914.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1968.

Endnotes:

[1] See also, a six part series of the relationship between the United States and New Spain, Mexico, and Mexican Texas, beginning with Spanish America (24 June 2019).

[2] The statement only suggests that while he may have availed himself of corrupt voting irregularities, a tradition in Mexican politics, he didn’t seize power through force of arms.

[3] Victoriano Huerta (1850-1916) was a Mexican military officer and the 35th President of Mexico who seized power from  Francisco Madero in 1913, installed Pedro Lascuráin Paredes as his puppet, who then appointed Huerta as Secretary of the Interior.  Within an hour, Lascuráin  resigned the presidency — an action that brought Huerta into the presidency.

[4] President Wilson removed Henry Wilson from office as a result of making the so-called Embassy Agreement.

[5] Henry Thomas Mayo (1856-1937) graduated from the USNA in 1876, served in a number of career progressing billets, including his service as aide-de-camp to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.  After graduating from the Naval War College, he commanded several capital ships.  He was promoted to rear Admiral in 1913.

[6] Admiral Mayo criticized Ensign Copp for allowing foreign soldiers to seize his vessel. 

[7] A three time candidate for the presidency, Bryan served as Wilson’s Secretary of State.

[8] Nelson O’Shaughnessy (1876-1932) was a career diplomat born in New York City, was well-educated, gaining degrees from Georgetown University, St. John’s College, Oxford University, and the Inner Temple in London.  His earliest posts were at diplomatic missions in Denmark, Russia, Austria-Hungary, 1905-1911, and most notably in Mexico, 1911-1914, where his service gained him national notoriety.  As chargé d’affaires, O’Shaughnessy represented the interests of the United States in Mexico after the recall of the Ambassador following the coup of Victoriano Huerta in 1913.  A Republican, O’Shaughnessy alienated himself from President Wilson’s Democratic administrations by his cordial relationship with Huerta.

[9] Germany had long sought to incite a war between Mexico and the United States.  Another Mexican-American war would reduce the possibility of bringing the United States into the European war and slowed the export of American arms to the European allies.  For quite some time before World War I, Germany aided Mexican revolutionaries by arming them, funding them, and advising them.  German Naval Intelligence Officer Franz von Rintelen attempted to incite war between the US and Mexico by giving Victoriano Huerta $12 million in cash.  The German saboteur Lothar Witzke, who was responsible for bombings at Mare Island (San Francisco) and in New Jersey was operationally based in Mexico City.

[10] The Marine Corps Advanced Base Force was the Corps’ first task organized combat unit made up of coastal and naval base defense forces generally of battalion or regimental sized units (depending on its mission).  Initially, Neville’s unit was more or less on the same level as a reinforced battalion landing team which expanded in size once the Marines went ashore.

[11] The term “bluejacket” is generally used to denote a British or American sailor and often used to distinguish sailors performing landing force operations ashore from Marines.

[12] “Fighting Fred” Funston (1865-1917) was a Medal of Honor recipient with combat experience gained in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars.  In 1896, Funston was a volunteer with the Cuban Revolutionary Army who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain.  Suffering with malaria, Funston returned to his home to recover.  In preparation for war with Spain, Funston was commissioned a colonel with the 20th Kansas Infantry.  He was promoted to Brigadier General in recognition of his undaunted courage under fire during the Philippine Insurrection.  Funston was not a favorite of Mark Twain, an avowed anti-Imperialist, who denounced Funston in an article published in the North American Review.  Funston’s public argument with Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar resulted in President Theodore Roosevelt reprimanding Funston and ordering him to remain silent on public issues.  Funston was promoted to Major General in November 1914.  Funston died of a heart attack while attending a concert in San Antonio, Texas.