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).


India Three Four in Panama

Some Background

In the eighty or so years following independence from Spain, Panama was a province of Gran Colombia, a free association begun in 1821.  From that point onward, the people living in Panama made several dozen attempts to withdraw from their Colombian alliance, including the so-called Thousand Days War (1899-1902).  For the Panamanians, it was a struggle for land rights more than an issue of sovereignty.  Observing these machinations and with a growing interest in constructing a canal across the Isthmus, the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt began to engineer the separation of Panama from Colombia.

In November 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia.  To constrain Colombia from sending naval and ground forces to Panama, the United States re-introduced a Marine Corps presence in Panama under future commandant, Major John A. Lejeune.  Of course, this was not the Marines’ first deployment to Panama.  In 1856, Marines went to Panama to guarantee the security of American fortune hunters while en route to California via the Isthmus.

Given Roosevelt’s interest in constructing a canal, Major Lejeune realized that a Marine presence in Panama would continue.  So, with that foresight, Lejeune established a permanent barracks there in 1904.  Between 1904 and 1911, the principal mission of the Marine Corps was to safeguard the canal while under construction (and its workers/executive managers).  Marines established a permanent barracks at the US Navy’s submarine base at Coco Solo in 1923 — known simply as Marine Barracks (MB), Panama.  From that year forward, the size of the barracks expanded and contracted according to the needs of the Navy. 

In February 1945, the MB had 36 officers, three warrant officers, and 1,571 enlisted men at its peak strength.  The Marines also experienced several “re-designations” and relocations.  In 1943, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC)  consolidated all Marines serving in Panama under the Marine Barracks, Fifteenth Naval District, Rodman, Canal Zone.  In 1987, HQMC renamed the barracks as Marine Corps Security Force Company (MCSFC), Panama.

Responsibility for the Canal Zone (CZ) security fell to the U. S. Army under the Commanding General, U. S. Army South (CG USASouth), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.  USASouth became a subordinate command of the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), headquartered in Miami, Florida, as one of eleven unified combatant commands.  The mission assigned to the Marine Security Forces was in providing security for U. S. Navy installations in Panama.

Panama — US Relations

The agreement between Panama and the United States vis-à-vis the canal was that the United States would lease a twelve-mile swath of land across the Isthmus for 100 years, construct the channel, and control it as sovereign US territory during the period of the lease.  Over time, with technological advances in ship sizes, the canal proved no longer adequate for the largest naval and maritime vessels.  Within this period, relations between the US and Panama were not always amiable.  Marine battalion landing teams infrequently went to Panama as a show of force and a demonstration that the United States intended to exercise its control over canal zone operations, particularly during periods of political and civil unrest.[1]

By agreement between Panama and the US in 1977, complete control of the Panama Canal would shift to the Panamanians in 2000.  In 1981, however, General Omar Torrijos, then serving as “Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution,” the man who negotiated this treaty, died in a plane crash — which opened the door for General Manuel Antonio Noriega to succeed him as a revolutionary leader and de facto head of state in Panama.  During Noriega’s tenure, five men served as puppet heads of state to give Noriega’s dictatorship international credibility.

General Noriega consolidated his power in Panama by seizing control of the armed forces, renaming them as Panamanian Defense Forces.  By 1988, Noriega controlled the national police, the army and paramilitary organizations, the air forces, and the small naval force — in total (on paper), around 15,000 men.  In terms of combat troops, Noriega could field roughly 3,500 men organized as two light battalions in each of Panama’s thirteen military zones, ten independent companies, a cavalry squadron, and a handful of “special operations” forces.  Noriega’s air force consisted of 50 aircraft, and his navy operated twelve small vessels.  He also controlled 14 battalions of civilian laborers, the so-called Dignity Battalions, which consisted of unemployed workers shepherded by low-ranking officers and NCOs.

Manuel Noriega was a caudillo in the finest tradition of post-Spanish petty dictators.  He was arrogant, corrupt, dangerous, and stupid.  His arrogance led him to misjudge the United States’ continuing interest in the Canal Zone (CZ).  While the United States turned a blind eye to Noriega’s involvement in narcotics, Noriega’s time was fast running out.  In January 1988, two federal grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on racketeering and drug trafficking charges.  Subsequently, puppet-President Eric Arturo Delvalle attempted to depose Noriega, but Noriega engineered Delvalle’s dismissal.  Civil disorder one more returned to Panama, with threats made to the lives and safety of American personnel and military installations.

The Culture War

As relations between the US and Panama deteriorated, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) issued a warning order to various military commands ordinarily responsible for the security of the canal zone.  Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, began updating their contingency plans for Panama.  With only one MCSFC in Panama, a platoon from the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion (at Norfolk, Virginia), known as a Fleet Anti-terrorist Security Team (FAST), was quickly dispatched to reinforce the Marines of MCSFC Panama. 

Of course, the FAST platoon was an inadequate measure, but the National Military Command Authority (NMCA) or JCS had yet to decide what to do about Noriega.  With so few men to provide security to naval installations, Major E. A. Keith, CO MCSFC Panama, had to prioritize his security concerns.  With the concurrence of the Commander, US Naval Forces (South), Keith identified the fuel storage facility, known as the Arraijan Tank Farm (ATF), as his first security concern. 

The ATF is located within two square kilometers of rolling grassland, surrounded by dense jungle,[2] which provided excellent avenues of approach should Noriega’s PDF attempt to seize the ATF or threaten the adjacent Howard Air Force Base.[3]  Major Keith did not have a sufficient number of men to maintain a formal defense perimeter around the ATF, so his only recourse was to employ irregular area security patrols.

Patrol leaders almost immediately reported the presence of PDF forces dressed in black field uniforms using night vision goggles (NVGs) and evidence of recently prepared foxholes in the jungle areas surrounding the ATF.  When Marines reported this intelligence up the chain of command, US Army South dismissed it out-of-hand, claiming that US troops prepared the fighting holes during recent training exercises.  US Army South also emphatically denied that Noriega’s PDF had any NGVs.  Subsequently, however, Navy intelligence officers learned that the Army had not conducted any training exercises adjacent to the ATF for several years; moreover, that the Army had (in fact) transferred NGVs to the PDF.

Despite the Army’s lack of interest in further reinforcing the MCSFC, the navy requested that the Marine Corps ready a combat brigade for possible deployment to the Canal Zone.  Accordingly, the 6th Marine Brigade (6thMEB) was issued a warning order.  In developing his operation plan, the Brigade Commander suggested an “all or nothing” approach.  Either the Brigade deployed as a fully functional combat brigade (two battalion landing teams, two combat aircraft squadrons) or not at all.

Even as the JCS fretted about a proper response to deteriorating conditions in Panama, 6thMEB received a “stand up” order on 31 March 1988.  While this was going on, the Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic (CG FMFLant) ordered an advance combat element to proceed to Panama to reinforce the MCSFC.  The Marines viewed this advanced element as a nucleus for a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) around which a brigade might later form, although one without any air support.

Why was there no aviation support for the Marines?  Given the amount of Army and Air Force assets stationed at Howard Air Force Base, COMUSSOUTHCOM did not see a need for additional Marine Corps combat aircraft.  SOUTHCOM didn’t see a need for any Marines at all, but at that stage, the employment of Marines wasn’t up to SOUTHCOM if their mission was to reinforce security for naval installations.

The unit assigned as the brigade’s advance element was Company I, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines (India 3/4), under the command of Captain Joseph P. Valore.  Upon arrival in Panama on 6 April, Valore reported to Rear Admiral Jerry G. Gnecknow, Commander, Naval Forces, Southern Command.  Colonel William J. Conley, who served as brigade chief of staff, accompanied Captain Valore to Panama.  As part of the advance team, Conley’s mission was to arrange logistical support for the brigade, should it actually deploy.  Admiral Gnecknow assigned Colonel Conley as Senior Marine Officer, Naval Forces, Panama, when the brigade’s deployment did not appear likely.

The selection of India 3/4 (Reinforced) to serve as the brigade’s advance element was that the brigade earmarked its parent battalion as one of the brigade’s battalion landing teams and because the company, who at the time was the 2nd Marine Divisions air alert/rapid response team, had completed extensive pre-deployment training.  The 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines reinforced India Company with an 81mm mortar section, a Sensor Control and Management Platoon (SCAMP), a counterintelligence team, and a squad of combat engineers.  Colonel Conley assigned responsibility for securing the ATF  to Captain Valore, who embraced Major Keith’s aggressive patrolling strategy.  Suddenly, on 9 April, operational control of India Company passed from Admiral Gnecknow to the Commander, Joint Task Force (JTF), Panama — who also served as Commander, U. S. Army South.

At the time of his deployment, Captain Valore felt obligated to address two issues affecting his company’s performance in Panama.  The first was a standing policy decision that precluded armed Marines from chambering a round in their weapons until fired upon, and the second involved rules of engagement.  Captain Valore correctly believed that sending Marines into harm’s way with unchambered weapons was foolish; indeed, it is.  He raised this issue with Colonel Conley, who agreed with Valore and authorized the Marines to patrol with chambered weapons.  As to the rules of engagement, Conley allowed Valore’s Marines to “return fire if fired upon.”

What made these two issues “hot button” topics was the 1983 Beirut bombing incident.  Because of the restricted weapons policy, Marine sentries were unable to stop the bomb-laden truck that drove through the security perimeter and kill 241 American servicemen.  As to the rules of engagement, no one fired on the Marines standing guard that day — the terrorist simply drove through the perimeter at a high rate of speed.  Thus, Conley’s cautionary instruction, to “return fire if fired upon,” was woefully inadequate.  There are occasions when initiating hostile action is unquestionably appropriate.

But COMJTFPANAMA/COMUSARMYSOUTH had a different perspective.  He did not want Marines firing on Panamanians.  The mission, he argued, was to safeguard American interests in Panama, not make the deteriorating political condition worse.  In his view, the Marines — by their very presence — were making matters worse by their aggressive behavior.  At this point, one may wonder, what would be the purpose of arming military personnel to guard US installations if the men charged with executing that mission weren’t taking their responsibilities seriously?

This particular kerfuffle leads one to consider the cultural differences between the U. S. Army and the United States Marines.  There is a unique and very distinctive Marine Corps culture that sets the Marines apart from every other branch of service.  First, Marines never lose sight of their primary mission: winning battles.  Locating, closing with, and destroying the enemy is at the forefront of every Marine Corps mission.  It is the only reason Marines exist.  Second, a bended knee and/or erring on the side of caution in a kinder-gentler world is not a Marine Corps tradition.  Marines are warriors — it is their ethos.  There is something very different going on inside the heads of (too many) senior army officers.

So, while senior Army officers berated the Marines for doing what they’re best at, senior Marine Corps officers remained adamant: they would not employ a lethal combat company and then tie its hands by ridiculously simple-minded restrictions. 

Moreover, in 1988, a bolstered Marine presence in Panama resulted from the PDF’s aggressiveness, not the cause of it.  It may be true that army personnel in Panama were serving a fantasy tour, accompanied by their families, enjoying an exotic and leisurely lifestyle, but that wasn’t what India Company was doing in Panama.  India Company arrived in Panama in combat mode.

A test of each of the preceding presumptions transpired during the night of 10-11 April.  Soon after the arrival of India Company, unknown intruders began probing Marine positions at the ATF.  Early in the morning of 11 April, a Marine patrol operating in the northeast sector contacted an unknown number of intruders.  The patrol leader, Corporal Ricardo Villahermosa, determined to apprehend these unknown trespassers.  To accomplish that, Villahermosa split his force, intending to envelop them.  The jungle was pitch black, and the only sound was an occasional snap of vegetation, which suggested human movement.  A short time later, a flare accidentally “popped,” emulating the sound of the discharge of a weapon, and then ignited.  Marines from the split force opened fire, and Corporal Villahermosa was mortally wounded.  It was a frightful accident — but one that prompted a renewal of the ‘weapons ready’ debate.

Major General Bernard Loeffke,[4] U. S. Army, CG USASouth, also serving as JTF commander, critically challenged the Marines at a meeting on 12 April.  Major Alfred F. Clarkson, the operations officer of the MEB’s advance element, rigorously defended the “weapons ready” policy, informing General Loeffke in no uncertain terms that the Marine chain of command would not deny the use of weapons to their troops.  Doing otherwise, he said, was morally indefensible.  Colonel Conley concurred and made certain that Loeffke’s concerns did not impede Marine combat operations.

Shortly after nightfall on 12 April, remote battlefield sensors alerted Valore’s Marines that approximately 40 unknown persons were approaching the ATF perimeter.  SCAMP Marines confirmed the presence of these unknown persons, and a USAF AC-130 gunship provided the third verification.  Captain Valore immediately consolidated his force in the center of the ATF.  Soon after that, Marines received and returned fire into the line of tracers aimed at them from this unknown force.

To the west of the company, a SCAMP detachment reported another probe.  The detachment NCOIC, Sergeant Michael A. Cooper, requested illumination, revealing well-armed hostiles were moving toward his position.  Captain Valore approved Cooper’s request for a mortar fire mission, and sixteen HE rounds were dropped on the approaching hostile force.  Valore also authorized Cooper to return fire.  As Cooper engaged the hostiles, an additional force assaulted Valore’s company.  The Marines returned fire with an M19 chain gun that spits out 220 rounds of 40mm grenades, and the enemy withdrew.

At around 2200, General Loeffke arrived at Valore’s position in civilian attire, demanding to know what had transpired.  After Captain Valore briefed Loeffke, the general ordered him to cease fire and not re-engage unless first fired upon.  Loeffke also ordered the Marines to remain in place and allow the intruders to withdraw from the area.  Loeffke assured Valore that he had contacted the PDF command structure, who assured him that there were no Panamanian forces in the area.

In compliance with Loeffke’s order, Valore moved the SCAMP detachment back from the perimeter.  Through the use of NVGs, Valore witnessed several intruders administering first aid and evacuating casualties from the jungle.  Marines from the MCSFC, who had established a roadblock on the Pan American highway and observed the PDFs evacuation of dead and wounded, confirmed Captain Valore’s after-action report.

In the aftermath of this incident, Valore and his Marines were set upon by a bevy of Naval Investigative Service (NIS) and Army Intelligence Service (AIS) agents.  The repetitious questioning lasted several days.  Additionally, Loeffke ordered Valore and his Marines to submit to urinalysis testing — all of which were negative.

More than anything else, Major General Loeffke and his JTF Staff wanted to discredit Captain Valore, India Company Marines, and the U. S. Marine Corps.  Loeffke publicly stated that the Marines had fired at ghosts and shadows.  General Noriega and the anti-American Panamanian press exploited this opportunity and began planting stories about drug abuse among the Marines.  For their part, the Marine hierarchy closed ranks around Captain Valore and his Marines.  Colonel Conley rejected Loeffke’s and Noriega’s nonsense and may have even confided some concern about Loeffke’s loyalty to his superiors.

Undeterred, Loeffke replaced India 3/4 at the ATF with an Army battalion[5].  On 14 April 1988, Army sentries guarding the ammunition supply point came under fire from an unknown size of PDF forces.  The same night, an Army patrol of the 7th Special Forces Group operating west of Howard AFB came under fire.  It, therefore, became apparent to everyone (except General Loeffke) that the Marines did not imagine the PDF assault at the ATF.  In retrospect, the Marines developed the appropriate response to PDF aggression, and Loeffke’s general incompetence as a field commander countermanded it.[6]

Over the next several months, the PDF continued to initiate aggressive actions against US forces in Panama, but nothing on the scale of the firefight in April 1988, which suggested that Captain Valore’s response had the desired effect on PDF activities.  Between April and December 1988, the US decided on diplomatic maneuvers rather than military. 

This period of calm allowed the Marines to undergo additional jungle training and exercise command and control systems, particularly between the Army and Marines.  COMUSSOUTHCOM formally appointed Colonel Conley as commander overall Marine forces in Panama and Army units temporarily attached to the Marines for training.  Under Conley’s direction, Marine intelligence assets began to revise contingency plans based on needed updates to the “enemy situation” in Panama.

In mid-May 1988, India 3/4 went back on the line for another two weeks.  In addition to regular patrolling (day and night), the Marines improved their hardened observation and listening posts surrounding the tank farm and ammo depot and rehearsed rapid reaction operations.  Operations Purple Storm and Purple Blitz were joint-service exercises designed to improve command and control procedures between Marine and Army units and combat casualty evacuations.  Army and Air Force dog teams joined the Marines during their security patrols.  Army specialists installed a loudspeaker system designed to inform intruders that they were on US government property.  Air Force C-130 gunships flew nightly missions in support of the Marines.

Lima Company 3/4 relieved India 3/4 in June 1988.

Sources:

  1. Crandall, R.  Gunboat Democracy: US interventions in the Dominican Republic, Granada, and Panama.  Rowman & Littlefield Publications, 2006.
  2. Donnelly, T.  Operation Just Cause: The storming of Panama.  Lexington Books, 1991.
  3. Reynolds, N. E.  Just Cause: Marine Operations in Panama 1988-1990.  History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1996.
  4. Yates, L. A.  The US Military Intervention in Panama: Origins, Planning, and Crisis Management, June 1987-December 1989.  Army Center of Military History, 2008.

Endnotes:

[1] On 9 January 1964, grievances between native Panamanians and the “Zonians” (Americans living within the US-controlled Canal Zone) boiled over into a series of anti-American riots that resulted in an evacuation of the US Embassy in Panama City, assaults on US citizens — including the lynching of several US Army personnel — widespread looting and substantial damage to US-owned property.  The United States responded to this unrest by dispatching the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (BLT 2/8) to Panama to protect American lives and property.  At the time, I had the privilege of serving as a rifleman in Company E (Captain William R. Wildpret, commanding).  Echo Company was assigned responsibility for the security of the naval base at Coco Solo.

[2] The density of the jungle limited Marine patrols to about 500 yards over two hours.

[3] At this time, security for Howard Air Force Base was not a Marine Corps responsibility.

[4] USMA graduate in 1957, Loeffke has a degree in engineering, an MA in Russian language and Soviet Era studies, and a PhD in international relations.  He is a combat decorated officer, served as the Army Attaché with the US Embassy in Moscow, served on the White House staff, served as the Defense Attaché with the US Embassy in China, befriended Chinese general Xu Xin, is fluent in Chinese, and is a self-professed expert on Sino-American affairs.  After leaving the Army in 1992, Loeffke earned a medical degree and served as a physician in Bosnia, Haiti, Kenya, Iraq, Niger, and Darfur.  According to Loeffke, China is not the United States’ enemy.  While instructing at the USMA, Loeffke urged his students to increase their understanding of the Chinese and Russians as they are just like us.

[5] It normally takes an army regiment to replace a Marine rifle company.

[6] Documents uncovered after the December 1989 invasion of Panama confirmed the PDF assault on the Marines at the ATF.  Analysts subsequently concluded that the ATF was not the focus of the PDF, but rather the Marines themselves, as perpetrated by Noriega’s 7th Rifle Company, also known as Macho de Monte, one of Noriega’s few elite units, possibly reinforced by a few members of the Special Anti-terrorist Security Unit, and that they were likely augmented by several Cuban military advisors.