Wed. Jul 17th, 2024

The deceased Smedley Darlington Butler (July 30, 1881 – June 21, 1940) touts more than an impressive name. The West Chester native rose from a teenager who defied his pacifist family to become a United States Marine Corps Major General, the highest rank bestowed at the time of his award in 1929. During his 34-year career as a Marine, he collected a total of 16 medals, five of which were for heroism, making him the most decorated Marine in U.S. history at the time of his death. Butler is one of 19 to receive the Medal of Honor twice, one of three to be awarded the Marine Corps Brevet Medal and the Medal of Honor and the only Marine to receive two Medals of Honor, all for separate military actions.

In addition to boasting a sizable collection of medals, Butler dedicated his later years to writing and activism, distinguishing himself as a critic of war profiteering and imperialism. He became known for exposing a supposed political conspiracy designed to overthrow President Roosevelt in a string of allegations that was coined the “Business Plot.” But before his time as a marine, activist, author and whistleblower, he was a kid from West Chester; one who in his rebellious state of youth defied his father’s wishes and enlisted to fight in the Spanish-American War.

Like so many of us, Smedley lied on his resume. Realizing that he could not obtain a direct commission as a Marine second lieutenant at the ripe age of 17, he claimed to be older and successfully received a promotion. It was not until another promotion to first lieutenant that Butler saw combat action. While he originally enlisted in the fervor of the Spanish-American War, he got his feet wet a year later fighting in the Philippine-American War. In October 1899, Butler successfully led 300 Marines in an effort to take the town of Novelta from Filipino rebels. Despite his first sergeant being wounded, Butler maintained composure and dispersed the enemy, taking the town and running out rebels before midday.

Risking one’s life for another is the ultimate act of bravery. For Smedley, sacrifice was nothing extraordinary. Sent to China in an effort to quell the Boxer Rebellion, Butler participated in the Battle of Tientsin on July 13, 1900. In the midst of battle, Butler watched a fellow Marine officer fall. After witnessing his comrade collapse, he climbed from the safety of a trench to rescue him. In his rescue attempt, he himself was shot in the thigh. His injury did not deter him from assisting the wounded, however, and Butler, with the help of another marine, escorted the injured officer to the rear. Butler’s commanding officer, Major Littleton W.T. Waller, took note of his bravery and promoted him to captain for “saving a wounded man at the risk of his own life, and under a very severe fire.”

For the next five years, Smedley fought in the Banana Wars in the Caribbean and countered revolts in Honduras. A marriage, garrison duty in the Philippines and the management of a coal mine kept him occupied until 1909, at which point he returned to active duty to enforce U.S. policy in Nicaragua. He led a battalion to the relief of the rebel-run city Granada with a 104 degree fever, displaying the fortitude of his Butler blood and making me ashamed of skipping class because of a head cold. It was not until his time in Mexico, however, when he received his first Medal of Honor.

In 1914, Smedley temporarily discarded his impressive name to assume the role of a less ubiquitous railroad official named “Mr. Johnson.” The point of the facade was not to test his acting chops, but to complete a spy mission in Mexico City that would allow him to examine the size and readiness of the Mexican Army. In the fighting that ensued in the city of Veracruz, Butler was part of a landing force designated to secure the city. Nine Medals of Honor were presented to Marines that participated in maintaining Veracruz. During World War I, Butler attempted to give his medal back, explaining that he had done nothing to earn it.

Though his superiors ordered him to keep and wear the medal, Smedley’s humility does him credit. For Smedley Darlington Butler, second really is the best. Butler’s second Medal of Honor was accepted upon recommendation from the impressed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, after his time in Haiti. This time, he did not try to give it back. After the Haitian president was killed by a mob in 1915, the U.S. ordered the U.S.S. Connecticut to Haiti with Major Butler and a company of Marines on board. After arrival, Butler participated in the taking and securing of forts, distinguishing himself by taking the rebel-held Fort Rivière with a company of 100 men. The battle for the French-built stronghold lasted a total of 20 minutes and not a single Marine was lost.

Butler, along with Dan Daily, gained the prestige of being the only Marine to receive the Medal of Honor two times for separate action.

Even off the battlefield, Smedley put his mind to good use. In 1918, he was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of Camp Pontanezen in Brest, France. Though he was not placed in combat command, he found a new enemy to fight: sanitation issues. After arriving at the camp, he took duckboards (platforms made of wooden slats designed to form a path over muddy ground and trenches) no longer needed for trenches and placed them on the ground described by novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart as “nothing but mud.” While the act may not seem heroic, it gave his men dry ground to sleep on and resulted in even more medals. And just when you thought his name couldn’t get any better, he earned a new nickname: “Old Duckboard.”

“Old Duckboard’s” life did little to slow down after World War I. If anything, it became increasingly interesting after commanding an Expeditionary Force in China, badmouthing Mussolini, becoming a Director of Public Safety in Philadelphia and exposing a political conspiracy against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When he wasn’t fighting abroad, he brought his energy home, criticizing the government, advocating for veterans and cracking down on corruption. Even though I have only graced the tip of the Smedley iceberg with this week’s installment, I can say with confidence that this West Chester native was a pretty cool guy. And no, I’m not only saying this because we are related.

Celine Butler is a second-year student majoring in psychology with a minor in French. ✉

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