In the history of the Marine Corps there are a few legendary figures that all young Marines learn about from their earliest days at Boot Camp, or OCS. Figures such as Chesty Puller, Dan Daily, and Smedley Butler. The following article (posted in it’s entirety (as far as I can tell)) was written sometime prior to 2003 by Lynn Ashbey. It gives us an interesting view of one of the legends of the Corps.
When Smedley Butler went to enlist in the Marines at 16, he lied about his age, adding on two years. His father was not amused. “Don’t say thee is any older. Thy mother and I were not married until 1879.”
Tom Dick Butler laughs softly in recounting his family history. He is sitting behind his father’s desk in his father’s study in his father’s house in a leafy suburb of Philadelphia. Near Tom Dick are the sword, medals and photographs given to the man under discussion, Smedley Darlington Butler.
He was a man with three last names, two Medals of Honor and an enormous amount of personal and intellectual courage. He was often in trouble. He was nearly court martialled for daring to call Benito Mussolini a fascist. He was hired to clean up Philadelphia and did it so well he got fired.
He was ferocious in combat, slamming forward with rifle, bayonet, and, in some cases, rocks. He was tireless, ingenuous, a cocky little guy who was with you till the end — unless you insulted the Corps.
Smedley (to avoid confusion, may we just call him Smedley?) was also a son, husband and father, bringing to these roles the same attributes which made him a major general in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Much has been written about Smedley the military hero, but not so much about Smedley the person.
“Dad was a Quaker, brought up in a very strict Quaker household,” says his son, Tom Dick. “As was then the custom, he called everyone in the family ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ and ‘thine,’ except for my mother. Dad called her ‘Bunny’ because, he claimed, she could wiggle her ears.”
Tom Dick, now aged 82 and still practicing law, goes to a photograph. It is of MajGen Butler in dress blues, chest bedecked with ribbon after ribbon (besides his two Medals of Honor he was awarded 16 other decorations). “This is how the world knew my father.” Tom Dick goes to another photograph. “This is how we knew him.” Butler, in uniform, is fondly gazing at the family cat.
Even in uniform he doesn’t look much like the public’s conception of a Leatherneck. At most he weighed 140 pounds, once dropping to 90 pounds in China when he got sick. He was 5 feet 9 inches. He had stooped shoulders, a beaked-like nose and penetrating eyes.
It was the eyes his Marines always remembered, eyes that could stare right through you. Thus he was given the nickname, “Old Gimlet Eye,” which was particularly accurate when he suffered from days without sleep combined with yet another bout of malaria. His voice was sharp and nasal. Listening to old tapes of his speeches, one hears a voice that bristled with authority
If he didn’t look the part, sometimes he didn’t act the part, either. “Once Dad went hunting. He killed a bird,” Tom Dick recalls. “He was so troubled that he never went hunting again.”
Then there was the time that Smedley, the tee totaling Quaker, the man hired to close down the speakeasies, was left with a large cache of booze in his own house, and gave it away.
Smedley, one of the most famous and most decorated Marines in the Corps’ history, had many strengths which were undercut by a streak of maverickness, rebellion bordering on insubordination.
He disliked some Annapolis graduates and thought none should be especially favored as commandant of the Marine Corps. Like many another general, he came to hate war and to suspect politicians. In the long run all of this made problems, and there is something for young Marines, both enlisted and officers, to be learned from his life.
But we are getting ahead of our story.
Smedley was born in West Chester, Pa., on July 30, 1881, the first of three sons to Thomas and Maud Darlington Butler. Both parents were descended from old-line, prosperous Quaker families including the Smedleys, the Darlingtons and the Butlers. His mother’s father was U.S. Congressman Smedley Darlington. Smedley’s own father, Thomas S. Butler, eventually held the same seat in Congress, serving for 32 years, becoming chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee — not bad baggage for a young Marine to carry.
As a youngster Smedley was taken with toy soldiers and such, and by the time the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, he was an adolescent straining to join the fight. He tried to enlist in the military several times, with passes at both the Army and the Navy. Finally, his break came two months prior to graduation from Haverford Preparatory School.(The school later proudly presented him with a diploma.)
What happened was that one night as he was getting ready to go to bed, he overheard his father tell his mother, “Today Congress increased the Marine Corps by 24 second lieutenants and two thousand men for the period of the war. The Marine Corps is a finely trained body of men. Too bad Smedley is so young. He seems determined to go.”
Smedley didn’t have much of an idea of what a Marine was, although once he had seen a Leatherneck in town. Without the knowledge of his father, and with the reluctant help of his mother, Smedley was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marines.
Things could move swiftly in the Old Corps. With six weeks’ of training, Smedley was getting shot at in Cuba. He was still 16 years old.
He arrived there with two other new lieutenants, “We were just three God-forsaken, seasick little Marines,” he recalled.
Smedley was soon struck by something that lasted him forever in the Corps. He was not greeted by the veterans as an outsider still to earn his stripes, nor was he ridiculed and embarrassed. Rather, he was seriously treated as a new member of an old club, where officers and older sergeants — who had fought from Fort Sumter to yesterday’s battle — took him along and helped him along. It was a philosophy which endeared him to Marines for the rest of his career: They are not outsiders. They are fellow Marines.
Even so, he learned humility. After a particularly bad screw-up while drilling the troops, his commanding officer barked, “Get the hell out of here, Butler. There are no military orders on hell or earth to untangle that mess. Company dismissed!”
At that time the Corps numbered only a few thousand, (today there are 1,200 employees just in Headquarters Marine Corps), and there was no room for a rear echelon. Thus within a year, at age 17, Smedley was leading a company in combat in the Philippines. The next year, now a full 18 years old, he was fighting in China in the Boxer Rebellion.
In that long encounter he was wounded, but not fatally, when a bullet hit a button on his coat. For rescuing a British soldier under fire, Butler was recommended for the Victoria Cross, Britain’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor, but in those days members of the U.S. military were not allowed to accept foreign decorations.
Then to Puerto Rico, Panama, Honduras, wherever there was a dirty job to do, Smedley was in the middle of it.
He was thick-skinned about a lot of things, but not about insults and slights from the other services. Once when Smedley was on board a ship, the captain summoned all hands to the quarterdeck to complain that someone had been using foul language near his cabin.
Said the captain, “I know the guilty party cannot be one of these fine men,” motioning toward the sailors. “Therefore it must have been one of these men enlisted from the slums of our big cities,” pointing to the Marines.
Smedley had to restrain himself from physically attacking the captain, but wrote, “Then and there, I made up my mind that I would always protect Marines from the hounding to which they were subjected by some of the naval officers.”
Decades later, as commanding general of Quantico, he introduced Navy Secretary Charles Francis Adams to a group of officers with: “Gentlemen, I want you to meet the Secretary of the God dam Navy.”
In 1913, Smedley was present for the grand opening of the Panama Canal when, in his words, “A group of important and pompous army officials boarded a tug to make the first trip. None of the Marines had been invited to join them. I walked down to the Canal to watch the festivities.
“By golly! A dugout shot around the bank. It was proudly flying a little Marine flag, and two Marines were paddling like the devil. They went through first, cheered and applauded by the crowd.”
Smedley always had this thing about “important and pompous officials.”
“Dad and Douglas MacArthur were born within a year of each other,” says Tom Dick. “MacArthur was always strutting around with his swagger stick, which Dad thought was a bit much.”
Despite all his bravery and heroism, at one point in his life Smedley surrendered unconditionally. He fell in love. In 1905 he was assigned to the naval yards in Philadelphia. There he met Ethel Conway Peters, although Southern-born, she was a member of an established, prominent Philadelphia family.
They were married in a military ceremony on 30 June 1905, at Bay Head, New Jersey. ThePhiladelphia Inquirer commented: “Cupid and Mars in a wedding by the sea at high noon today.”
“Mother went with Dad everywhere, no matter where he was stationed, except on temporary duties,” says Tom Dick. Their first trip together was their honeymoon, which took them through Europe, India and Singapore to the Butlers’ next assignment, Subic Bay, the Philippines.
Though remote, the base had a goodly number of young, newly married officers and their brides, overseen by the motherly Mrs. Joseph H. Pendleton, wife of the commanding officer. One arriving officer described it as a “petticoat post.”
In November, 1906, their first child, a daughter they named Ethel for the child’s mother, was born. Upon hearing of the blessed event, Butler’s Second Regiment nicknamed the little baby “Snooks” after the unit’s tallest Marine, then they celebrated by getting gloriously drunk.
She was adopted by the regiment and the doting father brought little Ethel, on a pillow, into a dinner for enlisted men as guest of honor. (Baby Ethel later married a Marine.)
Smedley soon had yet another run-in with the Navy brass, this time for the Navy’s refusal to supply his starving Marines at a beach outpost. At great risk to himself, Smedley re-supplied his forces. At this point the Navy decided his actions constituted signs of “an impending nervous breakdown” and the family was sent home.
On July 12, 1909, Smedley Jr. was born in Philadelphia. Now deemed less nervous, Smedley the Elder was ordered to Panama. He was then ordered to neighboring nations to put down revolts, but he didn’t like leaving his family. On Oct. 9, 1912, he wrote his wife, Ethel, “I get so terribly homesick at times that I just don’t see how I can stand it.”
Apparently he was home enough. “I was born in 1913,” says Tom Dick, “about the time the Canal opened.”
Smedley, with his family in tow, continued his world wide battle against the enemy, and occasionally against his own government. He did not see the need for “American boys” to die defending the investments of New York banks. And he more often sided, if only emotionally, with the starving peasants that battled dictators he was sent to support.
But no matter the assignment or his own feelings, Smedley was absolutely fearless. He fought hand-to-hand countless times, commanding, leading, and always making decisions with no second guessing.
And he had a flair for deflating self-important enemies. Once a Nicaraguan general shoved a pistol into Smedley’s stomach. He grabbed the weapon, opened it up, emptied out the bullets and handed the pistol back to the general, whose troops laughed uproariously.
In Haiti, Smedley pulled a rebellious general off of his horse in front of his troops. Again, the soldiers laughed.
During another Latin American rebellion, a club-wielding woman came at Smedley with the intent, she said, of splitting his head open. He reached out and chucked her under the chin. She became so flabbergasted that she turned and walked away.
Then there was Butler as James Bond. When asked, not ordered, to go behind enemy lines in Mexico, he immediately did so, disguising himself as an English civilian, knowing full well his government would disavow any knowledge of his mission and knowing his own punishment if caught.
That was during the invasion of Vera Cruz, Mexico, where he won his first Medal of Honor. Actually, a lot of people won the Medal in Vera Cruz. The battle lasted three days, 15 Americans troops were killed and 56 wounded, while 55 Medals of Honor were handed out, including one to an admiral because: “In connection with these operations, he was at times on shore and under fire.” More Medals of Honor were awarded for that one conflict than in any engagement before or since.
Nine of the recipients were Marines, all officers. Despite the generosity of awards, Smedley seems to have won his Medal fair and square. The official version is rather cryptic: “He exhibited courage and skill in leading his men through the action…”
What happened was that he commanded a troop of Marines down streets, fighting house to house. As his men stayed close to the walls, Smedley, armed only with a stick, would march down the center of the street heedless of bullets flying about him, and, using the stick, would point out snipers on rooftops for his men to dispatch.
“Dad always felt he did not deserve that first Medal of Honor,” Tom Dick says. Indeed, Smedley wrote his mother that the medal was supposed to be for heroism, but the way it was being passed out was “utterly foul.” And, predicting such conversations as the one Tom Dick is having today, Smedley went on to write that he could not have his sons “proudly display this wretched medal, or a rather wretchedly awarded, some time and have a bystander smile or wink — when they, my Boys, have always been under the impression that their father had honestly deserved all he left them . . . ”
This explains why Smedley did something unprecedented: He refused the Medal of Honor. His superiors, when questioned by the Navy, said Smedley not only deserved it for combat in the streets of Vera Cruz but for his heroic action as a spy. The Navy sent the Medal back to Smedley with orders to wear it. He sent it back again. A second time he refused to accept the Medal of Honor. Finally, under pressure from above, he agreed, reluctantly, to wear it.
By 1915, he was Major Butler and he was in Haiti, fighting the bandits known as cacos, who were orchestrated outlaws terrorizing the countryside. He spent some time patrolling and pacifying the outback on his horse. “I had a magnificent horse, Tom Dick, named after my two-year-old son.” No matter how bad the terrain or the battle, Tom Dick was a good horse Marine.
“Although Tom Dick’s hoofs were worn to the quick and his feet were sore and lame, I had to place him at the head of the column. He was game, all right.”
In early November of 1915 Smedley led a party of 700 Marines and sailors into the interior to smash the cacos’s fort at Fort Riviere. They finally found a breach in the west wall big enough only for one man at a time to get through.
First a sergeant went in, then a private, then Butler. Others came in after them, one at a time, and hand-to-hand combat erupted throughout the fort. Using rifles, clubs and rocks, the melee lasted about 10 minutes. When the dust had cleared all 51 defenders were dead. One Marine had two teeth knocked out by a stone. As for Smedley, he got his second Medal of Honor, within a year and a half of his first, and this one he felt he earned.
On occasion, Smedley would be granted leave home. Back in Philadelphia, he would visit with his four spinster aunts, who, years earlier, had doted on little Smedley as their favorite nephew. Now they would sit around and listen to him tell of his exploits.
“Smedley,” they would ask in awe, “thee did not do that, did thee?” He would nod in sheepish silence.
Smedley’s three children and his wife bounced from outpost to outpost, often in sickly environments. But there were pluses. The Marine Corps was small and made up mostly of career troops. Eventually everyone served with everyone else.
“We knew the Lejeunes’s two daughters,” Tom Dick recalls. “And they were always fussing that no one knew how to pronounce their name. ‘We’re from Louisiana.’ they’d say. ‘It’s not LaJune. It’s La-zhurn.’ Rhymed withurn.”
There were certain financial pluses. In Haiti in 1916 Smedley grossed $7,256 and paid $95 a month for a large house with a big porch. Also, there were the surprises. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt went for a visit to Haiti and, as the president of the country was a bachelor, at a ball Ethel Butler had the role of Haiti’s first lady. Ethel stood alongside the president in the receiving line.
There was also the matter of servants. “We always had at least two. In Haiti, Dad was head of the gendarmerie. We had a staff of eight servants. Mother didn’t learn how to cook until my father retired. My father couldn’t boil an egg.”
For the children there was the chance to pick up new languages from the servants. Smedley wrote, “Tom Dick, the youngest, talked Creole as soon as he did English.”
As for rearing the children, Tom Dick recalls, (in English, not Creole): “He was so busy with Marine Corps activities that he left raising us to my mother.” It must have been difficult, because Ethel could not easily threaten, “Just thee wait till thy father gets home from work.” At that time Smedley’s work probably consisted of wrestling in a muddy trench with a machete-wielding bandit intent on Dad’s decapitation.
At one point in Panama, Ethel went on a shopping trip to Panama City and returned to find that her husband had left to go fight bandits in Nicaragua. One less for supper.
When he was home, however, it was his turn. “Mother would call out, ‘Smedley, would thee come here and spank thy child?'”
If he was a parent, he was also a son. Here in the study of the Butler home is a photograph of Smedley with his father, the Congressman, along with Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby and MajGen. John Archer Lejeune. ”Dad would take his troops and re-enact Civil War battles. This was picture was taken at Gettysburg.”
There were advantages for Smedley having such a powerful father. The young officer would write suggestions about the Navy and Marines. Indeed, his father once chastised Smedley for not keeping him informed about what was going on in the service. On the other hand, his superiors could hold grudges against the young officer for real or imagined end runs.
Other pictures decorate the walls. Other objects bring back memories of other honors. The USS Butler was one. Here is the container which held the bottle of champagne for the dedication.
Tom Dick goes over and pulls out his father’s sword. It is simply marked, “U.S. Marines.” No name. There is a large glass display case filled with medals. “The Medals of Honor are in Philadelphia right now for some special exhibition,” Tom Dick says. More photographs, more memories. “This is grandfather Smedley. The picture is 150 years old. This Smedley was an ancestor on Mother’s side, Maud Butler.” More Butlers, more Darlingtons.
“This desk was his, and when he left Quantico his staff gave it to him. I try to keep it like he left it, but when you use a desk every day, you can’t keep things the same.”
On the wall there is a banner from the Third Marines, also a Spanish flag taken by sailors during the Spanish-American War and given to Smedley, and a framed cover of the Jan. 20, 1927, Time magazine, showing Smedley. On a table is a copy of his book,War Is a Racket, in which he expressed his long-held beliefs that the Marines had been used in Latin America as nothing more than hit men for Wall Street.
Here is a photograph of Smedley sitting in a chair reading the newspapers. In the background are Chinese ceremonial umbrellas. Here, today, is the chair, and there are the decorations. The house hasn’t changed much since Smedley lived here, except the swimming pool in the backyard came later.
With World War One beginning, Smedley begged for a job at the front. His old buddies, Lejeune and Wendell C. Neville, were given front-line commands. Only after the Armistice did Smedley receive a command in Europe. He was put in charge of a base camp in France. He blamed politics and his being away in Haiti.
Still, given a lemon, Smedley turned it into his lemonade. By his very energy and intelligence, Smedley changed the base from a quagmire to a decent debarkation point. Some of it involved midnight requisition, which he honed to an art form. He never saw action in the war, but he showed what can be done with what you got.
In February, 1927, Smedley, by then a brigadier general, returned to China, where he had first seen action 27 years earlier in the Boxer Rebellion. The country was a powder keg of war lords, civil rebellion and the continued hatred of foreigners on Chinese soil. Will Rogers, referring to Smedley’s no-nonsense lifestyle, commented, “Smedley Butler has arrived in China. The war may continue, but the parties will stop.”
“This was one of the few times my mother did not go with him,” says Tom Dick. “She would have, but by then we were in school and the only school over there was British. They thought it best if we stayed behind, but twice she went over on long visits.”
In 1927 and again in 1928, Ethel visited her husband in China and made the social rounds. Often the Butlers were the only non-Chinese at the event. It was all a part of his philosophy of getting beyond the barbed wire.
This time the Marines’ role was not one of combat but of trying to keep the peace. As usual, Smedley was all over the place, building roads, doing public relations, and diplomacy.
He was clearly successful. Soon his fame spread throughout that part of China. After completing the “Sino-American Highway,” elaborate dedication ceremonies were held, two large granite monuments were built, each sporting the Chinese and U.S. flags, and Butler was presented a Ten Thousand Blessings umbrella by the village of Peichang.
This umbrella is not your run-of-the-mill parasol. It is a huge umbrella, six feet across, on a pole which is probably 15 feet high and four inches in diameter. The canopy, once red silk, now almost a maroon, droops down like a giant hollow bell pepper.
Later he got a second umbrella, which is now falling apart and Tom Dick is trying to figure out how to save it. This second umbrella was given to Smedley for being in the wrong place at the right time in a rather comic-opera event.
According to Smedley, one afternoon he was driving towards the Tientsin suburb of Boxertown, as the Americans called it. As he was motoring along he noticed citizens with their few possessions fleeing the town, and was told an opposing Chinese army was advancing to loot the place.
In an excellent book on Smedley,Maverick Marine, by Hans Schmidt, one of Smedley’s aides explains that his boss had simply gotten caught up in a marching army while he was on the way to a golf course, and became a hero.
His car didn’t have a muffler and pop-popped across the area. The approaching army thought it was a machine gun. “When some of them saw my car blocking the narrow street, they believed I had an army back of me,” he wrote.
The umbrellas are festooned with tags carrying the names of the village elders. Tags hanging down read, “Your kindness is always in the minds of the people.” And “General Butler loves China as he loves America.”
Smedley came home from China in 1929 and was promoted to major general, at the age of 48 he was the youngest major general in the U.S. armed forces and the youngest ever in the Marine Corps. The top job of being named commandant of the Marine Corps was within his grasp.
Now that he had returned from China, Smedley was ordered to Quantico, his second tour there, only this time as commander.
He was not to stay there long. On Jan. 7, 1924, after a lot of pleading from the city fathers of Philadelphia, Smedley finally agreed to take a one-year leave of the Corps to go home to clean up the city as Director of Public Safety, putting him over both the police and the fire department.
The city was racked with corruption and Prohibition was ignored. Poor Smedley simply tried to do his job. He was hailed as a hero when he cracked down on speakeasies in the lower realms, but when he began raiding the establishment clubs and hotels, he went too far.
After Smedley’s second year he asked for an extension but President Calvin Coolidge decided against it, so Smedley decided to leave the Corps which would allow him to stay on the job in Philadelphia.
“Dad sent in his resignation to the commandant, Gen. Lejeune, but meanwhile, the mayor fired him. He called Lejeune and said, ‘There’s a letter of resignation on your desk. Rip it up.'”
For the second time, he was sent to Quantico, this posting as commander. It was still nothing but a mosquito-infested backwater. He turned it into to a spit-and-polish operation, much as he had done with his muddy base in France.
At this point there are two aspects of Smedley’s life to mull over: drudgery and drinking. First, it seemed to always have been the case with Smedley that, during his many years in the Marines, he was in the spotlight, given the glory and the regards. But he was also dished more than his quota of bilge. He never took it as an insult, but a challenge. Time after time, from China to Haiti to Panama to France to Quantico, Smedley saw a challenge, and one he met with élan. He seemed to think that enthusiasm can always lick adversity.
Second, the drinking. It was always Smedley’s problem, or, actually, a non-problem for him but a problem for others which made a problem for him. As a young officer he caroused and drank with his brother officers. Indeed, in China one night he was up till dawn singing and drinking and when others were sent to quiet him down he somehow managed to bring them into the chorus.
Two things must have changed his mind. He had to deal with unruly drunken Marines in Panama and elsewhere. Later he had to charge a colonel, an old friend, with public drunkenness which resulted in a highly publicized court martial. (The colonel subsequently drove his car into San Francisco Bay and drowned.) And there was Smedley’s job in Philadelphia in which he spent two years trying to curtail drinking.
All of which made him a teetotaler. Not that he objected to drinking as such. He often stood around social events while his young officers threw it down. But he, himself, decided not to drink.
Bunny, his wife, did not go along with the program. Tom Dick remembers: “Dad would say, ‘Bunny, would thee like a drink?’ And she would say, ‘Thee know I would, Smedley.'”
Later, at their home in Newtown Square, they had a party for some political big wigs and Smedley figured that he had to serve liquor. No problem. But afterwards, there were bottles and bottles of booze left over.
“Dad didn’t know how to get rid of it,” says Tom Dick.
We can well imagine the general, late at night, looking at this load of gin and Scotch. He finally convinced his maiden aunts to dispose of it.
Getting back to his stormy story, it was at Quantico that he was put under house arrest, the first general officer since the Civil War to be in such a predicament. The problem was this: Smedley had made a scorching speech against the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Smedley was speaking to what he had been told was a private gathering. Alas, one member of the audience was an Italian diplomat. A protest was lodged, Smedley stood firm.
The problem was eventually worked out, but it didn’t help his career to keep pace with that of his peers.
From the Spanish-American War on, there were three young Marine officers who hung together throughout their careers. Smedley, John Lejeune, and Wendell C. Neville. Lejeune retired as commandant, Neville dropped dead in the job. That made Smedley the senior officer. “At the time,” says Tom Dick, “there were only three major generals in the Marines. The Commandant was the Senior Major General.” Thus Smedley should have been named commandant.
But Smedley had made a number of enemies in his career, especially among “arm chair admirals” and “desk warriors,” as he so derisively called them. This was their chance to get him out of the Corps.
Although there was great deal of pressure from both within and without the Marines for Smedley to be named commandant, a junior brigadier general, Ben H. Fuller, got the job. Smedley knew his time was over. After 33 years in the Corps, on 1 Oct. 1931, he retired — 15 years before required to do so.
After Smedley retired, in September of 1931 the Butlers bought this old farm house outside Philadelphia, in Newtown Square, 12 miles east of West Chester, his birth place. The reason Smedley bought it was the hall, two stories high. Room for the umbrellas.
By then Tom Dick was at Swarthmore College and his brother, Smedley, Jr., was at M.I.T. Even after leaving the Marines, Smedley was as feisty as ever. He lectured, he wrote newspaper and magazine articles, including one,I Hate Admirals! Why I Retired at Fifty. If there was a fight, Smedley was in the middle of it. He became quite an accomplished public speaker, much in demand.
“That’s one reason we moved here,” says Tom Dick. “Dad had to make a lot of trips and this was a major train center. He hated to fly.”
One of the strangest adventures for Smedley came after he had left the Marines. There was plot to strip President Franklin D. Roosevelt of his power. It was to be a bloodless coup, and the plotters wanted Smedley in on it. Instead, he blew the whistle, and the whole thing fell apart. You can read all about it in The Plot to Seize the White House, by Jules Archer.
On 21 June, 1940, in the Philadelphia Navy Yard hospital, Smedley died of pancreatic cancer. He left an estate of $2,000 along with a goodly number of enemies and friends. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent Ethel a personal message, recalling their days together in Haiti when FDR was under secretary of the navy.
Smedley’s funeral was held right here in the big hall under the tall umbrellas. Among the dozen or so uniformed Marines were his old chief of staff, Col Ellis B. Miller, and Col Alexander Vandergrift, who would achieve what always eluded Smedley, the commandancy.
Later, during the Pacific battles of World War II, a journalist asked Gen Douglas MacArthur if one of his own generals didn’t remind him of Smedley Butler. Replied MacArthur, “Never in a million years. There’s only one Butler. He was one of thereally great generals in American history.”
All of which brings us to today. What are Marines to make of the life of Smedley Darlington Butler? A lot.
A whole lot.
* Size doesn’t count.
* Luck does.
* So does having an important father.
* Ditto an understanding wife and kids.
* Learn the local people. Wherever he went, Smedley tried very hard to learn about the locals. He obviously succeeded, witness his umbrellas, and his medal from the citizens of Nicaragua. He entered the oppressor, the conqueror, he left as the Wonderful American. A simple litmus test: they were always, always, sad to see him go.
* Take care of your Marines and they will take care of you. He consistently pointed out how his aides, his sergeant, his bugler, not only saved his career, but saved his life. On the march, in peace or combat, Smedley would pick up the packs of the smallest privates, because they would pick up his pack and, sometimes, him.
* Do it yourself. When he arrived to take command of the base at San Diego, his first task was to dismiss his assigned orderly. Smedley would always polish his own shoes and shine his own brass.
* If in doubt, go ahead. But this is a two edged Mamaluke sword. Audaciousness can get you places, and then can get you kicked out of them. If life is a poker game, Smedley never folded. He always bet everything and usually won.
* Finally, given all of the above, Smedley shows today’s Marines that there is honor, pride and even a fuzzy comfort in intelligently charging onward. Not to mention that the next time your exasperated commanding officer, looking at the screwed up troop formation, shouts, “Get the hell out of here!” take it as a blessing. Two Medals of Honor await you.
Today, on a cloudy afternoon, walking around this house, here in Newtown Square outside of Philadelphia — the city where the Marine Corps was born — a question keeps coming back. It is from James Michener’sThe Bridges of Toko-ri, a novel about naval aviators in the Korean War.
The admiral, George Tarrant, walks to the aft of his aircraft carrier and muses, “Where did we get such men?”
Where did we get such men? A good question. For an answer, come to this leafy suburb. Come to the home of Smedley Darlington Butler. Sit thee here under the umbrella.