Among the Old Breed

As with many of the so-called old breed, Littleton W. T. Waller was an authoritarian officer whose initial commission as second lieutenant of Marines occurred on 24 June 1880.  These old breed Marines were of a different type from those wearing the uniform today.  In the late 1800’s, Marine officers and enlisted men lived hard, drank hard, and fought hard.  Their near-legion consumption of liquor was part of the norm, but with that said, there was no tolerance for an inebriated Marine on duty.  The Marines of Waller’s time were trained by strict disciplinarians … the old salts that accepted no excuses for less than stellar performance; they demanded results and left an indelible mark on their subordinates.  If officer candidates survived their harsh training, they became officers; if they failed, they were dismissed from the Corps.

I have described Waller’s exploits as a battalion commander in the Philippine Islands in two earlier posts (here and here); he became a controversial figure owing to two significant events: his march across Samar, and his court-martial.  Some historians have argued that even though he achieved the rank of major general, his court-martial (although acquitted) may have kept him from serving as Commandant of the Marine Corps.  Others have said that the court-martial was not a factor[1].

Waller was born in York County, Virginia.  Both sides of his family originated in England, migrating to the Americas during the colonial period.  They were wealthy, well-educated, and politically astute.  His ancestors included men with military titles, lawyers, justices, and politicians.  Some of these men served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses; one served on the Virginia delegation to consider the Declaration of Independence.

Referred to as “Tony” by his friends, Waller was regarded as bright, but he was no scholar.  He was an outdoorsman who was fond of hunting, fishing, and riding.  As with many others in his own time, Waller was intimately familiar with three works: The King James Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  The evidence for this appears in his writing of reports from foreign shore where he incorporates phrases from each of these.  In their own memoirs, Major General Smedley D. Butler and Colonel Frederick M. Wise, described Waller as an eloquent speaker and a fascinating story-teller.

Wallers initial tours of duty were shore-based commands.  The first at the Marine Barracks in Norfolk, Virginia, and the second at the Marine Barracks, Washington, D. C.  He then embarked on his first tour at sea, assigned as executive officer under Captain Henry Clay Cochrane, commanding the Marine Detachment, USS Lancaster.  Lancaster was the flagship of the European squadron, and Cochrane was a veteran of the American Civil War (you don’t get more “old school” than this).

In 1882, Cochrane and Waller were present at the British naval bombardment of Alexandria, Egypt and participated in an amphibious landing of mixed bluejackets and Marines.  As the French had withdrawn their forces from the city, American Marines and sailors were needed to provide protection to the US Consulate, American citizens, and displaced foreign nations.  The landing force consisted two companies: one consisting of sixty-nine sailors under the command of Lieutenant Frank L. Denny, USN and 63 Marines commanded by Lieutenant Waller, USMC.  The overall landing force commander was Lieutenant Commander Charles Goodrich, USN, Captain Cochrane served as Goodrich’s executive officer.

Denny and Waller approached the city center with due caution, reaching the Square of Mehmet Ali (location of the US Consulate).  Designating this location as their headquarters, Marines and sailors began to patrol the city streets.  Subsequently, Waller and his Marines were placed under the command of Lord Charles Beresford’s British forces protecting the European quarter.  The anticipated rebel attack never materialized, however, and after ten days a four-thousand-man British force arrived to relieve the American company.  The Times of London later reported, “Lord Charles Beresford states that without the assistance of the American Marines, he would have been unable to discharge the numerous duties of suppressing fires, preventing looting, burying the dead, and clearing the streets.”[2]

As there was no wireless radio in those days, and the telegraphic cable office in Alexandria was not functioning, the Squadron Commander had approval to land the naval force, but once ashore Goodrich had been on his own. It was he who made the decision to stay with the British rather than follow in trace behind the French.  As one of only four officers in the landing force, Waller would have been present as important decisions were made.  It was an experience that stood him in good stead in later years.

During the Spanish American War, Captain Waller served aboard the battleship USS Indiana as Commanding Officer, Marine Detachment.  He was present during the battle of Santiago on 3 July 1898.  Indiana’s position in the American fleet precluded her participation in the initial chase of the Spanish Navy, but Waller’s Marines did participate in naval gunnery against the Spanish ships Pluton and Furor.  Waller’s Marines pulverized the Spanish ships.  Waller later said that the only problems he encountered during this engagement was in keeping Marines not engaged in gunnery under appropriate cover.

It wasn’t long before the Spanish Navy fell to American naval fires; it may have been one of the most lopsided engagements in naval history: every Spanish ship was destroyed and no US ship suffered more than minor damage.  Within a period of a single hour, Waller’s gunners fired five-hundred rounds from their six-inch guns.  In their hour of triumph, however, the American then performed acts of mercy.  Indiana’s commander, Captain Robley D. Evans, directed Waller to launch the ship’s whaleboats to pick up as many of the shipwrecked Spanish sailors as possible.  With sailors at the oars and Marines in the bow and stern to haul in swimmers, Waller’s detail worked throughout the day.  Here were men already weary from passing ammunition during a naval engagement now sunburned and hands swollen and cracked from salt water, saving their enemy from sure death.  The squadron commander, Admiral William T. Sampson, wrote of Waller’s service to the Secretary of the Navy: “… This rescue of prisoners, including the wounded from the burning Spanish vessels, was the occasion of some of the most daring and gallant conduct of the day.  The [Spanish] ships were burning fore and aft, their guns and reserve ammunition were exploding, and it was not known at what moment the fire would reach the main magazines.  In addition to this a heavy surf was running just inside of the Spanish ships.  But no risk deterred our officers and men until their work of humanity was completed.”

Waller later wrote of this service: “After working for hours with the wounded, we took the prisoners on board ship; there were on board my ship, two hundred and forty-three in all.  We issued clothes to the naked men, and the officers gave up their clothes and beds to the Spanish officers.  Only a few months ago I received a letter from the widow of one of the officers of Admiral Cervera’s staff, telling me of her husband’s death, and saying that it was his wish that she should thank me for all that I had done for him; and I have received many tokens and letters besides this in grateful acknowledgement of the mercy shown.”

Waller later received recognition for this service by award of the Specially Meritorious Service Medal; he is believed to be the only Marine to receive this award.

In early 1900, Major Waller was assigned at the Naval Station, Cavite, Philippines.  He was ordered to command a detachment of Marines assigned to take part in an expedition to relieve the siege of Peking, China—then Imperial China’s capital city.  The city, with its enclave of foreign legations, was besieged by a mixed force of Boxers, so called because their official group moniker was “Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” and the Chinese Imperial troops egging them on.  Waller and his Marines arrived at Taku, China on 19 June 1900, soon afterwards moving inland where they linked up with a Russian column of some 400 men.  On 21 June, the Americans and Russians set out for Tientsin, an enemy-held city.  Their route took them through areas estimated to contain between 1,500 to 2,000 hostile Chinese.  Coming under heavy enemy fire, the column was forced to withdraw with the Russians in the vanguard, and Waller faced with a desperate rearguard struggle.  Waller, leaving behind the dead, dragged along his wounded and fought off numerically superior forces to reach safety.  The Marine Detachment immediately returned to duty, however, and was attached to a British column led by Commander Christopher Craddock.  On 24 June, an international contingent consisting of Italian, German, Japanese, Russian, British, and American forces, again set off for Tientsin.

After participating in the final battle for the City of Peking on 13-14 July, Waller’s Marines took possession of the American sector and brought order out of the chaos caused by the Chinese retreat.  Waller was subsequently promoted to Brevet[3] Lieutenant Colonel and advanced two numbers on the lineal precedence list of officers.  Waller thus became one of only twenty Marines to receive the Marine Corps Brevet Medal when the decoration was created in 1921.  The Brevet Medal was replaced by the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

It was during Waller’s service in China that he began a long-running friendship with a Lieutenant by the name of Smedley D. Butler.  Butler was the only Marine officer to receive two awards of the Medal of Honor.  In 1905, Waller served as best man at Butler’s wedding.  These two Marines remained close friends for the rest of Waller’s life.

Tony Waller was promoted to Brigadier General in 1916, and advanced to the rank of Major General (temporary) in 1918.  However, having failed for selection to the post of Commandant of the Marine Corps, there was very little else Waller could do but retire.  On 22 March 1920, Waller appeared in front of the Marine Corps Retirement Board.  The board concluded that Waller was incapacitated for further service due to arterial sclerosis, that the incapacity was the result of military service, and recommended retirement in grade of Major General.  The White House approved the recommendation and ordered Waller retired effective 22 May 1920.  However, at the direction of President Woodrow Wilson, Waller was retained on active duty until 16 June 1920.  According to at least one military historian, Waller took part in more actions than any other Marine Corps officer of his period.  He lived out the remainder of his days in Philadelphia, passing away on 13 July 1926 at the age of 69-years.  General Waller is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Notes:

[1] Selection to serve the post as Commandant of the Marine Corps was highly political in the period before 1940.  Military aide to both Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft, Captain Archibald Butt, U. S. Army, indicated that the Samar incident had nothing at all to do with Waller’s non-selection to the highest post in the Corps; rather there were forces in the Senate that worked feverishly to have their own man advanced as Commandant.  Still, the anti-Imperialist press did maul Waller at every opportunity, suggesting very heavily that a man lacking concern for his fellow man didn’t deserve to represent the entire Marine Corps.  The politicians won the day.

[2] In these times, there was no wireless radio and the telegraphic cable in Alexandria was not functioning.  The US Naval Commander had obtained the approval of Washington D. C. to land the mixed company of Marines and Sailors, but once ashore Lieutenant Commander Goodrich was entirely on his own.  Goodrich made the decision to remain with the British rather than to return his men to their ship.  Waller, as one of only four officers, would have been privy to all decisions being made ashore.  As a 24-year old lieutenant, Waller learned about independence of command; it would stand him in good stead in future years.

[3] A brevet promotion entitles an officer to wear the rank insignia of the next higher grade, albeit without any increase in pay.  It the Marine Corps, a brevet promotion only came as the result of exceptionally meritorious service or gallantry during a period of combat.

 

2 thoughts on “Among the Old Breed”

  1. This story truly brings to light an example of “the old breed”, the term made perhaps more famous due to Sledgehammer’s book. I’ve been raised that term pertained to the brave, young Americans who participated in the WWII horror but thanks to this story, I can see I was wrong. What guts, stamina and sheer luck to have survived so many actions.

    1. The officer responsible for examining L. W. T. Waller’s suitability for a commission was Henry Clay Cochrane; Cochrane objected to Waller’s accession, however, but he was overruled by political forces. Waller was well connected, politically. Cochrane had a role in the training of Waller, and as it turns out, theirs was a tempestuous association. Waller was a mundane second lieutenant, as most are … but he eventually came around.

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