Marines in Nicaragua, Part III

After the election of Woodrow Wilson (shown right)[1] in 1913, his newly appointed Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan[2], resurrected the Knox Treaty[3] in 1914, inserting a clause which ceded to the United States the right to use its armed forces to intervene in the affairs of Nicaragua. Then Nicaraguan Ambassador Emiliano Chamorro Vargas[4] approved the instrument in August 1914, and Bryan dutifully sent the treaty to the Senate for their ratification.  The senate, with a Democratic majority, refused to consider the Bryan-Chamorro document until the Secretary first removed the Bryan clause.

Due to our understanding of Nicaraguan politics thus far, it should come as no surprise that the Bryan-Chamorro treaty was soon elevated to critical mass.  Adolfo Diaz had only survived as Nicaragua’s president because he was protected by American Marines and this is certainly how Liberals presented Diaz to the people.  True, America’s financial reforms would ultimately work to the benefit of the most Nicaraguans, but the process was tediously slow and the people of Nicaragua are not known for their patience.  Still, not one Liberal in Nicaragua would approve of the idea that the USA had a right to employ its armed forces in their country.

Aside: It was around this same time when a Russian revolutionary by the name of Vladimir Lenin asserted that if you tell a lie often enough, it eventually becomes an unmitigated truth.  This axiom has become a mainstay of leftist politics ever since, and it was certainly true in Nicaragua.  President Adolfo Diaz became a hated man in Nicaragua because of the propaganda campaign mounted against him by the Liberal Party, and they were unrelenting.  The fact is that Diaz was the most qualified man to serve as president, and he may have been the most honest of all Nicaraguan presidents.

In 1916, Nicaragua was preparing for its next presidential election.  Conservatives were ready to wash their hands of Diaz, favoring instead Emiliano Chamorro (shown right).  Liberals, on the other hand, favored a former advisor to President Zelaya named Julian Irias —a man who was at the time of his nomination, living in exile.  Still, the United States was concerned about Irias because, given the simple fact that liberal voters far outnumbered conservatives; an honest election would turn the country over to the liberal party.  More to the point, Irias was a man who associated himself with one of the most corrupt regimes in Nicaragua’s short history.

Thus, what the United States needed to do is somehow deny the election to Irias while preventing another rebellion.  This was accomplished when outgoing President Diaz prevented Irias from re-entering Nicaragua.  The nail on this coffin was America’s warning to Liberals that under no circumstances would the US ever recognize anyone associated with former President Zelaya.  To clear a pathway for Chamorro, conservative candidate Carlos Cuadras Paso was persuaded to withdraw from the race.

Emiliano Chamorro won the election in a landslide.

As a rule, Nicaragua’s presidency was habit forming; once in power, a president was disinclined to step down.  An exception to this rule was Emiliano Chamorro.  After four years in office, Chamorro decided to step aside and allow his Uncle Diego to succeed him.  Diego Chamorro won the 1920 election by more than 58,000 votes.  It was after this that an American political scientist by the name of Harold Dodds took on the difficult task of devising honest electoral machinery for Nicaragua.  His plan, completed in 1922, was enthusiastically supported by liberals —but hated by conservatives.  Conservatives acquiesced, however, once the US Ambassador reminded Chamorro that his nephew Emiliano had promised to support such a plan.

Nicaraguans may have fallen in love with Dodds’ election reforms, but their hate for American Marines remained constant.  Marines assigned to the American legation were continually reviled by the citizens of Managua —so much so that assignment to the Marine Guard may have been considered among the worst duties in the Corps.  With nothing constructive to do after duty hours, Marines drank to excess and pursued loose women within Managua’s fetid cantinas.  Nicaraguan police found that a drunken, disorderly Marine was an excellent target for revenge.

A series of clashes between Marines and local police came to a head on the night of 8 December 1921 when a Marine private shot and killed a police officer.  Afterwards, Marines were assigned to “shore patrol” duties; it was a matter of Marines keeping tabs on their own[5].  Meanwhile, American diplomats were concerned that the Marine Legation Guard was insufficiently staffed to head off pre-election liberal rioting.  Insisting on reinforcements, additional Marines were sent to the Guard from the USS Galveston (30 Marines), USS Denver (52 Marines), and USS Nitro (45 Marines).  Seagoing leathernecks were withdrawn after the elections, but bringing them in was a sound idea.  One individual who was present at the time later reported that the flames of hate in Nicaragua were palpable.  President Chamorro was crucified in the press for allowing the Americans to land additional Marines, but of more lasting importance to affairs in Nicaragua were the propagandists who claimed Mexican benevolence vs. American barbarity.  It was the first sign of the emergence of a bond between Nicaraguan Liberals and the Mexican government.

The long-awaited revolt took place in May 1922.  The Marine Guard was sufficiently strong enough to prevent fighting inside Managua, and even though Fort Loma was seized, government troops easily suppressed the uprising outside the capital.  Meanwhile, Liberal sentiments reflected hope of election reform and calm settled throughout the nation.  It was a peace that remained unbroken even when President Chamorro died in office.

Vice President Bartolomé Martínez González was known to have ambitions to succeed Chamorro; Liberals, who relied upon America’s promise of fair elections, argued that it would be illegal for the Vice President to permanently succeed Chamorro.  US diplomats clarified that no government which seized power in defiance of the constitution would be recognized as legitimate.  Satisfied, the Liberals focused all their energies to winning the 1924 election.

Over time, Liberals came to regard American leathernecks with some esteem.  When it was proposed that Marines (several of which provided support to Dobbs), should help supervise the electoral count, it was the conservatives (not the liberals) who complained loudest.

The new elections law was tested in 1924; it was the most nearly-honest election ever held in Nicaragua.  A coalition government was placed in office, with Conservative candidate Carlos José Solórzano Gutierrez elected President, and Liberal Juan Bautista Sacasa as Vice President.  Upon taking office, Solórzano promised that his administration would be scrupulously honest.  Praising the efforts of the United States to bolster the Nicaraguan economy, and stressing the notion of peaceful cooperation, Solórzano asked the United States to withdraw the Marine Guard from Managua … which was ultimately postponed from January until August 1925[6].  What Solórzano wanted was for the Marines to train a sufficient constabulary capable of maintaining the peace, but the government took no action to organize a police force until shortly before the Marines were withdrawn.

Three weeks after departure of the American Marines, a group of liberal cabinet ministers attended a reception.  Over the sound of popping champagne corks was heard a cacophony of gunfire from a band of conservatives who burst into the room, loudly accused the liberals of treason, and then ending their tirade by taking several liberals into custody.  The icing on this cake was that in late October, followers of Emiliano Chamorro seized the fortification at La Loma, and Solórzano and Vice President Sacasa left the country.  Thus, purged of liberal-leaning politicians, the Nicaraguan legislature reorganized itself and Emiliano Chamorro Vargas[7] seized power.

No one expected such boldness.  Along with efforts to persuade Chamorro to resign, the US refused to recognize his presidency.  This was of little concern to El Presidenté Chamorro, however, because thanks to elaborate US controls governing the collection of customs, all collected revenues automatically went to the central government no matter who was serving as president.  Although his seizure of office was clearly unconstitutional, Chamorro maintained control over the financial machinery of his new republic, which meant that Chamorro could easily afford to ignore the protestations of the United States.

Bluejackets 001Chamorro appeared undisturbed even when rioting swept throughout the country.  He believed that if the situation deteriorated, he could always rely on the United States to support Conservatives, as they had done so many times in the past.  In May 1926, USS Cleveland dropped anchor at Bluefields.  Marines and bluejackets went ashore to protect American property; no support for Chamorro would be forthcoming.  Moreover, the United States government accorded exiled Vice President Sacasa all the diplomatic honors due to a high official of a friendly state.  Worse than this, Mexico began providing Liberals (viewed as the party of Nicaraguan Nationalism) with arms and munitions.

Moncada JM 1910In eastern Nicaragua, Liberal General Jose Moncada (shown right) forced the conservative government back upon the Bluefields; a major battle was beginning to take shape.  The USA was concerned about the safety of its citizens and their property, resulting in the landing of a hundred Marines and bluejackets from the USS Galveston in August.  Conservatives looked upon the Americans as a savior to the conservative cause, but their mission was to prevent fighting, safeguard American citizens, and prevent rioting that would endanger private property.

Within a few weeks, Liberals and Conservatives were engaged in a large battle near El Bluff (Bluefields) … neither side gaining an advantage.  On 24 September 1926, Americans forced both sides out of El Bluff, causing them to resume their conflict at El Rama, 50 miles away.  Yet, despite their failure at El Bluff, the Liberal armies were doing quite well.  While they were not able to crush their adversaries, the Liberals did manage to disrupt commerce, and this had the effect of starving Chamorro economically.  No bucks, no bullets.

The United States negotiated a temporary truce beginning on 1 October 1926, inviting both sides to attend a peace conference at Corinto.  Armed Marines enforced a neutral zone around the city.  Peace talks took place from 16-24 October aboard USS Denver.  Vice President Sacasa, believing that it was not safe for him to attend this meeting, sent representatives.  What the US wanted was an impartial person to head an interim government.  Since there were no impartial leaders in Nicaragua, the conference was a waste of everyone’s time.

President Chamorro announced his resignation on 30 October 1926, the day the truce expired.  A conservative congress chose Senator Sebastian Uriza as Chamorro’s successor, but again the US withheld its recognition from Uriza’s government.  By this time weary of war, the Conservative Congress reconvened, reinstated expelled liberal members, and chose Adolfo Diaz to once more serve as (interim) president until 1928.  The amazing part of this is that at the time, Diaz remained the most hated man in Nicaragua.  The United States (along with several European powers) immediately recognized the Diaz government.  Mexico protested, however, insisting that Sacasa was the rightful leader even though absent from the country.

President Diaz failed to end the revolution, however.  In the first place, General Moncada refused to lay down his arms unless ordered to do so by former Vice President Sacasa.  Secondly, Sacasa himself arrived in Nicaragua in early December to take charge of the revolt, and with him came massive shipments of arms from Mexico.  When President Diaz learned of this, he began screaming for American assistance.

He would get it.

(To be Continued)


[1] Despite his professed hatred for Imperialism and his staunchly anti-interventionist policies, Woodrow Wilson became the most interfering American president of all.

[2] A great orator, but a man whose thought patterns were loath to achieve originality.

[3] Refers to the convention signed on 6 June 1911 by Secretary of State Philander C. Knox and Nicaraguan minister Salvador Castillo, providing economic and political aide to Nicaragua.  The treaty languished in the US Senate until May 1912 where it failed to gain enough support to move to a senate vote.

[4] Hispanic naming conventions involve one or more given names, followed by two family names (surnames).  The first surname is the father’s surname, and the second surname is the mother’s maiden name.

[5] This was a system employed for many years in China; Marines, left unsupervised, always find a way to get into trouble.

[6] The withdrawal of Marines was the product of a slow evolution in American foreign policy.  Beginning in 1913, President Wilson hoped to deal with Central Americans as equals, but the strategic importance of Nicaragua forced him to keep a careful eye on the nation’s domestic affairs.  Victory over Germany and developing friendship with Great Britain ended concerns about foreign encroachment.  American bankers regarded European investments of greater importance than their Central American holdings.  Finally, the American people demanded more attention to domestic issues than those on foreign shore.  President Coolidge urged honest elections in Nicaragua rather than the election of a government favorable to the United States.  Removal of the Marine Guard was the beginning of an attempt to deal with Nicaragua as a sovereign power, rather than treating the country as a dependency.  Such optimism was misplaced, however.

[7] Chamorro-Vargas previously served as president 1917-1921.

Marines in Nicaragua, Part II

Butler SDMajor Smedley D. Butler, USMC commanded a Marine Battalion sent to Nicaragua to protect American interests there, and to stabilize the government of President Adolfo Diaz[1].  Having established a firm base of operations inside Managua, Major Butler attempted to communicate with Nicaragua’s rebel leader, the former president (for three days) and now General Luis Mena Vado.  Hoping to avoid bloodshed, Butler urged Mena to surrender his forces to the authority of the central government in Managua.  General Mena replied that he would be very happy to surrender his forces, given his illness with rheumatism[2], but could not surrender forces he no longer commanded.  Major Butler, he said, would have to deal with General Benjamín Francisco Zeledón Rodríguez[3].

As Butler attempted to work a diplomatic solution to the rebellion[4], American reinforcements began arriving at Corinto, 90 miles northwest of Managua.  Butler contacted Navy Commander Warren J. Terhune to bring him up to date on developments.  Terhune decided to appropriate a train to Managua; he took with him Marine Captain Nelson Vulte, ten Marines, and 40 bluejackets.  Near the town of Leon, the locomotive came to a grinding stop just before reaching a crude road block.  Terhune was unwilling to risk an attack against a force of undetermined size in the gathering dusk—this turned out to be a wise move.  Terhune pulled back some three miles and waited for dawn on the next morning.

The following morning, bluejackets removed the road block and the train crept forward until it was again halted by a rebel patrol.  The Nicaraguans held their fire, merely requesting that the Americans confer with their commander.  Captain Vulte obtained permission to pass unchallenged through rebel lines.  Upon Volte’s return to the train, he reported with confidence to Commander Terhune that he had achieved some diplomatic success.  The Marines were ordered to sling their rifles and board the train.  Just outside of Leon, however, the Americans found themselves surrounded by a mob of armed rebels.  The Americans were released without harm and sent on foot[5] to Managua, the rebels retaining control of the train.

The capture of the train was no small matter because it offered the rebels prestige.  The train incident was also an affront to the United States —one that Major Butler would not tolerate.  Butler decided to open the railway from Corinto to Managua, and so on 25 August 1912, Butler, Terhune, lieutenants Alexander Vandergrift[6], Edward A. Ostermann[7], and Richard Tebbs, departed Managua with 190 Marines.

Major Butler’s trains ran into difficulties almost immediately after leaving Managua.  Rebels destroyed weakened culverts and ripped out railing … all of which impeded the progress of the Marines.  Still, Butler experienced no serious opposition until the lead train approached a trestle on the outskirts of Leon.  There, rebels halted the Americans and, emboldened by their earlier success, the commandante began a tirade with Major Butler.  The rebel leader’s attempt at intimidation failed miserably, however, so the rebel hothead drew his revolver.  Butler snatched away the man’s weapon and made a show of unloading it.  The gaggle of rebels standing aside watched the entertainment and then roared with laughter.  Afterwards, the Marines, with the rebel commandante now a prisoner, proceeded to Leon.

Outside Leon, grumbling citizens lined the railway lines.  Eventually, a woman found her way to the locomotive where Butler had stationed himself and, after producing a large machete, began honing the weapon on Butler’s leggings—all the while threatening to take his life.  Butler reached down and tickled her under her chin and the woman, thoroughly embarrassed, fled the scene.

Major Butler arrived in Corinto without further incident; there he briefed his Navy superiors about General Mena’s retirement and General Zeledón’s rise to power.  Afterwards, Butler returned to Managua where he discovered that the threat of a rebel assault had evaporated.

Pendleton JHOn 4 September 1912, the 1st Marine Provisional Regiment arrived at Corinto with its 1st and 2nd Battalions.  The regimental commander was Colonel Joseph H. Pendleton (shown right)[8].  The regiment moved to Managua within two days, relieving Major Butler’s battalion for operations in the field.  Butler was ordered to clear the railway from Managua to Granada.  The operation was delayed for several days owing to Butler’s illness, accompanied by high fever and jaundice.  Although still quite ill, Butler commenced his operations on 15 September.  The task force included three companies of Marines, two machine guns, and two 3-inch field pieces.  Two locomotives were placed in the rear of the train, which consisted of box cars, flat cars, and a passenger coach.

Admiral SoutherlandMajor Butler halted his train near La Barranca, adjacent to Masaya, where government troops had besieged Zeledón’s liberal army.  Butler commandeered a handcar and pumped his way back to within federal lines.  He found that rather than arriving at the scene of a quiet siege, he and his Marines had marched into the middle of a pitched battle.  Butler walked forward under a flag of truce to meet with General Zeledón, taking with him one officer as a witness and a Spanish-speaking sergeant.  During these discussions, the translator let slip that Butler’s two superiors were Admiral Southerland[9] and Colonel Pendleton.  Zeledón thereafter insisted on meeting with the ranking naval officer (shown left).

Zeledon BOver a period of several days, General Zeledón (shown left) conferred with Rear Admiral William Southerland.  In the end, Zeledón agreed to allow Major Butler’s trains to pass through his lines.  Butler pushed off at around 2010 on 19 September 1912.  While passing through Masaya, the train slowed at a cross street when suddenly, a man galloped his horse toward the locomotive.  Sweeping up into the cab, the man fired a revolver point blank range at Butler, missing him, but wounding a corporal in the hand.  Having dispatched the rebel, Butler stopped the train and called up a surgeon to see to the corporal’s wound.  Rebel riflemen suddenly opened-up on the train; Marines responded with disciplined fire.  Unknown to Butler, several Marines dropped from the train to take up better positions along the tracks.  Butler ordered the train to proceed down the tracks, leaving a handful of men behind.  Captain Vulte immediately detrained, collected his Marines, and followed the train on a handcar.

Volte caught up with the train about a mile further down the tracks.  He found Major Butler seething with rage; five of his men had been wounded, three remained missing.  Soon after, a messenger arrived with an apology from General Zeledón.  Major Butler informed Zeledón that he would attack Masaya in the morning if his missing men were not immediately returned.  The Marines were returned to Butler within the hour, one of them slightly wounded.

After passing through General Zeledón’s rebels, Major Butler had to contend with the remnants of General Mena’s irregulars at Granada.  Owing to sabotaged railway tracks[10], Butler’s progress was slow.  By the time Major Butler met with Mena’s delegation, he was in an impatient mood.  Butler agreed to meet Mena at the small village of San Blas, but had grown weary of Mena’s games.  Major Butler informed Mena that if he did not sign a formal surrender, his Marines would attack Granada.  Mena delayed his response for as long as possible and, recognizing that Mena’s silence was an intentional delay, Butler proceeded to plan an assault.  Late in the night of 22 September 1912, however, General Mena surrendered his forces.

Later in the day, as General Mena went peacefully into exile, Colonel Pendleton sent a trainload of rations and medicine to Granada.  Except for General Zeledón’s group located near the region of La Barranca-Coyotope Hill, the railway system was free from rebel interference.  Now, with Mena out of the picture, Colonel Pendleton could focus his efforts on dealing with Zeledón.

Colonel Pendleton joined Zeledón in battle on 2 October.  Marine and federal artillery shelled the liberal positions for most of the day; in the evening, Butler was ordered to coordinate with federal troops and move his battalion into position to attack the southeastern slopes of Coyotope Hill.  Butler began to position his troops for the assault at around 0130; given the darkness and thickness of jungle foliage, getting his men into position for an assault was a difficult task.  Nevertheless, the Marine attack commenced at 0515 the next morning.

Rebel fire was wild and inaccurate as Butler’s Marines and federal troops stormed the rebel positions on the slope of Coyotope Hill.  The battle was over within 40 minutes.  Twenty-seven rebels were killed, nine were captured, and the rest took to flight.  One of the rebel dead was the self-styled general Benjamin Zeledón, but it is unclear how he died.  Some have said that he died when his own men shot him as he attempted to desert them while under fire; another report stated that he fell as the result of Marine marksmanship.  Seven American bluejackets and Marines were killed in the action.

After the fall of Masaya, government troops gorged themselves by indiscriminate killing and raping its inhabitants.  Word of these revenge killings made its way to rebels outside Leon, who wisely decided to surrender to an American officer.

With the revolution suppressed, Colonel Pendleton’s Marines were soon withdrawn, but an enlarged Marine guard was retained in Managua.  In the aftermath of this intervention, Nicaragua’s conservatives retained their precarious hold on the presidency—but Diaz’s power rested entirely on the presence of the United States Marine legation guard.  After offering General Chamorro the position of Ambassador to the United States, Diaz renewed his bid as chief executive (1913-1917); of the country’s half-million population, 4,000 citizens reelected Diaz to the presidency.

As it served no purpose to the United States to have a continuation of civil conflict in Nicaragua, what the Americans wanted most was peace.  Respite from civil war offered Nicaragua the opportunity to increase the standard of living among its citizens, pay its debts, and stabilize its economy.  The citizens of Nicaragua could benefit from American investments, but only if their government leaders conducted themselves as proper officials.  As to the problem with European encroachment in Central America, the United States was clear: the United States would not tolerate intrusion.

(To be Continued)


[1] Adolfo Diaz was perhaps the most hated man in Nicaragua at this particular time, and the reasons for this might be revealed by his background.  Born in Costa Rica, Diaz previously worked for the La Luz y Los Angeles Mining Company, an American-owned company chartered in Delaware.  In this capacity, Diaz helped to channel funds supporting the revolt against President Jose Santos Zelaya.  It did not take Diaz long after his inauguration to ask for American intervention.

[2] Other accounts report dysentery.

[3] Benjamin Zeledón was a Liberal-Conservative Revolutionary who carried forward an uprising against Diaz after the surrender of General Mena in 1912.  Zeledón.  He was killed by US Marines at the Battle of Coyotepe Hill on his birthday, 4 October 1912.

[4] Which hardly resembles the narrative of the leftist history revisionists …

[5] One account has Commander Terhune returning to Managua on the back of a broken-down mule, him wearing a dilapidated panama hat, his men following along in trace.  Major Butler was said to have been embarrassed and incensed by this incident.

[6] Medal of Honor while commanding the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal; Commandant of the Marine Corps.

[7] Medal of Honor while serving in Haiti, retired as a Major General in 1943.

[8] Camp Pendleton, California is named in his honor.  Major General Pendleton served in the Marine Corps for 40 years, retiring at age 64 in 1924.

[9] Joining the US Navy just after the Civil War at age 12, William Henry Hudson Sutherland (July 10, 1852 – January 30, 1933) commanded several ships in Cuban waters during the Spanish-American War.  He later served as Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet.

[10] Rebels coated the tracks with milkweed, which affected the train’s progress at several locations.  One account reported that Marines had to push the train over several up-hill segments.


Marines in Nicaragua, Part I

It was quite a few years ago that an officer whom I have long admired, and whose studies included Chinese history, related to me this anecdote: “It was a time filled with tumult and upheaval, a time of great treachery, chaos, and the din of many battles.  The people experienced great trepidation, much hunger, and inordinate physical suffering.  A great warrior, having observed these things firsthand, may have made the greatest understatement of all time when he said, “We live in interesting times.”

Nicaragua was always (and I believe, continues to be) an interesting place; its history is filled with interesting times.  As but one example, Nicaragua is the only foreign country to have an American serve as its president—not for long, mind you, but it did happen.

As I mentioned last week, Spain’s colonies in the Americas were so large that its government could not possibly maintain control over them.  Added to this, Spanish arrogance toward those living in American colonies was such that an independence movement was only a matter of time.  That time came in 1821 when the Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, and Costa Rica issued a joint declaration of independence.  Spain, unable to do anything about it militarily, left the revolutionaries free from conflict to form a confederation modeled on the American federalist system.  It took a few years, but a Central American Republic was eventually formed … it would not last beyond 1839.

In these early days, effective communication was impeded by poor roads and barely navigable rivers —but there was an even larger problem: Latino Culture.  There were but two political entities, and these were aggravated by a thing called localism.  The result was the development of intense hatred one for the other: anti-Catholic liberals opposed staunchly Catholic conservatives.  By 1839, Nicaragua was standing apart from the Central American Republic as an independent state, but that was about the only positive thing anyone could say for Nicaragua.  The economy was a shamble, and jealousy created petty caudillos who competed with one another for power and influence.  Over time, the struggle became a competition between haves and have-nots.  Nicaragua remained in a nearly-constant state of civil war for many years.

nicaragua.jpgThere were two reasons prompting the United States to regard Nicaragua as a vital interest.  The first was American expansionism.  The United States’ victory over Mexico ceded California to the United States.  This prompted Americans to begin looking for speedy routes to the Pacific coast.  The land route across the American plains was dangerous and time consuming, but the sea route around South America was even more so.  Thus, the second reason was Nicaragua’s geography.

After the discovery of gold in California, increased demands for transportation to the Pacific Coast prompted American diplomats to obtain transit rights through Nicaragua.  Leading this charge was none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose steamship and railroad interests earned for him the moniker “Commodore.”  Vanderbilt, who had already started rail line construction across the Isthmus of Panama, wondered whether a transoceanic canal might be the practical solution; it was an idea ahead of its time.  Instead, Vanderbilt formed the Accessory Transit Company[1].

Standing somewhat off-stage were the British, who watched America’s expansion with great interest, noting also the geographical importance of Nicaragua.  With a firm foot-hold north of the Bluefields Lagoon, the British expanded the Mosquito Protectorate[2].  In 1848, Great Britain seized the town of San Juan del Norte, renamed it Greytown, and declared the town a free city[3].  Annexation placed Greytown under the control of the British at the mouth of the San Juan River.  Vanderbilt may have acquired transit authority through Nicaragua, but he would need the permission of the British Consul at Greytown before he could move passengers and freight from Greytown, up the San Juan River, across Lake Nicaragua, and then overland to San Juan del Sur.

Thus, in 1850 we find emerging Nicaragua facing two sources of conflict: the traditional mashup between liberals and conservatives, and the international competition between the Americans and British.  As the British employed local mobs to disrupt American commercial interests, America used its Marines to quell such disturbances.  There was very little Nicaraguans could do about the international competition, but in the matter of rebellion, they seemed dedicated toward making all the wrong choices.

Unable to gain advantages over conservatives, the liberal party sought unconventional strategies.  In return for cash and land grants, an American mercenary (and self-styled Impresario) by the name of William Walker[4] offered to provide 300 settlers who would be subject to military duty in the liberal army.  Walker’s subsequent successes as a military commander led to his appointment as Commander in Chief of the Army.  From that high office, and for whatever reason, in 1856 Walker influenced the government to revoke Vanderbilt’s transit charter.  Incensed, Vanderbilt vowed revenge.

When the opportunity presented itself, Walker bolted the liberal party and accepted a conservative nomination as President of Nicaragua.  He is the only American to serve as President of Nicaragua.  His tenure was a short, however, because Commodore Vanderbilt began a vigorous campaign to supply liberals with arms and ammunition.  Eventually, Walker’s foolishness caught up with him.  The government of neighboring Honduras executed him by firing squad on 11 September 1860.  Once the Walker problem was resolved, conservatives and liberals found a way to calm their passions for thirty years.

Zelaya 001By 1894, Conservatives and Liberals were back at one another’s throats.  This time, however, civil unrest in Nicaragua invited foreign intervention as mobs threatened American and British citizens and property.  American Marines went ashore on several occasions.  War broke out again in 1898 when President Jose Santos Zelaya (shown left) arbitrarily extended his tenure as president for another term.

If there is anything we can say about Zelaya, it is that he had the uncanny ability to combine his liberal idealism with corruption and militarism.  He did work hard to attract foreign investment, but he also extorted a hefty amount of money from investors in the form of kickbacks.  Zelaya and his cabinet also held a monopoly over the nation’s business enterprises.  As Nicaraguan citizens struggled with worthless money and runaway inflation, Zelaya peddled natural resources to the highest bidder—always lining his own pockets.

The United States was not happy with President Zelaya after he executed a few captured rebels and it turned out that two of these were American citizens.  Much more than this, however, the Americans learned that Zelaya had begun to explore the possibilities of building a transoceanic canal with Japan and Germany.  As far as the United States was concerned, this simply would not do, so in early December 1909, American Marines were landed at Port Bluefields to establish a neutral zone protecting foreign lives and property.  The reality was, however that Port Bluefields was no more than a base of operations for anti-Zelayan rebels.  Ever clairvoyant, Zelaya packed up the booty he acquired over many years of corruption and on 18 December 1909, fled to Mexico.

Nicaragua’s political structure became increasingly unstable; between 1909 and 1911, the country witnessed four presidencies.  After Zelaya’s departure, the United States called for Nicaragua to write a constitution —a task Nicaraguans found nearly insurmountable.  It was also a time when, through free trade and interest free loans, the Americans exercised strong control over Nicaragua.

From a practical standpoint, after urging its citizens to invest in Nicaragua, the United States could hardly stand idly by as rebels destroyed these properties.  Accordingly, the Americans demanded of President Adolfo Diaz his guarantee of effective protection of US citizens and property.  President Diaz was in no position to guarantee anything of the kind, so he asked for United States intervention.  Initially, the Navy sent ashore a handful of seamen from the USS Annapolis, which had anchored off Corinto.  Another forty Marines and sailors landed at Port Bluefields from the USS Tacoma.  The bluejackets and Marines may have been an effective deterrent against small pockets of rebels, but given the size of Nicaragua, what was needed was a base of supply and six battalions of infantry.

Spearheading America’s expeditionary force on 14 August 1912 was Major Smedley D. Butler, U. S. Marine Corps.  Arriving at Corinto (Chinandega) aboard the USS Justin, Butler’s battalion consisted of 13 officers and 341 Marines.  Within two weeks, the Americans had gained footholds on both coasts of Nicaragua and assembled a powerful infantry unit prepared to strike eastward toward Managua.

Major Butler was an “in your face” kind of warrior.  The day following disembarkation, Butler led three companies of Marines into Managua to secure the American legation.  That achieved, Butler decided to offer a deal to the rebel leader, General Mena.  It was an offer for Mena to surrender honorably; an effort to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.  First Lieutenant Edward Conger volunteered to lead two other Marines into the jungle to deliver the note.  In due course, Conger reported that he had met with General Mena, that the General was ill with rheumatism, and that the general would be happy to surrender were he still in charge of the rebel forces.  The new rebel commander was the former Minister of War in the Zelaya Cabinet, Benjamín Francisco Zeledón Rodríguez—a die-hard liberal.

(Continued Next Week)


[1] The Accessory Transit Company was one “American property” that needed safeguarding by US Marines.

[2] A region of eastern Nicaragua and northeast Honduras. A British protectorate from 1655 to 1860, it then became an autonomous state known as the Mosquito Kingdom. In 1894 Nicaragua appropriated the territory, and in 1960 the northern part was awarded to Honduras by the International Court of Justice.

[3] A free city is an independent political entity; also, City State.

[4] Walker previously organized a mercenary force to invade lower California; he was defeated in his efforts by disease, starvation, and uncooperative natives.

Small Wars and Such

One of the most significant publications ever produced by the Marine Corps is the Small Wars Manual (1940).  What makes this such a remarkable document is that it was a compilation of lessons learned from operations conducted by expeditionary Marines serving in Central America and the Caribbean (1903 to 1933).  Today, we would refer to these engagements as counter-counterinsurgency operations.  It was an era in which combat Marines responded effectively and uniquely to threats posed by rebels and bandits who endangered the peace and stability of Latin America’s emerging nations.  These were operations that employed ground and air forces; ultimately these evolved into strategies and tactics that have become the hallmark of the U. S. Marine Corps, beginning in World War II through its present -day expeditionary role.

I want to tell you about the America’s small wars, but first we should look at the situation as it existed early in the 20th Century.

Latin American intervention

Diplomacy occurs when a nation’s leaders perceive that it best serves the interests of their country to engage with other nations —although, how nations engage with one another is a separate matter.  America’s naval forces have long been an instrument of national foreign policy, but for the record, United States Marines do not make US policy—they implement it.

Spain’s inability to control its new world colonies in the early 1800s led to rebellion and independence movements.  This became a concern to European powers, each with their own colonies in far-off lands, because rebellion threatened the economies and prestige of the motherland.

The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), which was composed of ambassadors of major European states (none of which had much use for independence movements, or republicanism), seemed poised to assist Spain in reclaiming its colonial empire.  Having already established a robust trade relationships with emerging Latin American republics, Great Britain and the United States signaled opposition to European intervention in the affairs of any emerging nation in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1823, British diplomat George Canning proposed an alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States to preclude European meddling in the Americas.  Ultimately a European intention to help reassert Spanish imperialism faltered.  What did emerge, however, was the so-called Monroe Doctrine[1], which in the United States, became a defining moment.  For everyone else, it was no more than a gaping yawn; America had no way of enforcing such policies.  In fact, if early-American diplomats ever anticipated preventing European interference in the Western Hemisphere, they would require the assistance of the British Navy.

Ultimately, several former Spanish colonies took a wrong turn.  Latin American strongmen[2], seeking only to enrich themselves —often at the expense of their countrymen— accepted loans from European nations without any intention of repaying these notes.  Under such circumstances, European nations believed that they had the right to seize the property of errant nations as a means of securing payment of defaulted loans.

In 1902, Foreign Minister Luis Maria Drago of Argentina reacted to the actions of Britain, Germany, and Italy during the Venezuela Crisis (1902-1903), in which they had blockaded and shelled Venezuelan ports as a means of collecting debts accrued under regimes led by caudillos.  Drago asserted that no European power should be permitted to use force against an American nation to collect any debt.  President Theodore Roosevelt rejected the Drago Policy out of hand, stating that the United States would not protect any Latin American nation from punishment if it is delinquent in matters of foreign relations[3].

In 1904, Roosevelt issued his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the right of the United States to intervene in Latin American affairs in cases of flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American caudillo —to preempt intervention by European creditors.  The corollary was a useful tool for extracting economic benefits by force whenever Latin American leaders failed to pay their debts to European and US banks and other business interests.  American interventionism was often referred to as the “Big Stick” policy —some today enjoy referring to this as American Imperialism[4].  Roosevelt’s corollary provoked outrage throughout Latin America as it assumed that the Latinos were incapable of managing their own affairs.

Nevertheless, the truth is that in many cases, men running countries in the Caribbean and in Central and South America were petty thieves and murderous thugs; men who cared about one thing: increasing personal wealth and power.  One has only to observe the recent presidencies of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro to see that nothing has substantially changed in Venezuela since 1902.

Excepting Haiti, there is no place in all Latin America more politically chaotic than Nicaragua; civil war in was a frequent occurrence between so-called liberal and conservative factions[5].

In 1912, the United States responded to an invitation from Nicaragua’s conservative president Adolfo Díaz[6] to help him put his house in order.  One-hundred US Marines were sent to protect the lives and property of American citizens living and working in Nicaragua.  This rebellion was relatively short-lived, mostly because it did not take our Marines long to defeat rebel forces.

Seeking to provide a little insurance against any future violence, the US State Department assigned a somewhat robust Marine guard to the US Embassy.  Ultimately, however, an increased presence of Marines became a two-edged sword. The size of the legation guard guaranteed some amount of calm, particularly near the capital city Managua, but the Nicaraguan government became complacent —relying on American Marines rather than improving their own internal security.

Nicaraguan elections of 1924 brought to power a coalition engineered in the United States.  The Americans meddled in this election with every hope and expectation of achieving political stability.  Anticipating success, the Marines were sent home.  Unhappily, however, coalition governments last only so long as everyone can agree.  Nicaragua’s coalition broke down rather quickly.  The new president was a conservative by the name of Carlos Solórzano; his vice president was a liberal by the name of Juan Bautista Sacasa.

The coalition deteriorated when soldiers answering to Solórzano’s brother-in-law applied the indiscriminate application of firearms at a Liberal Party Reception, and then prematurely ended the gala by arresting several guests.  The result of this was yet another civil war and the rise of General Emiliano Chamorro to power.  The United States responded to these events by maintaining its policy of refusing to recognize the legitimacy of any government achieving power through coup-d’état.  Yet, in refusing to recognize Chamorro, the United States only made matters worse.

Meanwhile, former vice president Sacasa remained leader of liberal forces.  He gained support from Mexico’s president Plutarco Calles, who first recognized Sacasa as the legitimate ruler of Nicaragua, and then compounded this problem by providing Sacasa with military supplies.  When discovered, Calles’ activities complicated diplomacy with the United States, and moreover, propelled the United States into backing its old friend Adolfo Díaz —who was one of the most hated men in Nicaragua.  In backing Díaz, President Calvin Coolidge offered him financial loans and US Marines, whose mission it was to establish and maintain military-free zones.

In recognizing the tumbledown state of the Nicaraguan military, American diplomats and military officials sought to bolster Nicaragua’s internal security by creating, training, and employing a new Guardia Nacional.  The establishment of national guards had long been favored by American diplomats in Latin America because:

  • National armies became the principal source of corruption and disorder. They consumed most of the government’s revenue, and beyond popular oppression, gave nothing in return to the government or the people.
  • The creation of a non-partisan constabulary would provide much-needed stability in Nicaragua. A disciplined force, trained by Marines, offset the tendency among Latino officials to abuse their power.
  • US Marine Corps officers and NCOs were offered commissioned officer status in the Guardia Nacional and positioned as key leaders and instructors. Doing so gave the US government some direct control over the future direction of Nicaragua.  Under American tutelage, the all-volunteer national guard would receive better arms, uniforms, and discipline.  Most importantly, however, the Guardia Nacional would be a nonpartisan force made up men loyal to their country more than political party.

Conservatives in Argentina expressed opposition to US intervention in Nicaragua; protests took place from Buenos Aires to Paris, and from Southern Chile to the lower Rio Grande in Texas.  Costa Rica even threatened to hold up agricultural contracts with the United Fruit Company.  Among Latinos, Nicaragua was often referred to as the “Little Belgium in our hemisphere[7].”

Meanwhile, after ten days of bloody fighting, liberal forces seized control of the Nicaraguan town of Chinandega.  They were driven off by a sustained bombardment from Marine aircraft.  What followed were dozens of reports of maimed civilians laying unattended in the city’s streets.  President Coolidge upped the ante by sending in more Marines —American naval forces were eventually joined by a British battle cruiser.

Fighting ended in May 1927 when the US brokered an agreement of forced disarmament and mediation of upcoming elections.  These elections gave an overwhelming victory to the Liberals; former general José Moncada, became president.  While true that the US-backed Conservatives had lost the election, the US, with every assurance that the elections had been honestly conducted, abided by its results.  The civil war now ended, the plan now was for the National Guard to replace American Marines.

Concurrently, however, the Liberal Party (and self-proclaimed) General Augusto Sandino, commanding significant liberal forces in Nicaragua’s dense jungle, and who was unhappy with Moncada’s election, refused to lay down his arms.  He wanted an end to Nicaraguan conservatives and their Yanqui backers.

(Continued Next Week)


[1] Only referred to as such after 1850.

[2] In Spanish, Caudillos

[3] While serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt rationalized America’s intervention in Cuba as a legitimate application of the Monroe Doctrine.  The Venezuela Crisis (1902-1903) demonstrated America’s new-found willingness to use naval power to enforce US policy.

[4] The notion that United States (directly or indirectly) asserted economic and/or military control over other countries or their policies.  Such influence is often closely associated with an expansion into foreign territories in furtherance of Manifest Destiny, or as an obligation undertaken as part of the “White Man’s Burden.”  To the extent that the United States dabbled with foreign imperialism, it was only flirtatious and done badly.

[5] Such terms as liberal and conservative can be misleading, however; in 1920, they bear little resemblance to their modern definitions.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, a Latin-American liberal was more prone to nationalism, held greater popular support among the Nicaraguan people, and adopted a more anti-American tone.  Conservatives maintained a strong relationship with military and business sectors.  They too could take the anti-American tone, but overall, conservatives appeared willing to work with the US so long as they could gain business and political advantages.

[6] No doubt Diaz believed that it was in his best interests to issue the invitation to the United States.

[7] The term “Poor Little Belgium” was often used to explain the cause of British entry into World War I (1914).


Edward A. Craig —Marine

It has been necessary for troops now fighting in Korea to pull back at times, but I am stating now that no unit of this Brigade will retreat except on orders from an authority higher than the 1st Marine Brigade.  You will never receive an order to retreat from me.  All I ask is that you fight as Marines have always fought.”

—Edward A. Craig, Brigadier General, U. S. Marine Corps

Commanding General, 1st Marine Provisional Brigade

“The Pusan perimeter is like a weakened dike; the Army intends to use us to plug the holes as they open.  We’re a brigade —a fire brigade.  It will be costly fighting against a numerically superior enemy.  Marines have never lost a battle; this brigade will not be the first to establish such a precedent.  Prepare to move.”

—Edward A. Craig, Brigadier General, U. S. Marine Corps

Commanding General, 1st Marine Provisional Brigade

This firebrand Marine Officer was born on 22 November 1896 in Danbury, Connecticut.  His father, a career officer in the United States Army (Medical Corps), was not at all disposed to having his son become a Marine: “They are a bunch of drunkards and bums.”  As with many Army officers (then and now), he overlooked one thing about the Marines —they are renowned for two things: they know how to make Marines, and they win battles.

Craig attended St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, graduating in 1917.  After four years in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC), he applied for a commission and was accepted as a Second Lieutenant on 23 August 1917.  Upon completion of training at the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia, Craig was assigned to duty as an Adjutant with the 8th Marines.  Although never dispatched to a line unit during World War I, he did serve in protecting/safeguarding oil fields in Texas from German attack along the coastal areas.  The 8th Marines performed this duty for 18 months, during which time the regiment intensely trained for combat.  During this time, he was promoted to First Lieutenant.

In 1919, Craig accompanied his regiment to Haiti via Santiago Bay, Cuba.  There, the 8th and 9th Marines formed the 1st Marine Brigade, a temporary organization organized to perform a specific expeditionary task.  A short time later, Craig was transferred to the 2nd Marine Brigade, which was stationed in the Dominican Republic.  There, he was assigned as the Commanding Officer, 70th Company, 15th Marine Regiment and received a temporary promotion to Captain.  Within the first 8-months he served in this capacity, he was assigned to La Romana, conducting combat patrols in areas populated by bandits and rebel forces, and later assigned to Vincentillo, a remote outpost, where he served an additional six months.

Craig returned to the United States in December 1921.  After a short stint at Quantico, Craig was assigned to Puget Sound where he served as Commanding Officer, Marine Detachment, Naval Ammunition Depot.  In 1922, he was ordered to the U. S. Naval Station near Olongapo City, Philippine Islands.  He subsequently served as Commanding Officer, Marine Detachment about the cruiser, USS Huron[1], then assigned to the Pacific Ocean area.  In this capacity, he and his Marines participated in several landings, including at Shanghai, China in 1924 safeguarding the international settlement from rival Chinese armies that were fighting nearby[2].  His detachment was later sent to Peking in response to the warlord Wu P’ei-Fu; Craig’s Marines remained there for a month before returning to the Huron.

Craig returned to the United States in March 1926, where he was briefly assigned to the 4th Marines at San Diego, California.  He was subsequently selected as aide-de-camp to then Commandant John A. Lejeune.  He served in this capacity until General Lejeune’s retirement in 1929.  At Craig’s request, he was subsequently assigned to duty with the Nicaraguan National Guard as a staff officer (training) near Jinotega.  From 1931 to 1933, Craig joined the Marine Corps Base, San Diego but while there served on detached duty with the US State Department.  From 1933 to 1936, Craig served as a company commander in the 6th Marine Regiment and then another staff assignment with the 2nd Marine Brigade where he served as a personnel officer.  From 1937 to 1938, Craig attended the Marine Corps Schools Senior Officer’s Course at Quantico —at the completion of which he returned once more to San Diego, California where he served severally as an instructor at the Platoon Leader’s Course, an Inspector-Instructor, Reserve Field Training Battalion, and Base Adjutant.

From June 1939 and June 1941, Craig served as an intelligence officer aboard the aircraft carriers USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise.  During this period, he served temporarily at the Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor.  In brief periods, he served in the commands of Admiral Ernest King, Charles Blakely, and William Halsey.  In July 1941, Craig was assigned as Provost Marshal and Guard Battalion Commander at San Diego, California.  These duties took on greater importance after Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor in December.  In June 1942, Craig assumed the duties of regimental executive officer, 9th Marine Regiment but within a few months, having been selected for promotion to Colonel, he was assigned as Commanding Officer, Service Troops, 3rd Marine Division.  After the division’s arrival in New Zealand, Craig requested an infantry assignment.  In July 1943, he was again assigned to the 9th Marines —this time as regimental commander.  Craig led the regiment at Bougainville through April 1944; he continued to led them during the Battle for Guam.  During this campaign, Craig earned the Navy Cross.  In September, Craig was ordered to the V Amphibious Corps, where he served as Operations Officer.  In this capacity, he directed the planning for the assault on Iwo Jima in February 1945.  In July, Craig returned to the United States to serve as Chief of Staff, Marine Training Command, San Diego.

After the war, Craig served as the officer in charge of specialized amphibious training, Eight Army in Japan.  While so assigned, Craig was advanced to Brigadier General and assigned as Assistant Division Commander, 1st Marine Division, which was then serving in Tientsin, China.  In June 1947, Craig assumed command of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, Fleet Marine Forces, Guam, where he served for two years.

As with the other services, the Marine Corps was drastically reduced in size after World War II.  Accordingly, it was unprepared for North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950.  As a response to the aggression, the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed the Marine Corps to ready a 15,000-man division into Korea as part of the United Nations Command.  The Marine Corps response was immediate, but in the interim, 4,725 Marines were assembled around the 5th Marine Regiment.  On 7 July 1950, the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade was reactivated, and Brigadier General Craig was assigned to command it.  The Brigade arrived in Pusan, South Korea on 3 August.  Combat operations began almost immediately.  As part of Eighth Army’s reserve, the Marines were used as a stop-gap measure to plug holes in the line left vacant by Army units in retreat.  It became known as the Fire Brigade.  In September, the Brigade rejoined the 1st Marine Division during the assault on Inchon and Brigadier General Craig served under Major General Oliver P. Smith as Assistant Division Commander.

Upon his return to the United States, Craig was promoted to Major General and assumed the directorship of the Division of Reserve, Headquarters Marine Corps.  In recognition of his valor in combat, Craig was advanced to lieutenant general on the retired list.  He passed away at his home at El Cajon, California on 11 December 1994.  He was 98 years of age.


[1] USS South Dakota was renamed USS Huron (CA 9) on 7 June 1920 to free up the name for a new class South Dakota battleship.

[2] This was during the so-called Warlord Era in China when scattered international settlements were frequently threatened by Chinese nationalists and the anti-foreign movements among various groups.


In his later years of service, Oliver Prince Smith commanded the 1st Marine Division in one of its most extraordinary battles: The Chosin[1] Reservoir.  Few battles can compare to the intense fighting that took place there.  It was a time when the entire body of United Nations forces were stopped in their advance to the Yalu River by an overwhelming number of Chinese Communist infantry.

At the time, the 1st Marine Division and US 7th Infantry Division operated as part of the US 10th Army Corps (X Corps) some 60-70 miles inland, in the mountainous regions of central Korea.  Temperature hovered around thirty degrees below zero, but powerful winds from Manchuria plummeted these temperatures even lower.  Suddenly isolated from all other UN forces, the only hope these troops had to survive the onslaught was a quality leader with fierce determination[2].  It has been said by those under Smith’s command that he was precisely the right man, at the right place, and at the right time.

The Chinese forces assaulting X Corps included the 20th, 26th, and 27th Chinese field armies —totaling 12 infantry divisions.   China’s sudden attack sliced between the two forward elements of X Corps: the 1st Marine Division was operating inland, on the left, and the US 7th Infantry Division was operating nearest the east coast, on the right.  3rd US Infantry Division, with only two regiments, was assigned to X Corps reserve.  The 1st Marine Division was the most formidable component of the X Army Corps[3] and General Smith was its most capable general.  China’s intent was to destroy the Marine division; were it not for the leadership and combat skill of Major General O. P. Smith, they might have succeeded.

What do we know about General Smith?

General Smith was born in Menard, Texas (1893), but grew up in Northern California.  He attended the University of California (Berkley), working his way through college doing odd jobs, but mostly gardening.  Gardening became his hobby and one that he pursued his entire life.  He graduated from UC in 1916; he applied for and received a commission to Second Lieutenant on 14 May 1917.

The following month, Smith was ordered to duty with the Marine Barracks, Naval Station, Guam, Marianas Islands.  Subsequently, Smith served various tours of sea and shore duty, in Haiti with the Gendarmerie d’Haiti, and attended professional schools at Fort Benning, Georgia, Marine Corps Schools, Quantico, Virginia, and being fluent in French, he was the first Marine Corps officer to graduate from the Ecole Superieure de Guerre, in Paris, France.  Smith also successfully served as the Assistant Regimental Operations Officer, 7th Marines, as Fleet Marine Force Operations Officer in San Diego, and then finally as a lieutenant colonel, he received his first organizational command —1st Battalion, 6th Marines.  In May 1941, the 6th Marine Regiment was ordered to Iceland as part of the US Defense Force protecting Iceland from German attack, relieving British forces for duty elsewhere.  While in Iceland, Smith was advanced to Colonel.

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 brought home to Smith the realization that most Marine officers and senior NCOs in his command had no appreciation for the complexities of amphibious warfare, particularly when conducted so far from the United States in the South and Central Pacific Ocean region.  Colonel Smith therefore embarked upon a program for officers, NCOs, and enlisted men to educate them about the difficulties of amphibious operations.  The program, which he personally taught, was so successful that it was extended to the officers and men of other battalions.

Upon his return to the United States in 1942, Colonel Smith was assigned to the staff at Headquarters Marine Corps where he led the Division of Plans and Policies.  Then, in 1944, Smith was ordered to the 1st Marine Division, then serving on New Britain.  Assuming command of the 5th Marine Regiment, Smith led his command in the Talasea phase of the Cape Gloucester Operation.  Advanced to Brigadier General, Smith then served as the Assistant Division Commander from April 1944 through October 1944 (which included the assault on the Island of Peleliu in the Marianas.  In November 1944, Brigadier General Smith was assigned as Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations) for the US X Army; he participated in the Battle of Okinawa from April through June 1945.

In July 1945, Smith assumed the duties of Commandant, Marine Corps Schools at Quantico, Virginia and in January 1948, assumed command of the Marine Corps Base, Quantico.  In April 1948, Smith was assigned as an assistant commandant and Marine Corps Chief of Staff, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps.  While serving in this capacity, he also served as editor-in-chief of the professional journal, Marine Corps Gazette.

Major General Oliver P. Smith was named to replace Major General Graves B. Erskine as  Commanding General, 1st Marine Division in early June, 1950.  Before the shift in commanders could take effect, however, on 25 June 1950, North Korean forces launched a massive assault on the Republic of (South) Korea.

At that time, the Marine Corps had suffered the same fate as other organizations within the Department of Defense, to wit: President Truman and Defense Secretary Louis Johnson reduced these units in strength and material to the extent that the United States military had no combat-effective units.  In the case of the 1st Marine Division, on 25 June 1950, the division’s combat capability was on the order of a reinforced regimental combat team: the division had but one understrength regiment: 5th Marines, then commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray.  At this early stage, the 5th Marines had but two battalions (rather than three); each battalion could field two rifle companies (rather than three), and rifle companies had but two infantry platoons (rather than three).

On 26 June 1950, General Erskine and the Marine Corps faced with two immediate herculean undertakings: first, to send Marines to Korea to defend the Pusan Perimeter; second, to reestablish the 1st Marine Division as an effective fighting force.  To complete the first task, Marine Corps Headquarters ordered the formation of the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade.  The Brigade was formed around the 5th Marines and Marine Aircraft Group 33; leading the Brigade was Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, who previously served as the Erskine’s Assistant Division Commander.  Craig was a veteran of two world wars.

The effort to bring the air/ground components up to war-time status and efficiency not only involved massive personnel realignments from the supporting establishment (Marine Barracks, Detachments, Recruiting Duty), but also transferring individual Marines from the 2nd Marine Division (at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) and the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (at Cherry Point, North Carolina).  Additionally, reservists were called to active duty to fill in the ranks of reactivated regiments (1st Marines and 7th Marines).  Lacking funds due to defense cuts, many reservists had yet to attend recruit training, so it fell upon General Erskine and General Smith to provide pre-deployment training as part of their efforts to rebuild a fighting division.  This was achieved in record time.

Remarkably, the Brigade departed San Diego, California on 7 July 1950.  It would take General Erskine and General Smith a little longer to provision and deploy the remainder of the division.  Fortunately, most of the division’s senior company grade officers, field grade officers, and senior NCOs were veterans of World War II; they knew the business of war.  This one factor goes a long way in making a distinction between the combat performance of Korean-era Marines and their army counterparts.

General Smith assumed command of the 1st Marine Division on 26 July 1950.

General Smith was a scholar, an intellectual, and well-schooled in the art and science of war.  He possessed a calm, pleasant demeanor, and a degree of self-confidence unmatched by any other senior Marine Corps leader at the time.  He trusted his officers and NCOs to do their job.  Smith was also a devout Christian —important, perhaps, because no matter what crisis he faced in combat, he never took counsel of his fears.  His was a calming, professional influence over subordinates —most of whom, as I have said, had themselves experienced the crucible of war.

General Smith loved his Marines; he felt deeply the loss of their lives in combat.  The fact that he was a Marine through and through is evidenced by the fact that when he was offered an airlift withdrawal of his division from the Chosin Reservoir, he responded, “No.  We are going out as a Marine division, with all of our equipment, and we will fight our way out as an organized Marine division; we are attacking in another direction —as an organized division.”  Bring them out he did … with the dead, wounded, and the survivors of the 7th Infantry Division’s 31st Regimental Combat Team, and most of the division’s combat equipment.

For additional information about this courageous, resourceful, and much-loved Marine Corps officer, I highly recommend these two books: For Country and Corps: The Life of General Oliver P. Smith, by Gayle B. Chiseler (Naval Institute Press), 2009 and The Gentle Warrior: Oliver Prince Smith, by Clifton La Brea, Kent State University Press, 2001.  Additionally, for a knuckle-biting read of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, I recommend The New Breed: The Story of the U. S. Marines in Korea by Andrew Clare Geer, (Harper Press) 1952.  In the case of the last book, it may be somewhat difficult to obtain, but there are pre-owned copies available at Amazon, and I believe Google offers copies through its print on demand system.


[1] At the beginning of the Korean War, the only maps available to US forces were those obtained from Japanese sources.  The Japanese name for this region was Chosin, but in the native Korean language, Changjin.  In Marine Corps history, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir is still referred to as such, acknowledging the sacrifices of the Americans who fought there, but according to modern maps, particularly those of Korean origin, no such place exists.

[2] The US Eighth Army was decisively defeated in the Battle of the Chongchon River; forced to retreat all the way back into South Korea, it was the longest retreat of any military unit in US history.  Units retreated helter-skelter, many leaving their dead and much of their equipment to the enemy.

[3] At the outbreak of the Korean War, the 7th Infantry Division was seriously depleted of trained soldiers due to the incredible short-sightedness of the President and his Secretary of Defense.  Ordered to transfer soldiers to the 25th Infantry Division as replacements in late June 1950, the 7th Infantry Division soon became combat-ineffective.  In July 1950, the 7th Infantry Division consisted of only 9,000 men.  To make up for this deficiency, General Douglas MacArthur assigned 8,000 poorly trained South Korean conscripts.  The division did eventually reach its war time strength of 25,000 men, but this number included, in addition to the poorly trained, non-English-speaking Koreans, a regiment of Ethiopians.

Sergeant William R. Button, USMC

At the time of this action, William Robert Button was a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in tracking down and killing the Haitian nationalist leader Charlemagne Peralte during the night of October 31—November 1, 1919. Sergeant (later Brigadier General) Herman H. Hanneken was also awarded the Medal of Honor for this action. William Button was promoted to sergeant before passing away from malaria at the age of 25 years.

William Button was born on December 3, 1895 at Saint Louis, Missouri. He was dispatched to Haiti not long after joining the Corps and while in Haiti he commanded a group of Gendarmerie near Grande Riviere when they engaged a group of Haitians opposed to US occupation. By the end of this fighting, Charlemagne Peralte had been killed and 1,200 of his followers killed, captured, or disbursed.

In recognition of risking his life in battle, he along with Sergeant Hanneken was cited for bravery, and recommended for the United States’ highest decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor. The Secretary of the Navy approved the award on June 10, 1920, and it was presented to Button by the Major General Commandant of the Marine Corps, John A. Lejeune at a ceremony in Washington DC on July 1, 1920. After the ceremony Sergeant Button took a short leave to visit his family before returning to Haiti.

Sergeant Button died of pernicious malaria on April 15, 1921 at the Department Hospital, Cap-Haitien, Haiti … he was just 25 years of age.

Medal of HonorThe President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to


For service as set forth in the following Citation:

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in actual conflict with the enemy near GRANDE RIVIERE, Republic of Haiti, on the night of October 31 – November 1, 1919, resulting in the death of Charlemagne Peralte, the supreme bandit chief in the Republic of Haiti, and the killing and capture and dispersal of about twelve hundred (1200) of his outlaw followers. Corporal William R. Button not only distinguished himself by his excellent judgment and leadership, but unhesitatingly exposed himself to great personal danger, when the slightest error would have forfeited not only his life but the lives of the detachments of Gendarmerie under his command. The successful termination of his mission will undoubtedly prove of untold value to the Republic of Haiti.