Rarer than Rare: Marine Major General One of Less Than 20 Double Medal of Honor Awardees

By Alex Snyder, Defense Media Activity

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor. 

The Medal of Honor is the military’s most prestigious award. Of the roughly 3,500 presented since the inception of the award, only 19 people have received more than one. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler was one of them.

Marine Corps courtesy photo

Butler was born in a summer heat wave on July 30, 1881, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His father was an attorney, a district judge and a Republican congressman. Serving in the House of Representatives for 31 years, the elder Butler was chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs for most of the 1920s, which is quite a distinction for a person raised as a Quaker, a religion dedicated to nonviolence and pacifism.

In 1898, when Butler was just 16, the Spanish-American War broke out. He quit school and tried to join both the Navy and Army. They rejected him because of his age, but that didn’t stop the determined young man. He simply lied about his age and received a temporary wartime commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. After a few weeks of training in the nation’s capital, he was sent with a unit to Cuba to secure Guantanamo Bay. When he arrived, the fighting in Cuba was almost over, and Butler was discharged from the Corps the following February. But he seemed to have his heart set on a military career of sorts.

Back then, the Marine Corp consisted of only about 2,000 full-time troops, but due to its impressive performance in the Spanish-American War, which was being fought in two regions — against Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea, and against the Philippines and Guam in the Asia-Pacific region — Congress agreed to triple its size. Butler applied for one of the new regular commission slots, and he was reappointed a first lieutenant in April 1899. Within weeks he was on his way to the Philippines, where he experienced combat for the first time when the unit he led, consisting of about 300 men, was ordered to quell an uprising by Filipino rebels at Noveleta, outside Manila. He later commemorated the occasion with a large Marine-themed tattoo.

In 1900, Butler was set to leave the Philippines for Guam when he was redirected to China. The Boxer Rebellion, a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian uprising, had erupted, and the Marines were leading the charge for the U.S. During a battle, Butler was shot in the thigh when he climbed out of a trench to save a fellow officer who had been wounded. His action saved the officer, and Butler was promoted to captain for his heroics.

In 1903, Butler was sent to Honduras to defend the U.S. Consulate during a revolt. He remained in Central America for nearly 10 years, leading his Marines into battle in Nicaragua and Panama.

In 1914, Butler went undercover in Mexico City as railroad employee. His mission was to ascertain the strength of the Mexican army, prior to nearly 6,000 U.S. troops landing in the Mexican city of Veracruz. After days of intense fighting and heavy sniper fire in the streets, Butler and his troops were victorious. For his assistance and actions, Butler was awarded the first of his two Medals of Honor.

A year later, Haiti was undergoing a major revolt. Butler, by then a major, was sent in with a contingent of Marines to intervene. In October, leading a patrol of 44 mounted Marines, he was ambushed by more than 400 Haitian fighters. Throughout the night, the Marines held their position, and at daybreak they charged the enemy force, who fled.

Later that year, with nearly all the rebels defeated, Butler and his Marines engaged in one last battle – a short, intense hand-to-hand-combat fight. One Marine was injured, and all 51 enemy Haitians were killed. For his actions that day, Butler was awarded a second Medal of Honor.

Butler would go on to serve in World War I. In 1929 he was promoted to major general, becoming, at age 48, the youngest major general of the Marine Corps at the time.

He retired in 1931 and began lecturing at law enforcement events before returning to Pennsylvania for his daughter’s marriage to a Marine aviator.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Butler later ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in Pennsylvania, but was defeated. He spent the rest of his days with his wife, whom he affectionately referred to as “Bunny.” He passed away at Naval Hospital Philadelphia on June 21, 1940, and at the time of his death, he was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history.

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