History of Smedley Darlington Butler
Smedley Darlington Butler was born July 30, 1881, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the eldest of three sons, born to a prominent and wealthy family. His parents, Thomas Stalker and Maud (née Darlington) Butler, were descended from local Quaker families. His father was a lawyer, a judge, and for 31 years, a Congressman and Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee during the Harding and Coolidge administrations. His maternal grandfather, Smedley Darlington, was the Republican Congressman from 1887-1891.
Butler attended the West Chester Friends Graded High School, followed by The Haverford School, a secondary school popular with sons of upper-class Philadelphia families. A Haverford athlete, he became captain of its baseball team and quarterback of its football team. When the Spanish – American War broke out, and against the wishes of his father, he quit school. His official transcript stated he completed the Scientific Course “with Credit”.
Smedley tried to enlist in the Army and the Navy, but both services rejected him because he was still 38 days short of his 17th birthday. Lying about his age, and wielding his father’s political clout, he managed to get a temporary wartime commission as a second lieutenant with the Marine Corps. He trained at the Washington D.C. Marine Barracks and served with the Marine Battalion, North Atlantic Squadron. In July 1898, he went to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, arriving shortly after its invasion and capture. He was then returned to the U.S. and assigned to the armored cruiser USS New York for 4 months before being honorably discharged on February 16, 1899.
He was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps on April 8, 1899, and was assigned to duty with the Marine Battalion at Manila, Philippine Islands. There he experienced combat for the first time during the attack to capture the Nationalist-held fort at Noveleta. After the excitement of combat, Butler designed, and got a very large Eagle, Globe, and Anchor tattoo, which started at his throat and extended to his waist.
From June 14, 1899 until October 1900, he served with distinction in China, and was promoted to captain by brevet for distinguished conduct and public service in the presence of the enemy near Tientsin, China. He was wounded in that battle on July 13,1900. Four enlisted men would receive the Medal of Honor from that battle. Commissioned officers were not then eligible to receive the Medal of Honor, so Butler so received a promotion to Captain by brevet on July 23, 1900, while he recovered in the hospital, two weeks before his nineteenth birthday. Because of his record in China, Butler became eligible for the Marine Corps Brevet Medal when it was created in 1921, and was one of only 20 Marines to receive it.
Returning to the United States in January 1901, he served at various posts on several ships, and within the continental limits. He also served ashore in Puerto Rico, and the Isthmus of Panama for short periods, and Hondorus.
After the Honduran campaign, Butler returned to Philadelphia. He married Ethel Conway Peters of Philadelphia in Bay Head, New Jersey on June 30, 1905. The couple eventually had three children: a daughter, Ethel Peters Butler (Mrs. John Wehle), and two sons, Smedley Darlington, Jr. and Thomas Richard.
He was promoted to major on May 13, 1908. In December 1909, he commanded the 3d Battalion, 1st Regiment on the Isthmus of Panama. He was temporarily detached to command an expeditionary battalion organized for service in Nicaragua, August 11, 1912, in which he participated in the bombardment, assault and capture of Coyotepe Hill, October 12 – 31, 1912. He remained on duty in Nicaragua until November 1912, when he rejoined the Marines at Camp Elliott, Panama.
His first Medal of Honor was presented following action in Mexico, April 21 – 22,1914, where he commanded the Marines who landed and occupied the city of Vera Cruz. Major Butler “was eminent and conspicuous in command of his Battalion. He exhibited courage and skill in leading his men through the action of the 22nd and in the final occupation of the city.”
The following year, he was awarded the second Medal of Honor for bravery and forceful leadership as Commanding Officer of detachments of Marines and seamen of the USS Connecticut in repulsing Caco resistance on Fort Riviere, Haiti, November 17, 1915. He was also awarded the Haitian Medal of Honor. The entire battle lasted less than twenty minutes.
Now a Lieutentant Colonel (August 1, 1916,) Butler was disappointed he not assigned to a combat command on the Western Front during World War I. Instead, he commanded the 13th Regiment in France. He made several requests for a posting in France, writing letters to his personal friend, Wendell Cushing Neville. While Butler’s superiors considered him brave and brilliant, they also described him as “unreliable.” However, for exceptionally meritorious service, he was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star. He also became (temporary) Brigadier General on October 7, 1918, Colonel March 9, 1919.
When he returned to the United States in 1919, he became Commanding General of the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia and served in that capacity until the end of 1923.
In January 1924, at the urging of Butler’s father, the newly elected mayor of Philadelphia, W. Freeland Kendrick asked him to leave the Marines to become the Director of Public Safety, the official in charge of running the city’s police and fire departments. Philadelphia’s municipal government was notoriously corrupt, and Butler initially refused. Kendrick asked President Calvin Coolidge to intervene. Coolidge authorized him to take the necessary leave of absence from the Marine Corps, and at the request of the President, Butler served in the post from January 1924 until December 1925.
Although he was effective in reducing crime and police corruption, he was a controversial leader. He implemented programs to improve city safety and security. He established policies and guidelines of administration, and developed a Philadelphia police uniform that resembled that of the Marine Corps. But other changes included military-style checkpoints into the city, bandit chasing squads armed with sawed-off shotguns, and armored police cars. The press began reporting on the good and the bad aspects of Butler’s personal war on crime. The reports praised the new programs, and the reductions in crime but they also reflected the public’s negative opinion of their new Public Safety Director. Many felt that he was too aggressive in his tactics, and resented the reductions in their civil rights. He frequently swore in his radio addresses, causing many citizens to suggest his behavior, particularly his language, was inappropriate for someone of his rank and stature. Some even suggested Butler acted like a military dictator, even charging that he inappropriately used active-duty Marines in some of his raids.
Eventually Butler’s leadership style and the directness of actions undermined his support within the community. His departure seemed imminent. On January 1, 1926, his leave from the Marine Corps ended, and Butler received orders to report to San Diego and he prepared his family and his belongings for the new assignment. In February 1926, Brigadier General Butler assumed command of the Marine Corps Base at San Diego, California. In March 1927, he returned to China for duty with the 3d Marine Brigade. From April to October 31, 1927 he again commanded the Marine Barracks at Quantico.
In 1931, Butler acted as an “unauthorized spokesman” when telling a story about Benito Mussolini, in which the dictator allegedly struck a child with his automobile in a hit-and-run accident. The Italian government protested, and President Hoover, who strongly disliked Butler, forced Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams III to court-martial him. Butler became the first general officer to be placed under arrest since the Civil War. He apologized to Secretary Adams, and the court martial was canceled with only a reprimand.
In old Marine tradition, when a Commandant retired or died, it was customary for the senior Marine Corps general to assume the position of Commandant while a new one was chosen. However, when Marine Corps commandant Major General Wendell C. Neville died July 8, 1930, Butler, at that time the senior major general in the Corps, was not appointed. Although he had significant support from many inside and outside the Corps, two other Marine Corps generals were being seriously considered for the post. Many petitioned President Hoover, garnering support in the Senate, and flooding Secretary of the Navy Charles Adams’s desk with more than 2,500 letters of support. With the recent death of his influential father, however, Butler had lost much of his protection from his civilian superiors. The outspokenness that characterized his run-ins with the Mayor of Philadelphia, the “unreliability” mentioned by his superiors when opposing a posting to the Western Front, and his comments about Benito Mussolini resurfaced. In the end, the position of Commandant went to Major General Ben H. Fuller.
On October 1931, Major General Butler (July 5, 1929) at his own request, retired after completion of 33 years’ service in the Marine Corps. He was 49 years old.
He began lecturing at events and conferences full-time. He donated much of his earnings from this lucrative, although controversial, lecture circuits to the Philadelphia unemployment relief. He toured the western United States, making 60 speeches before returning for his daughter’s marriage to Marine Aviator Lieutenant John Wehle. Her wedding was the only time that he wore his dress blue uniform after he left the Marine Corps.
He announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary in Pennsylvania in March 1932 as a proponent of Prohibition, but was defeated by Senator James J. Davis.
Upon his retirement, Butler bought a home in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his wife. In June 1940, he checked himself into the hospital after becoming sick a few weeks earlier. His doctor described his illness as an incurable condition of the upper gastro-intestinal tract that was probably cancer. His family remained by his side, even bringing his new car so he could see it from the window. He never had a chance to drive it. On June 21, 1940, Butler died in the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia.
The funeral was held at his home, attended by friends and family, as well as many politicians, members of the Philadelphia police force and officers of the Marine Corps. Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, one of the most highly decorated soldiers in United States history, was laid to rest in Oaklands Cemetery, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, with full military honors.
- Since his death in 1940, his family has maintained his home as it was when he died, including a large collection of memorabilia. The Butler House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
- When he was not yet 20, the citizens of his native West Chester, Pennsylvania, presented him with a sword on his return from the Boxer Rebellion in China. Some 50 years later that trophy was presented to the Marine Corps for permanent custody.
- The USS Butler, a Gleaves – class destroyer, later converted to a high-speed minesweeper, was named for Major General Butler in 1942. This vessel participated in the European and Pacific theaters of operations during World War II.
- The Boston, Massachusetts, chapter of Veterans for Peace is called the Smedley D. Butler Brigade in his honor.
- Butler was featured in the documentary film The Corporation.
- In his book My First Days in the White House, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana stated that, if elected to the presidency, he would name Butler as his Secretary of War.
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