‘The Fightin’est Marine I Ever Knew’
By Dale L. Walker
The Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, was first awarded to an Army private named Jacob Parrott for his actions in Georgia in 1863 during the Civil War. In its 152-year history, nearly 3,500 awards have been issued.
Nineteen men have received this rare honor twice. The first double recipient was Army Captain Thomas W. Custer, youngest brother of George Armstrong Custer, for capturing Confederate flags in separate engagements in the Civil War. The most recent two-time recipient was Marine Private John J. Kelly for heroism in battles in France in 1918.
The rarest of the two-medal men earned their awards in separate conflicts.
Daniel Joseph “Dan” Daly was the first, despite his late arrival to the corps. Born in 1873 in Glen Cove, New York, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at the end of 1899, hoping to get into the fighting in Cuba or the Philippines after training. But in early 1900, he was assigned as a U.S. Legation Guard in Peking, China, which is now called Beijing.
At 5’6” and 132 pounds, Daly was a small man, but he was also pugnacious and fearless enough to stand before bigger men as an amateur boxer. He sought something more interesting than sentry duty and his hopes became reality in June 1900, when a secret organization—roughly translated as the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists—fomented and led an uprising in northern China.
Known to English speakers as “Boxers” for their calisthenics and physical workouts, they mercilessly killed all foreigners in their path as they moved towards the capital to besiege the large non-Chinese population there.
On June 30, Daly, armed with a bolt-action rifle and bayonet, stood in the midst of the most dangerous of defensive positions in Peking, the 45-foot-tall Tartar Wall. The bulwark was occupied by both German and American legation military, but as the Chinese advanced, the Germans were forced to retreat, leaving the Americans as the sole defenders. During the melee on the wall, Daly single-handedly stood his ground while a Marine officer departed to bring up reinforcements. Sniper fire pinged off the rocks as the insurgents stormed the American position, but Daly fought off the attack, leaving a string of dead Boxers in his wake until reinforcements arrived.
The Medal of Honor citation didn’t fully capture Daly’s incredible feat: “In the presence of the enemy during the battle of Peking, China, 14 August 1900, Daly distinguished himself by meritorious conduct.”
After an eight-nation alliance landed 20,000 armed troops in China, Peking was recaptured and the 55-day siege lifted on August 14.
Fifteen years and 8,000 miles separated Daly’s second Medal of Honor from his first.
In October 1915, Daly, by then a gunnery sergeant, was on a night reconnaissance patrol near Fort Liberté, Haiti, near the Dominican border, when the patrol was ambushed by a force of 400 Cacos, or Haitian rebels. The attackers opened fire from jungle cover as the Americans crossed a ravine near the fort. Among the casualties was a mule carrying the Marines’ only machine gun. This naturally concerned Daly, the main gunner.
At night and under withering enemy fire, he found the dead mule, unhitched the gun and ammunition boxes and dragged pieces of the burden ashore in several trips. He then assembled the gun as the Marines fought their way to a tenable position. At daybreak, the Americans split into three squads and forced the Cacos to retreat. The machine gun was instrumental in the deaths of 75 rebels.
Daly’s second citation states, “[Gunnery Sergeant] Daly fought with exceptional gallantry against heavy odds throughout this action.”
He fought with exceptional gallantry at Belleau Wood in France during World War I, for which he earned the Navy Cross and France’s Médaille Militaire. His other medals include the Distinguished Service Cross, Croix de Guerre with palm and campaign medals for Mexico, China, the Philippines and Haiti.
Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, who described Daly as, “The fightin’est Marine I ever knew,” had himself earned a Medal of Honor for distinguished conduct in the battle for the occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1914. A few months after Daly’s second award, Butler also received a second medal for leading an attack on a Caco stronghold.
Daly retired from the Marines as a sergeant major on February 6, 1929, after 30 years of service. He died on April 27, 1937, at age 63, in the Glendale neighborhood of Queens, New York.
—Dale L. Walker of El Paso, Texas, is a past president of Western Writers of America, Inc., and author of many historical books and biographies. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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