At first sight, one wouldn’t think that Daniel Daly would be on anyone’s list as a badass – standing at just 5’6” and weighing in at a mere 132 lbs.
But as Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who had more fight in them than Sgt. Major Daly.
Major General John A Lejeune said of Daly that he was, “The outstanding Marine of all time”, and Major General Smedley Butler (a two time winner of the Medal of Honor) called Daly “The Fightingest Marine I ever knew.”
So who was this man?
Born in 1873 in Glen Cove, Long Island, Daly – would serve in the Marine Corps for 30 years, just like his admirer General Butler – he would win the Medal of Honor twice. In fact, he was almost awarded the medal a third time, but the powers that be felt they couldn’t give any one man that honor three times, even though he richly deserved it.
Daly joined the Marine Corps in 1899, with the hopes of fighting in the Spanish American War, but by the time he was finished with his training, the conflict was over. In 1900 he was shipped over to the Asiatic fleet and found himself in China in the middle of the Boxer Rebellion. For those unfamiliar with this conflict, the uprising came about because the Chinese were angry with the increasing presence and influence of Western countries (and Japan), and they rose up to force the foreigners out of their country.
Daly (just a private at this point) was led to a position on a wall just outside the consulate by his Captain, who then had to leave and gather reinforcements. The Chinese, seeing there was just one man, attacked Daly’s position all night. Accounts differ as to how Daly was armed – either with a bolt action rifle and a bayonet, or with Colt-Browning machine gun, but either way, it was still just one man standing against hundreds.
And when Day broke and reinforcements arrived, they found Daly still at his position with over 200 dead enemies all around him. For his bravery, Daly was awarded his first Medal of Honor, but he was far from finished.
Fast forward 15 years, Daly (now a Gunnery Sergeant) was in Haiti dealing with an uprising. He led a recon patrol of about 35 Marines into the jungle to find the rebels. He and his men were ambushed as they tried to cross a river roughly 400 Haitian rebels. The Marines were able to retreat to a defensible hillside position, but in their withdrawal, they lost their heavy machine gun. In the night, Daly went out to retrieve the weapon (killing three Haitians with his knife in brutal hand to hand combat), and after securing the machine gun, returned to the Marine position and then led an attack to break the rebels for good.
Once again, Daly was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery, and for helping to save the lives of the Marines in his patrol. Nineteen men have been awarded this medal twice – Daly is just one of seven men to earn it in two separate conflicts. General Smedley Butler – his commanding office in Haiti – was one of those seven men, so the praise he gave Daly should not be taken lightly. And still Sgt. Daly wasn’t done.
Daly’s next stop would be Europe, where he would fight in the First World War, and it was here really, that his legend was truly born. Daly arrived in France in November of 1917. He distinguished himself several times over the course of the following year – extinguishing a fire at an ammunition dump that would have caused massive death and destruction had it exploded.
He also went into no-man’s land under heavy fire repeatedly to bring back wounded Marines, and he also captured a German machine gun emplacement single-handedly – with just a pistol and a few grenades. But it was at the battle of Belleau Woods in June 1918 that Daly became a legend.
The Battle of Belleau Woods was a key battle in the last year of the war. The German offensive began in March – bolstered by troops from the Eastern Front, who weren’t needed there anymore after Russia dropped out of the war. The Germans meant to drive the Allies back before the Americans could fully engage them, hoping to end the war before the Americans could shift the balance of power to the Allies – or at the very least, give themselves a position of strength to bargain from in the event of an armistice.
Their attack went well initially, driving the French back. In fact, as the French were retreating, they said to the Marines who were just arriving that they should turn back – to which Captain Lloyd Williams reportedly replied, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” (And yes, for those keeping score at home, Captain Williams also deserves the title of American Badass for that statement!)
The Germans advanced all the way to the edge of the Belleau Woods, and intended to continue their march through the woods and then to cross the River Marne, which would give them the victory in this battle — and possibly give them the edge in the whole war. If they could split the Allies line of defense there, they might be able to break the Allies completely.
But they weren’t counting on running into the US Marines. The Marines dug in and held the line, despite horrific casualties. The Germans then dug in and tried to consolidate their position, with the hope of continuing their advance. The Marines had other plans though – they waded through wait high wheat fields to attack the Germans, suffering massive casualties. These attacks were some of the bloodiest in the war, and some of the bloodiest in the history of the Marine Corps.
For those who don’t know how combat worked in the World War I, it was utterly brutal. Frontal attacks meant slow marches towards entrenched enemy machine guns – not to mention artillery and gas. To leave one’s sheltered position meant almost certain death. The fighting was brutal, and lasted several days. But on June 6th, the Marines readied themselves for another assault on the German positions – hoping to knock them back, and thus break the whole German offensive.
Having endured the nightmare of this battle, and these conditions for so long, the Marines refused to advance. The Germans were planning their own counter attack, and had they advanced on the demoralized Americans, they might have broken their lines completely, which would have given the Germans the tactical advantage they needed to win the war. What the Marines needed was a great leader, and fortunately, that’s exactly what they had.
Sgt. Daly looked at his men saw the fear in their eyes and hearts. Without pausing, he shouted out to them, “C’mon you sons of bitches – Do you want to live forever?” and then rushed off to attack the enemy (Daly later said that he shouted “For Christ’s sake men, come on – do you want to live forever?”)
This rallied his troops, and they followed their sergeant over the top and into the woods to drive the Germans back. The battle lasted another two weeks, but this was the critical moment for the Americans, and when things looked their darkest, Daly was there to inspire his men, help them reach their objective, and put the Germans back on the defensive.
After the battle at Belleau Woods, Daly was given serious consideration for an unprecedented third Medal of Honor, but they decided that they couldn’t give one man that award three times and settled on giving him the Navy Cross for all his heroic actions through the battle. They even tried to make him an officer, but Daly declined, saying he’d rather be “an outstanding Sergeant, than just another officer.”
Sgt. Major Dan Daly finally retired from the Marines in 1929, and passed away in 1937. I think it’s safe to say that if were alive during the Second World War, he would have found a way to serve his country one more time. In the annals of great heroes in the USMC, Sgt. Major Daly stands tallest among them all, saving lives and winning battles time and time again with his heroic actions. Never interested in fame or anything that accompanied it, he was only concerned with fighting for and protecting his country.
Semper Fi Sgt. Daly, this nation still owes you a great debt.