'Fightingest Marine' Daniel Daly Won Highest Honors, Coined Legendary Phrase
For Sgt. Maj. Daniel Daly, the Marine Corps was essentially his life.
There is little record of his personal one. Daly never married. Nearly everything that’s known about him relates to his three decades in the Marines.
And what a life it was.
Daly (1873-1937) is one of only 19 members of the U.S. military, and only two Marines, to have received the Medal of Honor twice, the nation’s highest military decoration. He was also a recipient of the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest military honor.
Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, Daly’s friend and coincidentally the other Marine who received two Medals of Honor, is said to have described Daly as “the fightingest Marine I ever knew” and “it was an object lesson to have served with him.”
Maj. Gen. John Lejeune, commandant of the Marine Corps in the 1920s and who himself was called the “greatest of all leathernecks,” judged Daly to be “the outstanding Marine of all time.”
Daly’s shout of “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” has been immortalized in accounts of America’s participation in World War I, though Daly himself is far less well known. (And Daly insisted that what he actually said was “Come on, fellas, do you want to live forever?”)
In addition to Daly’s Medals of Honor and Navy Cross, he also received the Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star. The USS Daly, a Fletcher-class destroyer, was named in his honor in 1942. In 2005, Daly was furthered honored on a U.S. postage stamp.
“Daly epitomized all that is finest in the humble servant-leader,” Patrick Mooney, a historian with the National Museum of the Marine Corps, told IBD
While only 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 132 pounds, “his keen gray eyes looked upon danger without fear,” reads a description of Daly at the U.S. Marine Corps website.
“Although a `natural’ for publicity, (Daly) disdained it and disliked all the fuss made over him,” it goes on to say, adding that Daly considered medals “a lot of foolishness.”
“For myself, I don’t care for all this publicity,” he’s quoted as saying. “All I ask is to be left alone.”
Daly reportedly didn’t drink and was a strict disciplinarian. He was also “fair-minded and very popular among both officers and enlisted men,” the USMC site says. “He was noted not only for his … daring, but also for his constant attention to the needs of his men. Offered a commission on several occasions, he is said to have declined on the grounds that he would rather be `an outstanding sergeant than just another officer.’ “
A Born Fighter
Daly was described by the Brooklyn Eagle in a February 1919 article as a “quiet-mannered, modest and unobtrusive” man.
Born in Glen Cove, N.Y., Daly “survived a rough and tumble childhood on the streets of New York City,” according to the website TogetherWeServed.
He was a newsboy and eventually a talented amateur boxer.
Perhaps inspired by America’s victory in the Spanish-American War just months earlier, Daly enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1899, and was assigned to the Asiatic Fleet aboard the USS Newark.
Daly wouldn’t have to wait long to see his first combat. In 1900, Pvt. Daly was deployed during the Boxer Rebellion in China. In May of that year Daly was part of a small contingent of Marines whose mission was to protect American diplomatic personnel and installations and other foreign legations in Beijing (then known as Peking).
By mid-August, Daly and his comrades had been driven back and forced to make a last stand of their defensive positions around the old city wall.
“Along with a certain Captain N.H. Hall, Daly undertook to defend a solid position on top of the wall between the Ch’ien Men and Hata Men gates, armed only with a rifle and a bayonet,” according to TogetherWeServed. On Aug. 14, Hall left the position to gather reinforcements, which put Daly alone on what was known as the Tartar Wall. That night, under constant sniper fire, Daly single-handedly held off several enemy charges, reportedly inflicting some 200 casualties, until Hall returned with the reinforcements in the morning. For that Daly received his first Medal of Honor.
Daly’s career saw him assigned to numerous ships and tours at sea. In addition to the action in China, he saw combat in several other countries and conflicts, including leading a platoon of Marines ashore during the invasion of Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914. He was also stationed at eight posts in the U.S.
He gained recognition for more than his actions in combat, though. While serving on USS Springfield in 1911, Daly is credited with saving the ship when he spotted a gasoline fire near its primary powder magazine and extinguished it.
In 1915, Daly was deployed in Haiti in support of that government’s battle against insurgent guerrilla fighters known as Cacos.
During the Battle of Fort Dipitie on the night of Oct. 24, 1915, now Gunnery Sgt. Daly was part of a mounted force of 38 men from the 15th Company of Marines. They were ambushed from three sides, by a force of 400 Cacos, while crossing a river in a deep ravine.
The Marines fought their way to high ground and, while they didn’t lose any men, 12 horses were lost along with a mule carrying their only machine gun. Although they were under a continuous barrage of fire, Daly volunteered to return to the ravine to get the machine gun that was still strapped to the dead mule.
To do so, Daly had to make his way past numerous enemy positions, killing some enemy combatants in the process, wrote Gen. David Zabecki for HistoryNet.
“Reaching the riverbank, Daly slipped into the water and repeatedly dove to find the patrol’s machine gun,” Zabecki wrote. “Working in the dark and under Cacos fire, Daly finally located the dead mule, detached the machine gun and ammunition, and brought the load ashore in several trips.” He then picked up the extremely heavy load and “returned through the jungle past more Cacos to the Marine position.”
The next morning those Marines, in three squads, attacked the enemy from three different directions. They surprised the Cacos, inflicting 75 casualties and dispersing the rest. Daly was awarded his second Medal of Honor for this action, with the citation crediting him with “extraordinary heroism” and “exceptional gallantry against heavy odds throughout this action.”
Historian Mooney lauds Daly’s “concern for his junior Marines, his calmness in the face of battle, a spirit of self-sacrifice,” and for “living a life of example.”
Annette Amerman, branch head and historian for the Marine Corps History Division, told IBD that Daly’s men “respected his abilities, they respected his courage, they respected that he wasn’t going to let them down. It’s simple, if you know your leader is going to be right there with you in the fight, and knows how to bring you through it, you’ll follow.”
His Legendary Charge
With two Medals of Honor to his credit, Daly wasn’t done yet. After the U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917, the 44-year-old Daly was deployed in France.
On June 5, 1918, Daly risked his life to extinguish a fire in an ammunition dump at Lucy-le-Bocage, nicknamed “Lucy Birdcage” by the American Expeditionary Forces.
On June 10, 1918, following an unsuccessful attack against enemy positions in nearby Belleau Wood four days earlier, Daly, the acting 1st sergeant of 73rd Company, 6th Marines, was overseeing the employment of his heavy-machine-gun company. It was to be in support of another attack by the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, in the Battle of Belleau Wood, considered one of the key engagements of the war, and the first significant U.S. victory in that conflict.
The battalion became pinned down due to the withering fire of massed German machine guns on the outskirts of Lucy-le-Bocage. Daly and his men were badly outnumbered and outgunned.
Then, Daly acted. “Sensing the critical moment was rapidly approaching, Daly raised his rifle over his head and said `Come on, fellas, you want to live forever?’ ” Mooney said. “With that Daly charged off the hill where his guns were emplaced, followed by his company of 200 men. Like a magnet through iron filings, Marines in the wheat field joined him as he charged.”
Then upon entering the wood, “Daly pulled his Colt automatic pistol and leapt into an enemy machine-gun emplacement unassisted and captured it by use of hand grenades and his automatic pistol,” Mooney said.
Later that day, during a German counterattack on the town of Bouresches, Daly was brought in wounded under fire. He was also wounded the following October.
For his June exploits, Daly was recommended to receive another Medal of Honor, but that was rejected by AEF headquarters, where it was believed no one should receive three Medals of Honor, Mooney said.
Instead, Daly was given the Navy Cross. Its accompanying citation could also have described Daly’s entire military career:
“For repeated deeds of heroism and great service.”
Received the Medal of Honor twice and the Navy Cross once. Gave the famed battle cry of “Come on fellas, do you want to live forever.”
Overcame: Being outnumbered and outgunned often.
Lesson: Tenacity develops courage under fire.
“If you’re going through hell, keep going. Daly did.” — Annette Amerman, branch head and historian for the Marine Corps History Division
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