b. 02/11/1880 New York. d. 25/05/1942 St Petersburg, Florida.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 21-22/04/1914 Veracruz, Mexico.
Born on 2 November 1880 in Brooklyn, John Arthur Hughes was the son of William H. T. Hughes, the director of the Ward Steamship Line, and his wife, Olive. His parents sent him to the prestigious Berkeley School (where Colonel John A. Lejeune sent his daughters in 1910), and he graduated in 1900. Although he secured a congressional nomination to the U.S. Military Academy, Hughes failed the entrance examination. By then, his father had died, and apparently higher education at a civilian college or university appeared out of the question.
Still determined however, Hughes enlisted in the Marine Corps on 7 November 1900. Barely 14 months after enlisting, he sewed on the stripes of a corporal; after 18 months, he earned a promotion to sergeant. On 21 December 1901, former Sergeant Hughes took his oath as a second lieutenant along with three meritorious corporals; included in that number was Earl H. “Pete” Ellis (another colorful Marine who went on to earn the Navy Cross). After rudimentary training at the barracks in Boston, Hughes and the new officers joined a replacement battalion bound for the Philippines. Arriving at Cavite in 1902, they received postings to the regiment stationed at the old Spanish naval arsenal; Olongapo, at the head of Subic Bay, contained a second regiment of Leathernecks, and the brigade headquarters flew its flag in Manila.
Hughes took over a platoon of infantry in a battalion commanded by Major Constantine M. Perkins; Lieutenant Colonel Mancell C. Goodrell commanded the regiment. Neither Perkins, a Naval Academy graduate, nor Goodrell, a venerable campaigner of the Old Corps, found satisfaction with the mercurial Hughes. During that troublesome tour in the Philippines, Hughes’ nickname of “Johnny the Hard” took root. Despite the series of negative fitness reports Hughes earned as a second lieutenant, a board of examination convened in September 1903 sent his name forward with a positive recommendation for promotion to first lieutenant.
Detached in November 1904, Hughes reported a month later to Marine Barracks, Boston, where he served as the assistant quartermaster and acting commissary officer for the next two years. On 26 March 1906, the Major General Commandant, George F. Elliott, posted him to the cruiser USS Minneapolis, but her Marine guard deployed ashore to Cuba that fall when Leatherneck detachments from throughout the Fleet assembled to form a naval constabulary in response to unrest in Spain’s former colony. On 14 November, the commandant detached him from the Minneapolis, and Johnny the Hard served with the 1st Provisional Regiment in Cuba.
On 14 May 1908, another board of examination—paying no heed to a continuing record of untoward instances in his records of fitness—recommended Hughes for promotion, and he pinned on his captain’s bars. In January 1909, Hughes signed in at the barracks in New York, but in April he reported to the battalion embarked on the USS Hancock. Steaming south to Guantanamo Bay, the aged troop transport transferred Hughes and his fellow Leathernecks to the former auxiliary cruiser Buffalo, and the force deployed ashore in the Panama Canal Zone on 23 March 1910. Just a month later, continuing difficulties in Nicaragua prompted the dispatch of the ready battalion north. And during this short deployment, Hughes’ colorful behavior came to the attention of no less a personage than Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Myer; in addition, it involved a contemporary with powerful political connections.
Johnny the Hard’s commanding officer, Major Smedley D. Butler, determined that another marginal fitness report or even transferring the seemingly troublesome Hughes out of his battalion was less punishment than deserved. On 24 May 1912, Butler cabled Major General Commandant William P. Biddle: “Consider Captain Hughes menace to welfare command. Request return to arrest or immediate detachment.” When the commandant rebuffed Butler’s request to transfer Hughes, not only out of Nicaragua but to the Philippines to begin anew the customary overseas posting of 2 to 2½ years, the major turned to an influential connection. Butler’s father, Congressman Thomas S. Butler, served on the powerful House Naval Affairs Committee as its senior Republican member.
The appeal to transfer Hughes passed quickly from Capitol Hill to Secretary Myer. But he denied the unusual and punitive request, leaving the younger Butler to deal with the obstreperous Johnny the Hard. Secretary Myer realized that the indefatigable Butler had attempted to embellish the original charge against Hughes. First, he added an incident of drunkenness that occurred two months prior to the assault on the junior officer; then Butler cited Hughes’ abusive language to him in an incident that took place a year before that.
No further incidents appeared on subsequent fitness reports prepared in Nicaragua, but two instances of Johnny the Hard as AWOL were noted while he served in Cuba; after the second occurrence, his battalion commander placed him on restriction.
President Woodrow Wilson ordered the infantry components of the sizeable naval force into Veracruz, and Hughes deployed ashore with the 15th Company, 2d Provisional Regiment, on 21 April 1914. For his conduct during the next two days, Hughes earned the Medal of Honor. Although heretofore awards of the nation’s highest decoration had been earned by both Army officers and enlisted personnel, the legislation provided only for the award to be presented to Sailors and enlisted Marines. After the incursion into Mexico, Congress amended the legislation for the Medal of Honor to include naval officers. The Department of the Navy took the opportunity to shower the Medal of Honor on selected participants at Veracruz. Of the Navy contingent deployed, 28 officers and 18 enlisted men earned the award; nine Marine Corps officers but none of the enlisted Leathernecks received the medal.
When the brigade steamed north, Hughes received orders detaching him to the barracks in Portsmouth, and he joined his new command on 9 December 1914. In his final fitness report covering the landing at Veracruz, prepared by Major Randolph C. Berkeley—who also earned the Medal of Honor in Mexico—Hughes’ battalion commander wrote that “I cannot recommend this officer for the duties of a post commander, on account of his irritable temperament, which causes him to be needlessly harsh in handling the men under his command.”
When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, he received orders transferring him to Quantico in anticipation of Marine forces assembling for service in France. Shortly after the United States entered the war, John Lejeune, then a brigadier general, wrote excitedly to his friend in Haiti, Butler, with the news that Barnett had offered a brigade of Marines to join the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) bound for the Western Front. Assuming that he would command the brigade, Lejeune assured Butler—then only a major but holding the temporary rank of major general in the Gendarmerie d’Haiti—that he could promise him the command of a battalion of infantry.
Between July and August 1917, the 6th Marines assembled at Quantico. Colonel Albertus W. Catlin led the regiment. Hughes took command of 1/6, Thomas Holcomb 2/6, and Berton W. Sibley 3/6. On 16 September, Johnny the Hard and 1/6 departed Quantico by train for the Philadelphia Navy Yard for embarkation. Finally, on 23 September, the Henderson weighed anchor in the harbor of New York, steamed for France, and deposited Hughes’ battalion at St. Nazaire. In response to a request from AEF headquarters, Hughes and 12 of his fellow officers were detached for duty under instruction at the I Corps school at Gondrecourt from 19 October to 20 November. Apparently because of his stellar performance, Army superiors asked to keep Johnny the Hard there as an instructor. After teaching at the Army school from 31 December until 13 February 1918, Hughes requested a return to his battalion. Rebuffed by his Army superiors, he simply packed up and returned without orders. Presumably, someone in the chain of command from the 6th Marines to 4th Brigade (Marine) to 2d Division to I Corps sorted out the affair, because no mention of it appears in Johnny the Hard’s record. Subsequently, Hughes commanded 1/6 in one of the most ferocious and costly encounters of bloodletting in the history of the Marine Corps.
On 27 May 1918, Germany launched the third of its spring counteroffensives in hopes of bringing the war to a close before the full weight of America’s military might arrived on the Western Front. Within four days, the gray-clad feldgrau had reached the Marne River at Château-Thierry and threatened Paris 35 miles to the southwest. Although the United States had consistently refused the entreaties of its allies to enter the newly arrived American force into the lines until an entire army could be formed, the gravity of the situation caused that ukase to be set aside. Three American divisions rushed to stem the tide, including the 2d Division, AEF, which included the 4th Brigade (Marine).
The 6th Marines took up positions along the Paris-Metz highway, just south of a small forest called Belleau Wood, with orders to dig in and hold at all costs. Once their withering fire stalled the German advance, the Marines received orders to expel the enemy from Belleau Wood. Between then and when commanders declared the contested terrain secured on 23 June, the brigade suffered a horrendous casualty rate of more than 50 percent. For his conduct on 10-13 June 1918, Johnny the Hard earned both a Navy Cross and a Silver Star “for leading his men superbly under the most trying conditions against the most distinguished elements of the German Army, administering . . . their first defeat.” In the process, the gallant Marine suffered another combat wound, this time from poison gas that seared his lungs. More than half of 1/6 suffered wounds or died during those hellish days at Belleau Wood.
Not deterred by the licking inflicted on its forces by the fresh American troops and newly revitalized French soldiers, the German high command ordered the highway cut between Soissons and Château-Thierry. The Marine Brigade deployed south of Soissons on 18 July. In two days of bitter fighting, the Marines suffered almost 2,000 casualties. Most of the dead and wounded were among the ranks of the 6th Marines. Included in that number was Johnny A. Hughes, banged up badly when an enemy shell struck his command bunker.
By then, his old gunshot wound from Santo Domingo had reopened and made even simple movement difficult and painful. Hughes’ gas-seared lungs sapped his strength. Determining that Johnny the Hard had reached the limit of endurance, his superiors effected his relief and ordered him home. An observer recalled that Hughes took a nasty fall as the bunker collapsed: “Johnny the Hard swore, then asked, ‘Any of you birds got a pair of wire cutters?’ He then cut off a shard of bone protruding from his leg.”
His promotion to lieutenant colonel, effective 28 August, finally caught up with him. Besides another Silver Star earned at Soissons, Hughes earned two Croix de Guerre. No less an icon than Colonel Hiram I. “Hikin’ Hiram” Bearss (a Medal of Honor recipient for his heroism on the Philippine island of Samar in 1901) thought Johnny the Hard deserved more. Writing from the Philadelphia Navy Yard a year later, where both colorful officers served with the Advance Base Force, Bearss sent his recommendation for the Medal of Honor directly to Commandant Barnett.
Just as resolutely, the commandant returned the recommendation, noting that it should have been submitted through the chain of command to Headquarters, AEF. By then, of course, too much time had elapsed. In any event, no officer serving in the 4th Brigade (Marine) earned the Medal of Honor in World War I. Detached from a hospital in France in December 1918, Hughes embarked on the Mercy for the journey home. After two months in the naval hospital in Philadelphia, he attempted active service with the Advance Base Force at the navy yard but to no avail. Johnny the Hard had led his last charge; combat wounds resulted in a transfer to the disability retired list on 3 July 1919.
In retirement, Hughes joined his brothers in a commercial enterprise in Manhattan, the Hughes Trading Company. In a footnote to history, he provided the cover story for Marine Lieutenant Colonel Earl H. “Pete” Ellis’ ill-fated spy mission to the Central Pacific in 1923. (Ellis took the identity of a salesman for the Hughes company as a cover for the bizarre escapade.) Two years later, Hughes left New York to take up a position as a salesman for Mack Trucking in Cleveland and then became the first director of the Ohio Liquor Control Department in 1933-34. In 1936, the square-jawed, tough Marine became the safety director at the Great Lakes Exposition. Ill health from his combat wounds and tropical soldiering forced Hughes to retire again in 1937, and he moved to Florida. The gallant Marine slipped away on 25 May 1942 after a long stay in a veterans’ hospital.
For distinguished conduct in battle, engagements of Vera Cruz, 21-22 April 1914. Capt. Hughes was in both days’ fighting at the head of his company, and was eminent and conspicuous in his conduct, leading his men with skill and courage.
BURIAL LOCATION: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA.
SECTION 8, GRAVE 5265.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE US MARINE CORPS, QUANTICO, VIRGINIA