Louis Cukela earned the Medal of Honor—as well as a chestfull of other awards for heroism—on World War I’s Western Front. But the ethnic-Serbian Leatherneck is best remembered for his unconventional and humorous behavior, which included a knack for butchering the English language.
The smaller of the naval services enjoys a reputation for attracting eccentrics to its muster rolls. The historical literature of the early 20th-century Marine Corps is rich with names like Hikin’ Hiram (Hiram Bearss), Johnny the Hard (John Hughes), Diamond Lou (Lou Diamond), and Old Gimlet Eye (Smedley Butler). None of the sea stories surrounding these characters, however, matches the exploits of Louie Cukela during the World War I era and interwar years. Much of what has been written about him fails to survive the close scrutiny of official records, but enough remains to support the contention that he was one of the most unusual characters to wear forest green during those eras.
Official documents that record his birthplace remain confusing. Although always referring to his ethnicity as Serbian, Louis Cukela (pronounced coo-KAY-la) was born on 1 May 1888 in Split, or Spalato, in Croatia on the Adriatic Sea’s Dalmatian coast. Cukela’s ethnicity sometimes appeared on muster rolls and other official documents as Austrian or Croatian, but more often he was listed as Serbian. After completing two-year courses at both the Merchants Academy and the Royal Gymnasium, he immigrated to the United States in 1913 and settled in Minneapolis with his brother. Cukela’s mother had died in 1900, and he left his father and three sisters in Split. Claims that he studied for the priesthood and then served as a warrant officer in the Serbian Army before being cashiered as a result of a duel with a fellow officer cannot be supported by any records extant. Like so much of the Cukela legend, they are probably sea stories copied faithfully by a succession of journalists and historians.
From Soldier to Marine
On 21 September 1914, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served with Company H, 13th Infantry at Camp McGrath near Batangas in the Philippines. Informed that his father had been taken prisoner by the Austrian Army and the rest of the family had fled to the hills, he obtained his discharge by purchase on 12 June 1916. Supposedly, Cukela intended to join the Canadian Army to get into the conflagration sweeping Europe. For some reason, however, he enlisted in the Marine Corps on 31 January 1917. He reportedly asked a bemused recruiting sergeant if the sign in the window, which trumpeted “First to Fight,” was true.
Cukela claimed the rank of corporal in the Army and told the recruiter that he spoke and read six languages; fortunately, he did not include English among them. The butchery of his adopted tongue grew increasingly worse as the years passed; he seemed to enjoy the befuddlement it produced among his following of admirers. Decades later, veterans could still recall Cukela’s unique version of the command “squads right about,” in the eight-man squads drill of the day: “Squads right–do it two times, unt dunt foul it up. Ho-o-ooo!”
After recruit training, Cukela joined the 5th Marines at Quantico. In anticipation of a deployment to France, Major General Commandant George Barnett transferred eight companies of veteran Marines home from the Caribbean to provide backbone and grit to the regiment as it filled out rapidly with high-spirited volunteers possessing little or no military experience. Cukela took no back seat to his grizzled brothers-in-arms, and he sewed on the stripes of a corporal before the 5th Marines sailed to France in June 1917 to join the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
While the recruiting sergeant who signed up Cukela might have spoken the truth when assuring him that the Marine Corps was always the “first to fight,” General John J. Pershing, the commander in chief of the AEF, and other senior Army officers took steps to limit participation by the Leathernecks in the fighting in France. Shortly after reviewing the Marines for the first time, Pershing acknowledged their military smartness and lauded their appearance. Nonetheless, he fired off a secret cablegram to the adjutant general of the Army requesting that no more Marines be sent to France; just as forthrightly, he was informed that President Woodrow Wilson had directed the deployment of the remaining elements of an entire brigade of Leathernecks to the AEF. Furthermore, that brigade would be assigned to the 2d Division.
Heroism on French Battlefields
During their first year in France, Cukela and the 5th Marines performed duties behind the lines before deploying to the Verdun sector. Within a month in a combat zone, Cukela had earned a citation from the commanding general of the 2d Division and a Croix de Guerre from the French. On 27 May 1918, the Germans launched their third offensive of that spring. This time, it sent the French forces north of the Aisne River reeling back toward Paris, and by the 31st, the Germans had reached Chateau-Thierry. The 4th Brigade (Marine), AEF, took up a position on 1 June near the southern edge of Belleau Wood—an obscure forest just north of the Paris-Metz highway—with orders to dig in and hold at all costs. On the 5th, the Marines received orders to clear the wood of Germans. Between then and 26 June when commanders declared Belleau Wood secure, the Marines suffered a total of 4,710 killed or wounded—a casualty rate of almost 50 percent.
Cukela, newly promoted to gunnery sergeant of the 66th Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines led his platoon through the tangled underbrush as they used mostly bayonets, rifle butts, and grenades to wipe out machine-gun nests. Cukela was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but “Black Jack” Pershing and the staff of the AEF turned down the citation. Incredibly, they failed to award Cukela a lesser decoration, such as the Distinguished Service Cross or Silver Star.
Even as the Germans abandoned their offensive, the Allies planned to counterattack in hopes of cutting the main highway from Soissons to Chateau-Thierry. The Leathernecks moved into a pocket south of Soissons in preparation for clearing the Foret de Retz and the fields around Vierzy. In two days of bitter fighting the Marine brigade wiped out rifle pits and machine-gun nests to clear the contested terrain.
Louie Cukela was in the forefront of the fighting. Just as a friendly barrage of artillery fire lifted early on 18 July, murderous machine-gun fire tore into the ranks of the Leathernecks deployed in the Foret de Retz. Cukela struck out alone in front of his platoon, ignoring warnings from his comrades. Advancing from the flank, he used his bayonet to wipe out the crew of one machine-gun emplacement. Then, Cukela threw captured grenades to drive terrified Germans from a second strongpoint. Singlehandedly, he captured four Germans and two machine-gun nests. This time, AEF headquarters concurred in the recommendation for the award of the Medal of Honor, but inexplicably gave him both the Army Medal of Honor and the Navy Medal of Honor for the same act of heroism.
Cukela later fought in the St. Mihiel offensive, the epic assault on Blanc Mont, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. He suffered wounds at St. Mihiel and Blanc Mont, but his regimental surgeon considered them so minor that they were never entered in either his medical record or officer’s qualification jacket.
The Marine Corps, meanwhile, offered the fearless Leatherneck a battlefield commission, effective 26 September 1918. The brigade surgeon noted at Cukela’s precommissioning physical that the intrepid Marine, continuing to march to his own drummer, was infected with gonorrhea. Somewhere he obtained a smartly tailored officer’s uniform, and he then trimmed his Central European–style mustache to a square brush cut that became a fixture for the rest of his life.
At about that time, he coined a phrase that became famous throughout the AEF. Upset with the performance of a subordinate, Cukela was apt to mutter, “When I vant to send a damn fool, I send myself.” The phrase caught fire with the American forces in France, and before long everyone was using it; supposedly, Pershing himself was overheard rebuking a subordinate with it.
Cukela continued to serve with the 5th Marines for the rest of the war and occupation duties in Germany. On 15 July 1920, he embarked on a troopship for home. Besides the Medal of Honor, he wore the Army’s Silver Star. France awarded him the Legion of Honor, two Croix de Guerre with Palms, another Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, and the Military Medal. Italy presented Cukela the War Merit Cross, and Yugoslavia awarded him the Commander’s Cross of the Royal Order of the Crown of Yugoslavia. Cukela would soon obtain unique and flashy ribbons for his medals. When asked, he coyly refused to divulge his source for the unauthorized materials, and no one demonstrated the temerity to question his blatant disregard for the uniform regulations.
From Demotion to Promotion in the Regular Marines
Back home, Cukela almost immediately fell victim to a draconian plan to trim the lineal list of officers from its wartime high of more than 2,400 (at the beginning of the war, the Corps counted only 341 commissioned officers). Named after its chairman, Colonel John Russell, the Russell Board recommended discharge for some reserve officers and a return to the enlisted ranks for others among the meritorious noncommissioned officers who had been elevated to officer rank during the war.
The results precipitated shock and outrage throughout the Marine Corps, especially when it was learned that Russell had advised the board to “bear in mind that they would be selecting the young officers that they would be inviting into their quarters and whom their daughters might marry.” Disappointed officers and outraged critics contended that the Russell Board had used its power to maintain the dominance of the Marine Corps by the effete intellectuals from Annapolis.
While recommending that Cukela retain his reserve commission, the Russell Board demoted him from first lieutenant to second lieutenant. A second board, convened in 1921 to address the controversy surrounding the Russell Board, restored the ranks of veteran tropical campaigners and those who had distinguished themselves under fire in France.
The panel recommended Cukela for promotion to first lieutenant in the regular Marine Corps, thus shielding him from further attempts to “pluck” the lineal list. Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler, the most vociferous critic of the Russell Board, cited the case of Louie Cukela to support his contention that veteran campaigners should lead the Marine Corps: “To be sure his table manners are not good, but it was my impression that we were not running a knitting society.”
Caribbean Adventures and Misadventures
Meanwhile, on 1 November 1919, Cukela joined the 1st Brigade in Haiti. Soon after arriving, he shared a pithy opinion with a promising second lieutenant. Cukela thought the custom of garrisoning the towns with Marines an utter waste of time; instead, they should take to the hills in a large force to aggressively pursue the Cacos, or Haitian insurgents. To the aggressive young officer, Cukela’s logic made sense; Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller never forgot the advice.
Shortly after arriving in Haiti, Cukela underwent his physical examination for promotion to first lieutenant, and the results indicated he was still marching to his own drummer. The brigade medical officer noted that while Cukela had been cured of gonorrhea he had meanwhile contracted syphilis.
While Cukela was deployed in the Caribbean, an incident far more serious than any lapses of judgment while in the quest for horizontal refreshment almost resulted in the end of his career. The lieutenant’s brigade commander charged that Cukela had personally executed three Haitian detainees. A medical officer, who examined Cukela just after the alleged incident, reported him highly agitated and smelling strongly of alcohol. Furthermore, he was well known for his predilection to personally execute captured Cacos. While the ensuing investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, the Major General Commandant simply removed Cukela from the potentially damaging scene by transferring him to the 2d Brigade in the Dominican Republic.
The investigation did provide an amusing postscript, however. Cukela underwent two mental examinations during the inquiry, and the doctors who conducted them pronounced him sane. For the remainder of his career, he would respond to anyone who muttered, “Cukela, you’re crazy!” with “I’m crazy? I have proof that I’m sane; do you have such proof?” Then, the unabashed Cukela would produce the medical documents attesting to his sanity.
The Corps’ Eccentric Captain
In October 1923, Cukela left the Dominican Republic for duty at Quantico; he had earned a promotion to captain on 1 July 1921 on a lineal list that only moved when another officer senior to you was promoted, dismissed, retired, or died. Cukela took command of a company in the 5th Marines and quickly earned a reputation for his capable, if not bizarre, style of leadership. Marines of the era recalled with wry amusement Cukela’s unique response to a parade held in honor of the Secretary of the Navy.
Just as the troops assembled on the parade ground, the regiment’s fussy adjutant conducted a walk-by inspection. Spotting Cukela not wearing a single medal, he rebuked him for failing to comply with the order prescribing the parade uniform. Cukela turned the formation over to a lieutenant and returned to his quarters to appear in accordance with the adjutant’s instructions. Shortly thereafter, Cukela returned, and on-lookers that day at Quantico recalled with relish the scene for a generation. Cukela wore only one medal around his neck, the Commander’s Cross of the Royal Order of the Crown of Yugoslavia (supposedly the size of a salad plate). He had pinned the rest of his medals on the saddle blanket of the horse he was leading. Cukela took a position in front of his company and then, poker-faced, led it past the reviewing stand.
On the domestic front, Cukela finally met his match, marrying Minnie Myrtle Strayer after his return to Quantico. Reportedly, she was the only person capable of taming his wild impulses. Marines of the era recalled that the Cukelas would always be the last to leave the numerous parties or receptions, command performances for officers of the time. Then, Minnie and Louie would load all of the leftover party foods into their car. Stopping at the guard house, they would unload the booty for the pleasure of the Marines on duty. While Minnie arranged for the buffet, Louie would entertain the members of the guard with his endless number of sea stories.
Other legends survive from the long period Cukela commanded a company based at Quantico. During a field exercise with Army troops in Panama, he led his company behind the lines to infiltrate the local garrison of the opposition force. Once inside, he banged on the door of the commanding general’s quarters with the butt of his .45 pistol. Rousted from his slumber by the aggressive Leatherneck, the pajama-clad general was advised politely but firmly that he and his command were prisoners; Cukela wanted a breakfast of ham and eggs for his men.
Assigned to attend the Army Infantry Officers School at Fort Benning, Cukela was asked to provide a solution to a tactics problem. “Charge,” he roared. When the perplexed major teaching the class tried patiently to explain the “school solution” to the complicated maneuver, Cukela shouted: “I Cukela! Charge!” Pointing to his decorations, he added, “How do you think I get these?”
Even though the school emphasized infantry tactics, its instructors expected every student officer to know how to ride a horse. Reportedly, Cukela did not take well to riding. One day, his mount took off on a gallop toward Alabama and nothing Cukela attempted seemed to deter it. Shouts of “Stop horse!” accomplished nothing. Cukela resorted to force. Striking the horse on the head with a balled-up fist, it sank to its knees. Dismounting, Cukela eyed the dazed horse at eye-level: “I am Cukela; you are horse. I tell you to stop, you stop. You not stop, I give you hit break your head.”
During the period in which he deployed from San Diego to China with the 3d Brigade, he found himself in command of the rifle-range detail for a batch of recruits. Disappointed in their performance, Cukela instructed them to clear their weapons and turn in all of the unused ammunition. Then he ordered “fix bayonets.” The stunned drill instructors and confused recruits heard an angry Cukela shout, “So you can’t shoot straight; now we will do it another way.” He then led them in a wild charge straight for the targets.
During the Great Depression, Cukela commanded one of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ camps. His service record notes only an assignment to Fort Knox, so the posting must have been somewhere in Kentucky. After a two-year stint, he returned to the Marine Corps. During his final years on active duty, Cukela served at both the barracks at the Washington Navy Yard and Norfolk. By 1939, just as World War II erupted in Europe, he had advanced to number 3 on the list of captains. A year later, the Major General Commandant ordered him retired with the rank of major. By then, the indefatigable Cukela had served a total of 25 years, 1 month, and 25 days as a Marine.
Comical to the End
As the war threatened to draw in America, however, Cukela was brought back for active duty. Although the old warrior asked for field duty, his age precluded any such assignment; instead, he served as a quartermaster at the Navy yards in Norfolk and Philadelphia during the war and then accepted retirement again on 17 May 1945. He served just a few days shy of 32 years of combined service in the Army and Marine Corps.
Cukela’s eccentric behavior during World War II survived a telling and retelling. Encountering a pair of Marines as he mounted the stairs to his office, he asked one of them, “Do you know who I am?”
“No, sir,” came the reply.
“Dumb; don’t know nothin’,” Cukela growled.
Asking the second Marine the same question, Cukela received the correct answer: “Sir, you’re Major Cukela,” to which he replied, “Wise guy; think you know everythin’.”
Because of the rationing of gasoline, Cukela took to riding a bicycle around the post. But he never learned to ride it very well and could not manage to return a salute while controlling his bicycle with just one hand. Marines relished the result when they would walk blocks out of their way to watch Cukela tumble off his bicycle while returning their salutes. Thus he promulgated an order directing that no one was to salute him while he was on his bicycle.
After he suffered a stroke in 1955, one event occurred just as if the eccentric warrior had planned it himself. As he lay dying at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, no less an icon than Lieutenant General Chesty Puller paid him a visit. Even in his weakened condition, Cukela recognized Puller but addressed his distinguished visitor as “lieutenant.”
Cukela complained to Puller that he thought he was dying. Puller replied, “It’s all right, old man. You’re going to Valhalla, where all good Marines go.” Cukela lingered on before dying on 19 March 1956.