Giants Of The Corps: Joseph H. Pendleton
By Lindley S. Allen - Originally Published January 1976
A husky, broad-shouldered Marine officer, resembling the former President Theodore Roosevelt, addressed a gathering of people in San Diego's U. S. Grant Hotel. The occasion was a banquet that followed the rechristening of the old armored cruiser California to the San Diego in 1914. The officer was Col Joseph H. Pendleton. He said:
"San Diego is an ideal location for an advance base of Marines, and history will prove I am right. . . ."
Many speeches had been made that night-speeches praising San Diego in a manner eloquent enough to shame the town's real estate agents. But this was something different. This man had practical ideas on a new use for the facilities afforded by the city. The colonel continued:
"An advance base station is a place where men can be kept in readiness and where the guns, the boats, the field pieces, the camp equipage, the signal outfits, ammunition, rations and clothing can be stored in convenient fashion to be placed aboard transports and hurried to scenes of trouble. Such a station must have well-built, well-arranged storehouses, near to deep water and rail communications.
"Who should compose such a force? There is only one answer-the Marines. For generations they have been serving all over the world as policemen, firemen, school teachers, and even first-aid nurses. They are the one and original trouble-shooters of our national government.
"San Diego fits the advance base station as the Marines fit the advance base. Geographically it is situated in the most advantageous, strategical and tactical location, especially since the opening of the Panama Canal. . ."
An enthusiastic burst of applause followed the speech. Here was a new approach-an idea that even far-sighted Chamber of Commerce officials had failed to foresee. The Marines had been in the city only a few weeks and their commanding officer had already begun to talk of building a new base.
Joseph Pendleton was born at Rochester, in Beaver County, Pa., June 2, 1860. His family had been in America since 1634, when Major Brian Pendleton joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Military careers and a strong spirit of adventure predominated in the Pendleton family. Uncle Joe's father, John Rhodes Pendleton, ran away to sea when he was a boy and made a three-year whaling voyage. He visited San Diego as early as 1845 and tried gold mining around San Francisco in '49. He had little luck, however, and settled in Pennsylvania where he went into business with his brother.
Young Joe attended the Naval Academy from 1878 to 1882. It was there he met his bride, Mary Helen Fay, the daughter of one of the Academy's English professors. After a graduation cruise in the Navy, he was commissioned hi the Marine Corps in 1884. His many years of service took him over a wide area of the globe-from Sitka, Alaska, where his detachment attempted to stop the wholesale destruction of seals, to the Mediterranean. It was off Malta that he began a lasting friendship with the late King George V of England, then a lieutenant serving aboard one of Her Majesty's warships.
Mexico's bloody revolution brought Col Pendleton and his newly-created Fourth Regiment to San Diego. In April 1914, when the colonel was in command of the Marine Barracks, Bremerton, Wash., he received orders directing him to assume charge of the entire Marine forces on the Pacific Coast, and to proceed at once to the West Coast of Mexico. The colonel took his command to Mare Island where Marines from the Coast were gathering, and it was there that the famous Fourth Marines were formed. Old-timers, sea-going Marines and boots were brought together and distributed aboard three transports in the short tune of five days.
The regiment anchored off the cities of Acapulco, Mazatlan and Guaymas, waiting for trouble which did not materialize. After three months the Marines shoved off for North Island. When they reached their destination a perplexing situation presented itself. The island was large, barren, sparsely-vegetated, and there was no place to quarter the men. The Marines turned to and built a very comfortable post. Those old-time "Sea Soldiers" were a versatile lot, equally facile with hammers and saws as with '03 rifles and machine guns.
It was a happy set of circumstances that kept part of the Fourth in San Diego. There were two expositions in progress-one in San Francisco and a local one. The whole regiment was ordered to the northern city where it was to furnish guards of honor, drill and exhibit other bits of military showmanship. But C. Aubrey Davidson, president of the local show, wanted part of the regiment to set up a model camp for the San Diego Exposition. The colonel set up his headquarters at Balboa Park, and his Marines established themselves as one of the exposition's highlights. Their afternoon parades and band concerts were witnessed by thousands of visitors. Before long, local people were calling the Fourth "San Diego's Own"-a name that persisted even though the regiment was stationed in the city less than three years.
"Colonel Pendleton," recalled Mr. Davidson, "considered himself my aide. I can still see him coming into my office in the mornings, giving me a snappy salute, and asking what we had on the program. We always had many distinguished guests visiting the exposition, and Uncle Joe made it a point to escort them around the grounds. He was the most amiable, best-natured man I have ever known and he made scores of friends while here."
Years after his retirement, General Pendleton said:
"This was one of the most pleasant assignments I ever had. I had heard of San Diego before, but knew of it only vaguely. The only naval activity here in those days was the occasional visit of a war vessel. This battalion of Marines stationed at Balboa Park was the beginning of a plan which, once unfolded, developed so rapidly that within ten years San Diego became one of the most important naval bases in the country. From the moment I landed at North Island I was impressed with the climatic and strategic advantages of the city."
Pendleton had broached the idea of establishing an advance Marine base in San Diego to Mr. Davidson, and the two men had carefully formulated a plan which was to bring a number of high-ranking officials to the city. They sent an invitation to Major General George Barnett, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, who was attending the exposition in San Francisco. While in Washington, the Commandant had appeared before a Congressional hearing where he was questioned about the feasibility of constructing a Marine Base in San Diego. He had not favored the plan. His objection, "Except for climatic conditions, San Francisco or Mare Island would be much better places, because both are nearer to a base of supplies," seemed to be a very logical conclusion.
"We put on quite a show for the Commandant," recalled Davidson. "A squadron of cavalry met him at the station and escorted him to the exposition where the Marines were formed on the parade ground. A whirlwind tour of the exposition and city followed, and he was feted at a number of dinners and banquets. Wherever the occasion presented itself, Uncle Joe would point out the advantages San Diego offered for training Marines. We really gave the general the works, and two days later he was an enthusiastic supporter of the plan."
The two plotters contacted William Kettner, the local congressman.
"While at the exposition," Kettner wrote in his memoirs, "I had the pleasure of meeting Colonel Pendleton. As we were enjoying dinner one day, he made the remark that San Diego would be the proper place for the location of an advance Marine base. This sounded rather amusing, but I listened attentively to what he had to say and even took up the question of location. Without hesitation he suggested North Island as the logical place for the station. I disagreed and stated that the area known as 'Dutch Flats' would be the ideal spot. We discussed the matter for two weeks and Pendleton finally agreed that if I would take up the matter in Washington he would support me. Between us we convinced Assistant Secretary of Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, then a visitor at the exposition, who rendered us every assistance. Later I introduced a bill in Congress which would authorize the purchase of 232 acies in San Diego for $250,000."
When other government officials including Vice President Thomas B. Marshall and Secretary of Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo visited the exposition they were met by the courteous, and cordial Marine colonel. They were promptly converted to the plan. The only real opposition came from President Wilson's famed Secretary of the Navy, the late Josephus Daniels. The secretary felt that in Mare Island and Parris Island the Marines had enough bases to take care of their meager needs. But when Secretary Daniels was called before Kettner's Naval Affairs Committee he realized that he was the sole dissenter and withdrew all opposition. The bill met with unanimous consent in both the House and Senate.
Today, Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, Calif., bears Uncle Joe's name. But his influence in establishing a Marine base at San Diego was only one facet in a varied Corps career. He played a leading part in the early "Banana Wars" when he headed an expedition for the relief of Granada, Nicaragua. Several years later he took the brand new Fourth Regiment on an 80-mile march which resulted in the capture of Santiago, rebel stronghold in the Dominican Republic. At Nicaragua, his regiment fought a major battle at Coyotepe Hill. In Santo Domingo, the Fourth received its baptism of fire at Las Trencheras.
In 1912, Nicaragua was in one of its periodic states of disorder. At the request of the American minister in that strife-torn country, and with the reluctant consent of President Taft, a regiment of Marines was organized at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Col Pendleton was placed in command, and a few weeks later the troops landed at Corinto. For some time the rebel forces had reduced the old aristocratic city of Granada and the adjacent town of Masaya to a state of near-starvation. Col Pendleton and his Marines, with quantities of Red Cross supplies, started by rail to the city. Not far from Masaya, the railroad passes through a cut. The rebel forces, holding the hills on each side, completely commanded the railroad. Uncle Joe negotiated with the rebel leader Zeledon and persuaded him to allow a train to pass.
Maj Smedley Butler's battalion made the attempt, but a group of irresponsible bandits fired on the train, wounding four Marines. The Marines promptly returned the fire, and in a few minutes had killed 56 and wounded 70 rebels. Butler reached Masaya that night and then proceeded on to Granada. The next day the rebels in the city agreed to surrender to Col Pendleton and were promptly disarmed by the Marines.
But the campaign was far from over. A group of about 800 bandits continued to hold positions which dominated the railroad and commanded the city of Masaya. General Zeloden stubbornly refused all offers for a peaceful settlement. Instead, his forces dug their trenches atop Coyotepe Hill, a strong, natural military position, which they optimistically considered impregnable.
Months later, in a tribute paid to Boston Navy Yard Marines who lost their lives during the assault of the hill, Col Pendleton said:
"The morning of Coyotepe began for our men at 1330, when roused from their bivouac, the column of march was formed and steadily made its way around the frowning hill to the point that had been determined on from which the assault should be made. Quietly, as shadows in the light of the waning moon, the march was made.
"While the foot of the hill was still wrapped in the misty haze of the early morning, the crest was clearly outlined against the brightening sky. 'Advance' was the command given by the battalion commanders, and the word passed along the shadowy lines in whispered undertones. The surprise was complete. Fully 20 paces had been covered before our presence was discovered; then suddenly a shot rang out from the top of the hill. Heads appeared along the line of trenches, but they almost immediately disappeared; for a crackle of fire in answer to the challenging shot ran along our line. This return fire was such as to reflect credit on the training of the Marine Corps.
"Through my field glasses I could see the dust in little spurts rising from the edge of the parapet as the Springfield bullets clipped it, not flying high into the air, not burrowing into the earthen wall, but skimming the edge with wonderful accuracy. Heads showed and disappeared, many of them not to reappear, for the fire of our line was deadly. We advanced by a series of rushes to a small swale where there was a trench protected from our fire. Here an automatic had been placed. As Company "C" (from Boston) burst through the undergrowth, the gun and the supporting riflemen opened with a withering fire. This is when we suffered our greatest losses. Finally we were able to cut through the last of the barbed wire entanglements that barred our advance to the goal, and the summit of the heretofore unassailable Coyotepe was reached.
"The death of our brave lads in Nicaragua was not in vain. Two days later Leon was occupied, which put an end to the disastrous and bloody war in that distressed country. Among the people of Nicaragua there was a feeling that these Marines had given up their lives so that bloodshed might cease and that peace might once more be theirs. . ."
It took only 37 minutes for Pendleton's Marines to advance and overrun the hill. Only four Marines were killed and 14 wounded. The swiftness of the attack and the overwhelming victory the Marines scored so impressed the Nicaraguans that Pendleton is still known as "El Coyotepe Colonel."
In the midst of his successful negotiations which ultimately resulted in the construction of the Marine Corps Base, Col Pendleton and his regiment were ordered to the Dominican Republic. Under the leadership of the insurgent general, Desiderio Arias, a rebel force was attempting to overthrow the provisional government supported by the United States. The situation was critical. Arias and a large force had set up their headquarters in the northern city of Santiago, and controlled most of the surrounding area.
The Fourth proceeded by rail to New Orleans where they embarked aboard transports and arrived in Santo Domingo on June 18, 1916. After proceeding to Monte Cristi, Pendleton made immediate arrangements for an advance on Santiago. These preparations, which would take the Marines into the heart of the rebel country, caused considerable excitement throughout the land.
The advance of the Fourth on Santiago is one of the most famous campaigns in "Old Corps" history. It could hardly be called a march, for every means of transportation was used. Pendleton's Marines scoured the city, gathering together trucks, passenger cars, horse-drawn vehicles, ox carts, pack horses, mules-in fact, everything that had four feet or two or more wheels was utilized. Even the city sprinkler cart was drawn into the procession to serve as the regimental water wagon. For this accumulated equipment the fast-talking Marines presented IOUs to the bewildered residents of Monte Cristi. These chits gave Marine quartermaster people some terrific headaches in the months following the successful completion of the campaign.
On June 26th, only eight days after his arrival in the country, Pendleton was ready to begin his advance. There was no resistance to the first day's march, and the regiment covered over 25 miles. From the point where they camped that night, the Marines could see an ominous-looking ridge in the distance lying directly across their line of march. It was known as Las Trencheras. Arias, who had a sound background in military tactics, had placed a sizable force of his guerrillas on this commanding position and they were well entrenched.
Early the next morning Col Pendleton placed his single battery of artillery at an advantageous point to cover it from a flanking position. The regiment was deployed in line and, under cover of the supporting fire, worked up to an effective firing range. The advance was temporarily stopped by heavy fire from the rebel lines, and there seemed to be a lack of coordination between the advancing battalions. The soft-spoken colonel soon got things squared away, and in a few minutes the Marines were able to capture the stronghold on a wild bayonet charge. The enemy retreated to another trench higher up on the ridge, but the Marines drove them off with rifle fire.
Pendleton's tactics at Las Trencheras gave the Marines their first experience in advancing with the support of modern artillery and machine guns. For many years, Dominicans had considered the position impregnable. Its capture was a great moral victory for the Marines.
The strange-looking column, which probably bore a closer resemblance to Coxey's Army than a military organization, continued its advance the next day. Like the old British regiments in India, the outfit was sniped at by day, and ambushed at night. On June 29, the rebels tried to surprise the Marines with a night attack, but were driven off with terrible losses. On June 30, two engagements were fought. Finally all communications with Monte Cristi had to be abandoned, and the regiment became, in Pendleton's words, a "flying column."
On July 5, the Fourth appeared before Santiago. Arias sent out a peace commission which agreed to allow the Marines to enter the city without further resistance. But when spies informed Pendleton that the wily bandit planned to burn the town he immediately moved the Fourth on to a commanding position overlooking the city. This move caught the Dominicans off guard and the Marines were able to prevent Santiago's destruction.
A few weeks after the occupation of Santiago, Pendleton was appointed a brigadier general and took over the administration of the "War and Navy" and "Interior and Police" departments in the military government. During the last six months of World War I he was the acting military governor of that country and received the Navy Cross for "exceptionally meritorious service in the duty of great responsibility..."
But the general never lost his interest in San Diego and it was with a great deal of pleasure that he read the news that construction of a Marine base had begun in 1919. A few months later he returned to that city as commanding general of the Fifth Brigade, a paper organization which could be rapidly expanded in case of trouble in the Orient or Caribbean. The first buildings were ready for occupancy on December 1, 1921, and General Pendleton raised his flag as the new station's first commanding officer. At that time the post was called Headquarters, Fifth Brigade, but the name was changed later to the Marine Corps Base. In 1948, it became the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
Uncle Joe retired June 2, 1924, after 42 years of service, 40 of them in the Marine Corps. As his two-star flag was hauled down a message was read from the Commandant, Major General John A. Lejeune:
"The entire Marine Corps regrets the loss from active service today of one of its most distinguished and affectionately regarded officers..."
The general was active in community and veterans affairs until his death in 1942. He served a term as mayor of Coronado, on the city council and as a member of the board of education. A few months after his death, his widow and President Roosevelt christened the Marines' new wartime base at Oceanside, Calif., "Camp Joseph H. Pendleton."
It was a fitting tribute to the "Father of the Marine Corps Base" and the "Pioneer Marine in Southern California."