By J.M. Comer
I was going through my morning Google checks of Auburn news, when I came across an Alabama history article in The Montgomery Advertiser about Marine Corps Gen. Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith. He retired from service 62 years ago this month as a veteran of World War I and World War II, and considered by many to be the father of modern amphibious warfare. Also, he was an Auburn man. I hope you find this selection from his autobiography interesting. War Eagle!
From Coral and Brass, by Holland M. Smith:
I was now sixteen and the old school at Seale had nothing more to offer, so in 1898 I entered Alabama Polytechnic Institute as a sophomore. The Institute is a military school at Auburn, in Lee County, next to Russell County, and that time the military commandant was Colonel B.S. Patrick. The rank was purely honorary but the school had a definite military flavor. We wore the Confederate gray uniform and followed a dull routine of parades, drills and rifle exercises which seemed puerile to me. I objected to every military detail. Everything military about the place offended me and the fact that I barely graduated is a pretty good indication of my interest in the preponderantly military side. But still, I loved my Alma Mater.
However, two extra-curricular activities justified my three years at the Polytechnic. I became a good sprinter and a student of Napoleon,.
It was purely by accident that I discovered I could sprint. As a military school, Alabama Polytechnic was ruled by the seniors, to whom was delegated considerable disciplinary authority. One night while on unauthorized liberty, I was detected by the seniors and I made a dash back to college to escape them.
One of the upperclassmen was the 100-yard champion and he chased me. I beat him back to the campus and when I told my upperclass fraternity brothers at the Alpha Tau Omega house about it, they ordered me to go out for track. Without any special training I did quite well and later at the University of Alabama I lost only one race in two years. At one meet I won the 100-, 220- and 440-yard dashes as well as the mile. Not a bad record for a single day.
While my grades were not very high at Auburn, I did well in history. Before I went to Auburn, I had fallen under the magic of Napoleon’s genius and read everything about him I could get my hands on. In Seale, I had to buy books out of my allowance and consequently my reading was limited. Furthermore, my father strongly disapproved of this hero worship and promptly confiscated any book he found dealing with Napoleon. To counteract what I considered an unreasonable prejudice, I took to hiding my books under the house, which stood off the ground.
On board Rocky Mount (AGC 3), newly designed and equipped to serve as an amphibious command ship, Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith, V Amphibious Corps commander and commander of Expeditionary Troops at Roi-Namur in the Marshalls, points out a feature of the battle to his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Graves B. Erskine.
At Auburn things were different. The college had an excellent library and I read everything it offered on Napoleon, to the detriment of other studies. The Corsican’s character fascinated me, his prowess awed me, and his rapid marches and countermarches across the map of Europe, defeating one adversary after another, implanted in my mind military principles that served me well later, although paradoxically the Auburn military atmosphere nauseated me.
The trait that counted most heavily in may youthful assessment of Napoleon was his offensive spirit. Inevitably, later in my life the halo I had visioned around his head began to tarnish when I appreciated the tyrant, the unscrupulous plotter, the enemy of freedom he became. It never occurred to me at that time that years later I would be wearing the Croix de Guerre awarded me by the French Government for fighting to save the land of Napoleon from her traditional enemy.
While I was at Auburn the most momentous decision of my life was made. Had the decision gone otherwise, this book never would have been written.
Shortly after I entered the Polytechnic I was offered a designation to take the examinations for entrance to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Bored as I was by the pseudo-military air of Auburn, I still was an adventurous youngster, yearning to do and see things, and I was attracted by the Navy. Therefore, when Congressman Henry D.Clayton, representing our congressional district, offered me the designation I was delighted. Why it was offered I learned later. My father was a prominent man and there was some question of his entering the race for Congress against Clayton. The Congressman got wind of this and the designation to the Naval Academy, which he knew I wanted, was a discrete bribe to head off father’s possible opposition.
I never accepted the designation or sat for examinations because my father and mother would not hear of it. They were both born during the Civil War period and they carried the mental scars of the conflict deep in their beings. They were still unreconstructed and would not permit me to accept an offer which, in their minds, would be a surrender to Yankee ideology.
Such an attitude would appear unreasonable today but when I was a boy in the South these ideas were live, glowing embers of a fire that had not been extinguished, remnants of a pride that could yield but not surrender. Unforgettable associations helped preserve this attitude. It was in Montgomery, where my parents spent many years of their lives, that the congress of delegates from the seceding States adopted the Confederate Constitution and inaugurated Jefferson Davis as President in 1861.
Destiny hangs by a slender thread, Instead of joining the Navy I became a Marine, following a brief and undistinguished flirtation with the law which convinced me I was not destined to become a John Marshall or an Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Click here to read more about the life of Howlin’ Mad Smith.