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This Day in History: World War I Hero Louis Cukela

On this day in 1918, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Then-Gunnery Sergeant Louis Cukela was a Marine who was awarded the Medal by both the United States Army and the United States Navy.

“Much of what has been written about [Cukela] fails to survive the close scrutiny of official records,” USMC Lt. Col. Merrill L. Bartlett concludes, “but enough remains to support the contention that he was one of the most unusual characters to wear forest green during [the World War I era].”

Cukela was an immigrant who came to the States in 1913. Legend has it that he once served in the Serbian Army but was forced to flee after a duel with a fellow officer. The tale is in keeping with Cukela’s colorful personality, but there is no documentation to support the story.

Either way, Cukela enlisted in the Army shortly after he arrived in the States, and he served in the Army from 1914-1916. He was honorably discharged from the Army and soon signed up for the Marines instead.

Cukela’s broken English would prompt many funny moments during his service, as when he accidentally reprimanded a subordinate sharply: “Next time I send damn fool, I go myself.”

Needless to say, the phrase became a bit of a punchline afterwards.

Yet Cukela’s intense dedication was his most notable characteristic. On one occasion towards the end of his career, he was working on a problem in infantry tactics with an Army instructor.

Cukela thought an attack was warranted. The Army instructor though withdrawing and establishing a defense was better. “I am Cukela. I attack,” the feisty Marine responded. He tapped his Medal. “How you think I get this?”

Likewise, legendary Marine Chesty Puller remembered serving with Cukela in Haiti. At the time, Cukela scoffed at the notion of night marches and daytime sleeping. “No real man can sleep in the day,” he declared. “I will hunt the enemy.”

No one could figure out how he managed to keep up with both his own daylight searches and the official nighttime actions that week.

Cukela’s Medal of Honor action came much earlier, of course, as he served in France during World War I. On July 18, 1918, his company was advancing through the Forest de Retz near Viller-Cottertes, France. They were suddenly faced with strong resistance from an enemy strong point.

Cukela leapt into action. He was being pelted with heavy fire and his fellow Marines were yelling warnings at him. He ignored both, naturally, and advanced toward the enemy alone.

“He succeeded in getting behind the enemy position,” his Army Medal citation describes, “and rushed a machine-gun emplacement, killing or driving off the crew with his bayonet. With German hand grenades he then bombed out the remaining portion of the strong point, capturing four men and two damaged machine guns.”

His bravery made him one of the few to receive two Medals for the same action.

Cukela went on to serve as a Marine in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and at Quantico, Virginia, among other assignments. He retired in 1940 but was called back to active duty just before the United States entered World War II. By the time he was placed on the inactive retired list in 1946, he had attained the rank of Major.

A journalist interviewed Cukela a few months after World War I had come to an end. How did he feel about serving his adopted country?

“Of course I am glad to see Serbia restored,” Cukela said, “just as I am glad to see Belgium and Northern France restored. But as for me, I have only one country and I love only one country, and that is the country whose uniform I wear today and which I want to wear whenever she needs me again.”

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