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May 18, 2021

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Short Rounds

Mutual Assistance Pact

During World War I the U.S. 27th Division, of the New York National Guard, was commanded by Maj. Gen. John O’Ryan. O’Ryan (1874-1961), a lawyer by profession, had enlisted in the National Guard as a private in 1897 and by 1912 had risen to major general and commander of the New York Division, later dubbed the 27th in the National Army. The first senior Guardsman to attend the Army War College, O’Ryan had commanded his division on the Mexican Border in 1916, and early in 1918 he brought it to France. O’Ryan, at 44, was the youngest American to command a division in the war.

In June 1918, the 27th Division was assigned to the British Fourth Army for training, for which purpose it was attached to the British 66th Division.

As O’Ryan was settling into a temporary headquarters at St. Riquier, Maj. Gen. Sir Hugh Keppel Bethell, the commander of the British 66th Division, came calling.

Now Bethell (1882-1947), was a battle hardened veteran, and an unconventional soldier (he once “pinched” the machine guns from one of the Army’s training schools, to provide his troops with more fire-power). And at 35, he was the youngest division commander in the British Army since Napoleonic times, a distinction that he apparently still retains. Possessed of a fiery temper, Bethell – who was nicknamed “Beetle” – was by no means a “snooty Brit.” He had also done some homework about the Americans with whom he would be working.

Bethell’s first words to O’Ryan were, “General O‘Ryan, I understand you are the youngest division commander in the American Army; I am the youngest division commander in the British Army. Look here, I think we had better get together for mutual protection.” That pretty much broke the ice. The two men had a cup of tea together, and then got down to the serious business of preparing the division for war.

John O’Ryan proved the mettle of his division when it shattered the Hindenburg Line at the St. Quentin Tunnel complex the following September. He himself was an excellent commander, and was one of only two officers in the war to command a division for the duration (the other was Maj. Gen. George Bell of the 33rd Division). O’Ryan was too capable for biased Regulars to relieve, but – War College credentials or not – unacceptable for promotion to a higher command. After the war he returned to the practice of law, served as transit commissioner and later police commissioner of New York City, and was state Director of Defense during World War II. The shoulder sleeve insignia of the 27th Division – now the 27th Brigade – of the New York National Guard bears the stars of Orion in his honor.

As for Bethell, during the Allied autumn offensive of 1918 his division spearheaded the attack of the British Fourth Army, working as a “mobile force” in which the infantry, artillery, tanks, and ground attack aircraft were closely coordinated, demonstrating considerable mastery of the battlefield. After the war Bethell served for several years as British military attaché in Washington, where he displayed a particular interest in the newest technologies, civilian as well as military.

 

John A. Hamas, U.S.M.C.

The Marine Corps has long been noted for unusual characters, what with the likes of Dan Daly, Smedley Butler, or Lewis “Chesty” Puller. One of the lesser known of this ilk was John A. Hamas, a Warrant Gunner in the “Old Corps” on the eve of World War II.

Hamas was born in Bohemia, in 1896. During World War I he was drafted into the kaiserlich-und-koniglich Austro-Hungarian Army, and was sent to the Italian Front. There he was captured. With many other Czech prisoners, he volunteered to join a Czech Army Corps that the Italians organized, and quickly rose to lieutenant fighting against the k-u-k. After the war he emigrated to the United States, where he soon joined the Marines.

Hamas’ career was typical of that of an interwar Marine, with service in the Caribbean and China. In the early 1930s he became a lieutenant in the Nicaraguan Guardia Nacional, and earned a Navy Cross and a Nicaraguan decoration fighting against the original Sandinistas. Although there was nothing wrong with Hamas when under fire, when not in action he was a spiritual kinsman to television’s “Sergeant Bilko.” Widely known in the Corps as boastful and a teller of tall tales, Hamas was an expert hustler. He seemed always able to get someone else to do the hard work, while managing to take the credit. For example, once, having not a clue as to how to blow up an obstacle during some construction, he arranged to have another Marine set the charges, but delayed detonating them until some officers were present.

But in 1941 Hamas was a member of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion, and joined many of his comrades on Wake Island shortly before the outbreak of war with Japan. On Wake Hamas, who served as munitions officer for the tiny Marine garrison, remained true to his reputation as a hustler, always managing to dodge work he disliked, though lending a hand when it pleased him, such as in providing weapons training for some of the many civilian contract workers on the island. Then came Pearl Harbor.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Hamas organized the distribution of munitions to engaged batteries and troops, armed some of the contract workers, deployed caches of munitions around the atoll, both to protect them from enemy air attack and to make them available to the defenders, and helped supervise the construction of defenses. Of course, like the rest of the garrison of the beleaguered atoll, on December 23, 1941, Hamas became a prisoner of the Japanese.

For the next 44 months, Hamas and his comrades endured considerable privation and some brutality while in Japanese hands. The ordeal told on the Gunner. Shortly after his release became embroiled in the controversy between Cdr. Winfield Scott Cunningham, who had been the island’s commander, and Maj. James P. Devereaux, who commanded the Marine garrison, as to who was the “real” backbone of the defense. Hamas, who sided with Cunningham, proved an unreliable witness. Indeed, his testimony was discredited, having been proven largely imaginary. Increasingly displaying delusional behavior, not long afterwards Hamas murdered his wife and then took his own life.

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