Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Dixon Porter rose to the top of the ranks throughout a lifetime of service. However, it took his entire career to receive the Medal of Honor for the courage he showed at the start of the Philippine Insurrection.
Dixon was born on April 29, 1877, in Washington, D.C., to a family with a history of military service. Dixon’s father was a colonel in the Marine Corps. His grandfather was famed Civil War Navy Adm. David Dixon Porter, for whom he was named. Earlier descendants also served in the War of 1812 and during the Revolution.
Dixon was commissioned into the Marine Corps on May 26, 1898, to fight in the Spanish-American War, but the war ended soon afterward and he was discharged. In April 1899 he earned another commission and, within a few months, received orders to be part of a battalion forming in the Philippines. The U.S. had just annexed the islands thanks to the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War and allowed the U.S. to take possession of the Philippines from Spain.
The Philippine Insurrection
As the Americans began their takeover of the islands, many of the natives weren’t happy about the terms of the treaty. A revolutionary government declared war on the U.S. and started what became known as the Philippine Insurrection. The insurgents involved in the uprising resisted the U.S. presence. In response, U.S. Marines and soldiers worked to clear the area of those trying to impede their progress.
By June 1900, Porter, now a captain, was part of a Marine attachment sent to China to help quell the Boxer Rebellion. He was there for about four months before being shipped back to the Philippines. After a brief assignment on sea duty, in October 1901, he returned to a battalion tasked with clearing insurgents from coastal villages on the island of Samar.
In early November, Porter was ordered to lead a group of Marines inland over a mountainous jungle to search for a rumored insurgent camp that harbored those responsible for the slaughter of two-thirds of a company of soldiers from the 9th U.S. Infantry.
Breaking the Stronghold
On Nov. 17, 1901, Porter’s group met up with another group of Marines commanded by Capt. Hiram Bearss at the junction of the Sohoton and Cadacan rivers.
Porter took charge of the combined group, and they attacked the enemy along the river. They surprised and killed 30 insurgents and cleared their entrenchments before the enemy was able to trigger the deadly traps they had set.
Once the river was clear, Porter set his sights on the heart of the camp, which sat on top of a 200-foot, fortified volcanic cliff.
Despite the pumice-like stone and steep climb, Porter led the attacks up the bluff using the bamboo ladders and makeshift handrails abandoned by the insurgents. They dodged traps set up to kill or injure the Marines, including rocks that were suspended by vines and were dropped onto those scaling the cliff.
Once they got to the top, the Marines dodged poison-tipped spears, sporadic gunfire and hidden pits to eventually drive the insurgents from the camp. Porter then led his men back down the cliff, where they crossed the river and proceeded to do the same thing on the cliffs on the other side.
According to Porter’s Medal of Honor citation, former prisoners said those camps had taken three years to set up and were held as a final rallying position. Porter’s Marines did it under incredible odds and were able to capture and destroy a powder magazine and 40 small guns, as well as rice, food and enemy barracks.
The Fight for Recognition
Despite their courage and perseverance, the battle on Samar was controversial at home, with many seeing the Marines’ actions as harsh and atrocious. Possibly because of that, the Board of Awards in 1902 turned down recommendations for Porter and others to get an award. A 1904 appeal also failed.
In the early 1900s, Marine Corps officers weren’t entitled to receive the Medal of Honor, so that wouldn’t have been on the table. But Porter had hoped for some other form of recognition.
His career moved forward anyway. In June 1902, Porter came home from the Philippines. He married Winifred Porter a few years later, and they had a daughter, Carrie, in 1918. Porter was a colonel by the time World War I ended. He then went on to work in recruiting for more than a decade.
By 1915, the law changed, allowing for Marine Corps officers to be considered for the Medal of Honor. Porter kept trying to overturn the Board of Awards’ 1902 decision, but attempts in 1919 and 1928 also failed.
Finally, in 1934, the Marine Corps commandant helped Porter push the consideration petition through again, and this time, it was approved for him and Bearss to earn the recognition they had sought for so long.
On April 25, 1934, Porter and Bearss received Medals of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That same year, Porter was promoted to brigadier general, and his services were transferred to the Adjutant and Inspector’s Office, where he finished out his career.
Porter was medically retired on March 1, 1937. A few years later, he was raised in rank to major general because of his distinguished service.
Porter died on Feb. 25, 1944, in Philadelphia. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His Medal of Honor is now at the National Museum of the U.S. Marine Corps in Quantico.
Porter is one of several service members to eventually be recognized with the Medal of Honor for actions taken during the Philippine Insurrection.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
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