Devereux: From war hero to Dundalk’s congressman
Wednesday, 06 November 2013 13:47

James Devereux as a U.S. Marine Corps officer during the World War II era. photos from Blaine Taylor collection

by Blaine Taylor

    He was the very stuff of which legends are made, and once served as this area’s elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives as well.
    I am pleased to say that I was honored to have known him personally, and interviewed him many times, as well as had him as a guest on my former Comcast Cablevision television talk show, “Encounter.”
    The late James Patrick Sinnott Devereux (1903-88) was a general officer, politician, and horse-breeder, a puckish swashbuckler who led U.S. Marine Corps leathernecks from the jungles of Nicaragua — fighting the original Sandinistas of the 1920s — to the fabled Great Wall of China as commandant of the renowned Horse Marines.
    Over the course of the exciting, adventurous and wild saga that was his real life story, he married a trio of beautiful women, outlived two, fathered three accomplished sons, and had 20 grandchildren before his death in the spring of 1988 at age 85.
   Gen. Devereux was also the author of a best-selling book that was still in print when he died, and had seen, met, or served under every U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt.
    This much-storied man was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and is ranked among Maryland’s most famous war heroes.
    If he’d stayed in Congress in 1958 instead of running for governor and losing to Democrat J. Millard Tawes, he would’ve probably been Dundalk’s Congressman for life from the 2nd Congressional District of Maryland (the seat that has been held for the past decade by Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger.
    Devereux was elected to the House in 1950, defeating incumbent William Bolton, and served four terms in Congress before making his gubernatorial bid.
   Had the former jarhead general stayed in Washington, he might very well have forced his later successors to look elsewhere for elective office. These included Democrats Daniel Bough Brewster (whom I’ve also interviewed) and Clarence D. “Doc” Long (whom I ran against twice in 1982 and 1984), plus Republican Helen Delich Bentley, whose press secretary I was during 1991-92 on Capitol Hill and at Towson.
   Concerning then Maryland Comptroller Tawes, who beat him in the 1958 General Election, the general told me two decades later, “Tawes was much better qualified for governor than I was. I used to introduce him as the man who saved me from a lot of worries and troubles!”
    Indeed, since that long-ago era, the race for the Maryland governorship has proven to be the political death knell of two of his GOP successors in Congress as well: Mrs. Bentley in 1994 and Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. in 2006 and 2010.
    I’ve known them all in one fashion or another over those past same decades to now.
    As a lifelong career Marine officer serving in North and Central America, China and the vast Pacific Ocean, Brig. Gen. Devereux was always proud to have been one of those famous and still much-celebrated, “few good men.”
    A portion of Devereux’s life was even made into the Hollywood motion picture Wake Island in 1942. It starred Brian Donlevy as the heroic then-Maj. Devereux.
    In real life, Devereux led a small detachment of Marines on tiny Wake Island in the Pacific during December 1941 in a hopeless but heroic battle against the air, land, and sea forces of the Empire of Japan in the days after its sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
    In January 1942, Devereux and the captured American survivors of the lost first Battle of Wake Island boarded Japanese prison ships bound for enemy-occupied China and an uncertain fate.
    On the voyage to the Chinese mainland, some of his men were beheaded by sword-wielding junior officers trying to impress their own troops.
   He told me, “The guards were brutal, stupid, or both. They seemed to delight in every form of abuse — from petty harassment to sadistic torture — and if the camp authorities did not actually foster this cruelty, they did nothing to stop it,” he recalled.
    After months as a POW, the captive Marine learned by mail — long after the fact — that his first wife had died, leaving the heartbroken major with young son Paddy to raise alone should he ever see his home again.
    But Devereux never lost faith in America, and kept his troops together through traditional Marine discipline. Then, in September 1945, the major found himself being presented with the samurai sword of the surrendering Japanese camp commandant after the Imperial forces had lost the war.
    Free at last, Devereux was amazed to discover that he was a hero back home, and that his son Paddy was there to greet him upon his return. He was to be showered with medals and promoted to general officer rank, thus completely skipping the two field grades of both lieutenant colonel and colonel altogether.                                                                    
    But it came as no surprise to those at home. As the war came to a close in 1945, the cost to the Japanese of the valiant stand at Wake Island was estimated at four Imperial Navy warships sunk and eight more damaged; 21 aircraft downed and 11 damaged; 820 men killed and another 33 wounded.
    On the American side, a dozen aircraft had been downed, with 96 dead: 46 Marines, three sailors, and 47 civilian contract workers.
    When the Japanese surrendered after the Second Battle of Wake Island in May 1944, their commander stated that it wasn’t “just any island. This is Wake Island. It was here the Marines showed us how.”
   And although Devereux’s picture was being splashed across the pages of Life magazine and every newspaper in the country, he was — as usual — neither impressed with himself nor with his achievements.
    He had just been there, and simply done his duty.
    I first met the general in 1977. He never impressed me as one who would leap atop a besieged barricade, flag in hand, and shout,  “Follow me!” And yet he had that indefinable and often mysterious “something” that inspired men in battle to put their trust in him.
    One day, sitting quietly with him in his home’s den, I realized that if the roof fell in about our ears, he would still be there seated and stolid when the dust cleared, ready for whatever came next.
    Indeed, he’d had almost that very experience when he was in Congress on March 1, 1954, when four Puerto Rican nationalist gunmen fired 30 shots from semi-automatic pistols from the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Representatives.
    There were 240 members present that day debating an immigration bill when the firing suddenly broke out. Five members were wounded — one seriously — but all recovered.
    I only learned of this stellar incident after his death, so had never asked him about it during our many interview sessions. The amazing thing, however, was that he didn’t deem it important enough to volunteer that anecdote to me!
    Another time, my friend Trish Drake and I stopped by his Falls Road home after he’d sold his horse country residence. Sitting on his porch with him, his third and last wife gave us tea and cake from an exquisite silver serving set.
    Devereux was her second general-officer husband, as she’d been the widow of an Army officer before her marriage into the Corps, so to speak.
    She was both gracious and well-informed about her current husband’s career, prodding him on TV to recall this or that anecdote for airing. I was glad to have met her as well.
    The general — self-described as “horse-crazy” — had been a horseman all his life. He rode daily into his 80s, until a few years before his death.
    He would’ve been delighted to know that, at his military funeral, the traditional riderless horse — with boots reversed in the missing rider’s empty stirrups to signify a fallen warrior — had accompanied his procession, just as it had for his fellow Rep. John F. Kennedy in 1963, and fellow war hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1964.
    Was Devereux really a hero? His medals said yes — including the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, and the Presidential Unit Citation, among others.
    He was also a politician who attended bill signings in the Oval Office of the White House with five-star Army general and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as shaking hands in the traditional photo op with then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon, a former Naval officer and Pacific War veteran who also saw enemy fire.
    In one such session, Devereux watched as Eisenhower, signed the congressman’s bill that formally returned to the Port of Baltimore the Navy frigate USS Constellation for permanent mooring at the harbor since named for his congressional successor Helen Delich Bentley.
    Originally built at Baltimore in 1797, the Constellation was officially declared an historic landmark in 1964, shortly before this writer joined the Army to see action in Vietnam.
    His days of heroism and politics behind him in 1958, former U.S. Rep. James P.S. Devereux, USMC (Ret.) settled into his next three decades of a well-earned retirement.
     The former general and Congressman was recalled to part-time duty, however, by County Executive Spiro T. Agnew as Baltimore County’s Public Safety Commissioner, complete with his own car with siren that delighted the old warhorse no end, I’m told.
    I continue to recall his inborn modesty and puckish good humor. Was he really modest? Maybe, but he also might’ve taken a page from Ike’s own playbook, appearing to be selfless, while simultaneously and cunningly concealing ambition under that exterior.
    In the end — and in both cases, too — the result was the same.
    I once asked him why he’d been born in Cuba, and he answered, “Because that was where my mother was at the time,” his father being stationed there with the Army.
   I also once inquired why he became a Marine and not a soldier. With a twinkle in his eye, he replied, “I liked the red stripes on the Marines’ trousers better.”