Calvin P. Titus, Bugler, Company E, 14th Infantry; "I'll Try, Sir"

 
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Calvin P. Titus, Bugler, Company E, 14th Infantry; "I'll Try, Sir"

Military History Extra: Medal of Honor Edition

One hundred and eleven years ago this week, the United States military participated in joint operations with the forces of seven other nations. Their objective was to rescue the civilians, embassy staff, and Chinese Christians besieged in the international legations located in Peking, China. Modern history calls this the "Boxer Rebellion" or the "Boxer Rising;" historians of the U.S. Army refer to this operation as the "China Relief Expedition."

In addition to Marines and sailors from several ships in Chinese waters, American troops stationed in the nearby Philippines were rushed to rescue the trapped civilians. The 9th and 14th Regiments were assigned that duty, as was the 6th Cavalry Regiment, and Battery F of the 5th Field Artillery Regiment. They were accompanied by troops from France, Russia, Japan and the British Empire.

After fighting their way from the coast, through the city of Tientsin, the relief force arrived before the Chinese capital in mid-August. The plan called for an assault on the city on August 15. However, hoping to steal a march on the other contingents, early in the morning of August 14 the Russians attacked a city gate assigned to the Americans. All the Russians accomplished was to give away the operation, and to get themselves pinned down by heavy Chinese rifle and artillery fire.

Units of the U.S. 14th Infantry converged on the area shortly after dawn. With the Russians trapped by Chinese Imperial fire, the American soldiers swerved to attack the city wall nearby. The brick structure was some 30 feet tall. There was no way to determine if Imperial troops were hiding on the wall, waiting for the Americans to make a move.

Col. A.S. Daggett, commanding the 14th Infantry, decided that it was necessary for the wall to be scaled and secured. With no scaling ladders or ropes, someone must try to climb the perpendicular brick fa├žade. Volunteers were asked for, and one of Company E's soldiers stepped forward. It was company bugler Calvin Titus, all 5 feet, 7 inches and 120 pounds. He also was serving as a chaplain's assistant, and had a very good reputation among his fellow soldiers. Titus laconically said, "I'll try, sir." After looking the slightly-build fellow up and down, Col. Daggett said, "Well, if you think you can make it, go ahead and try."

Titus dropped all his equipment, even his pistol and his hat, and began the perilous climb. In his book, "America in the China Relief Expedition," Col. Daggett described what happened next:

With what interest did the officers and men watch every step as he placed his feet carefully in the cavities and clung with his fingers to the projecting bricks! The first fifteen feet were passed over without serious difficulty, but there was a space of fifteen feet above him. Slowly he reaches the twenty-foot point. Still more carefully does he try his hold on those bricks to see if they are firm. His feet are not twenty-five feet from the ground. His head is near the bottom of an embrasure. All below is breathless silence. The strain is intense. Will that embrasure blaze with fire as he attempts to enter it or will the butts of rifles crush his skull? Cautiously he looks through, and sees and hears nothing. He enters, and, as good fortune would have it, no Chinese soldiers are there. Titus stands in the embrasure, and informs those below that he thinks others can climb the wall in the same way...

In a letter written 35 years later, Titus told of the most "ticklish part" of his exploit:

For me the most ticklish part of the event was when I found that there were a lot of matting tents on top and I had to find out if they were occupied before I could tell the company all was clear... Naturally I was scared stiff but it had to be done; but all the fear went for nothing as there was no one in any of them.

After determining that this particular section of the wall was unoccupied, Titus was followed by other members of Company E. After pulling up their rifles using makeshift ropes composed of rifle slings, the soldiers successfully suppressed the Chinese rifle and artillery fire. This allowed the trapped Russians and the Americans to enter their assigned gate, in the Chinese capital.

Army Medal of Honor, 1896-1903

Citation: Gallant and daring conduct in the presence of his colonel and other officers and enlisted men of his regiment; was first to scale the wall of the city

Footnote #1: One year later, Calvin Titus received a presidential appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. After graduating in 1905 as a 2nd Lieutenant, he became a very busy young man. He served several years in the Philippines, was part of the relief effort after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, fought forest fires in Yellowstone Park, pursued Pancho Villa in 1916, and served in Europe after the "Great War." He later directed the ROTC battalion at Coe College in Iowa, retiring in 1930. He died in a VA hospital in California on May 27, 1966 at the age of 86.

Calvin Titus, Cadet, U.S. Military Academy

Footnote #2: Less than two years later, Titus received his medal in a most auspicious way. On March 11, 1902, this first year plebe attended with all cadets a ceremony marking the academy's centennial. He received a shock when he was called front and center at the entire assembly. The commandant and President Theodore Roosevelt, walked over to Titus, and the President, pinned the medal on the surprised plebe's coat. Roosevelt then said "Now don't let this give you the big head!" After the group was dismissed a second year classman approached Titus, looked at his medal and said "Mister, that's something!" The man's name? Douglas MacArthur. 

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When I was a cadet at Texas A&M, we had the famous portrait of Calvin Titus scaling the Pecking wall. It has always made a great impression on me over the years, and "I'll try, Sir!" has been a rallying motto. Rest in Peace, LTC Titus

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.