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A Beer-Drinking Marine Corps Duck Earned a Citation for Fighting at Tarawa

A fesity waterfowl stood out among all the other Marines.

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  • Photo Credit: United States Marine Corps

The Battle of Tarawa was 76 hours of pure death and destruction. In 1943, 18,000 United States Marines duked it out with more than 2,600 Japanese Marines (who were better trained and more fanatical than the Imperial Army) along with another 2,200 Japanese and Korean construction workers. The island’s defenders were well-supplied and dug-in, making a landing on Tarawa an especially deadly undertaking. Among the 18,000 Marines who landed on the island was Sgt. Jack "Siwash" Cornelius, who had one confirmed kill almost immediately upon landing. It wouldn’t have stood out among all the other Marines fighting on the island if Sgt. Cornelius hadn’t been a hard-drinking, hard-fighting Marine Corps duck.

A lot of interesting creatures were adopted by Allied troops around the world, and many distinguished themselves while fighting the Axis in World War II. The Polish Army adopted Wojtek the Bear to fight the Nazis, a pigeon named Gustav delivered the first news of the D-Day invasion and so many dogs did their part around the world. In the Pacific, U.S. Marines adopted Sgt. Cornelius.

Sgt. Francis "Pappy" Fagan either won the duck in a poker hand or won it in a raffle; since winning a duck in a raffle during a war seems unrealistic, it’s far more likely to be a poker hand. Either way, Pappy owned a duck that followed him around everywhere. It wasn’t long before the 2nd Marine Division officially adopted Sgt. Cornelius as its mascot.

Like so many other Marines, Pappy’s duck enjoyed drinking beer. A lot of beer, served the way it was served in New Zealand: warm. Cornelius also trained with the Marines and since training is a lot of repetition, it wasn’t long before the duck knew exactly what to do and when to do it, jumping into foxholes, taking cover, and taking the fight to the enemy. Sgt. Cornelius earned the respect and admiration of his fellow Marines.

So when D-Day arrived for the Battle of Tarawa, Cornelius was right there with them. When the Marine’s boots hit the sand, so did Sgt. Cornelius’ webbed feet. In the middle of the brutal melee, Marines fought the Japanese defenders, and the prized duck of the 2nd Marines found an enemy of his own: a Japanese rooster. The two began fighting a mini-battle of their own.

The rooster got some licks in on Cornelius, but anyone who’s encountered an aggressive waterfowl knows they don’t give up easily. A Japanese rooster can hit hard, but Cornelius didn’t give up until the enemy rooster was defeated. With its prized duck wounded but victorious, the Marine Corps considered giving Cornelius a Purple Heart, but instead gave the duck a citation.

“For courageous action and wounds received on Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, November 1943. With utter disregard for his own personal safety, Siwash (the duck's nickname), upon reaching the beach, without hesitation engaged the enemy in fierce combat, namely, one rooster of Japanese ancestry, and though wounded on the head by repeated pecks, he soon routed the opposition. He refused medical aid until all wounded members of his section had been taken care of.”

The citation lists Sgt. Cornelius as a male, because identifying the sex of fowl is difficult for the uninitiated. The Marines only discovered their waterborne NCO was a female when she laid an egg. She survived Tarawa and later landed on Saipan and Tinian. She would survive the war and go home to her new adopted country, where she lived in the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago until her death in 1954.