Marines in turn-of-the-20th-Century Peking found themselves outnumbered and surrounded in the foreign diplomatic section of the capital. Anti-foreign Chinese Boxers threatened to overrun their position and kill everyone inside: troops, diplomats, and civilian refugees. One Marine Corps officer, Capt. John T. Myers, added to the USMC's steadfast reputation of attacking in the face of insurmountable odds by leading a daring counterattack with American, British, and Russian Marines that would save the garrison.
John T. Myers was born into a family with an impressive legacy of military service. His great-grandfather John Twiggs served as a militia general during the American Revolution. One of John Twiggs' sons, General David E. Twiggs – known as the "The Bengal Tiger" for his fierce temper – forged a reputation for stubbornness and bravery during the antebellum period until his death in 1861. Another son, Major Levi Twiggs, was a Marine officer killed while storming the castle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War. Myers' father Abraham fought in the Seminole and Mexican Wars. Abraham married the "Bengal Tiger's" daughter in 1853 and served as Quartermaster General for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Abraham fled to Germany after the South collapsed in 1865. John T. Myers was born there in 1871 and returned to the U.S. with his family at age six. Ten years later, he attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He graduated in 1892, after suffering from a lingering illness and outlasting his tendency for poor behavior.
Myers served in the Navy Engineer Corps before being transferring to the Marines in September of 1895. He first "saw the elephant" – an American expression of the time, meaning he gained experience at significant cost – during the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. In March of 1899, the Marines promoted him to captain for his service during the Spanish-American War. The apex of his career came when the Navy sent him to Peking (modern-day Beijing) to protect the American Legation from violent anti-foreign sentiment brewing in China.
Troops of the Eight nations alliance of 1900 in China. Left to right: Britain, United States, Australia (British Empire colony at this time), India (British Empire colony at this time), Germany (German Empire at this time), France, Russia, Italy, Japan.
On May 31, 1900, he led 48 Marines and two officers of the USS Oregon and USS Newark from Tientsin to Peking. He and his Marines fought behind stacked sandbags and barricades alongside British, Austrian, Italian, French, German, Japanese, and Russian troops to beat back numerous attempts to overrun the garrison.
"It was all a matter of 'sitting tight' behind a barricade, constant vigilance night and day and firing promptly at such of the Chinese as had the temerity to expose themselves," Myers wrote.
"There was scarcely an hour during which there was not firing on some part of our lines and into some of the legations, varying from a single shot to a general and continuous attack along the whole line," as U.S. Minister Edwin Conger described it.
On July 2, Myers discovered that "during the preceding night and day the Chinese had succeeded in building a wall into and across the bastion and were then busily engaged in erecting a tower directly on my left flank, the fire from which, when completed, would reach all parts of our position." The English and Russian ministers and military officers inside the Legation Quarter gave Myers the go-ahead to storm the enemy's barricade and drive them from the menacing tower.
Movie poster for "55 Days In Peking."
John Twiggs Myers' counterattack was immortalized by Charleton Heston 11 years later in the 1963 film "55 Days at Peking."