Valor: A Desperate Venture

Nov. 1, 1988

Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa that kicked off on Nov. 8, 1942, was one of the most important but perhaps least remembered campaigns against the Berlin-Rome Axis. It led to the defeat of Germany’s Afrika Korps, secured North Africa and the Mediterranean as a base for the invasion of Southern Europe, and temporarily placated Joseph Stalin, who was impatiently demanding the opening of a second front. The plan called for landings by British and American forces near Oran and Algiers on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast and by American troops under Maj. Gen. George Patton at three sites near Casablanca on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The defenders in all areas were French troops under commanders who had given their oaths of loyalty to Marshal Petain’s Vichy government, which was collaborating to varying degrees with the Germans. The strongest opposition was expected in Morocco, where Patton’s 37,000 men would face about 55,000 French troops supported by 130 combat aircraft, several naval vessels, and many shore batteries.

Most important of Patton’s three landing beaches was Mehdia, about 80 miles north of Casablanca. Troops landing there at 4 a.m., were to seize the airfield at Port Lyautey, a short distance up the Sebou River. Until the field was secure, air support would be provided by US Navy carrier aircraft.

Of the many uncertainties confronting Patton, most worrisome was the degree of intensity with which the Vichy French would oppose the landings. President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower had broadcast messages urging the French not to resist, but had the messages been received? Would they be heeded? Brig. Gen. Lucian Truscott, commander of the Mehdia landing force, decided on what he described as “a desperate venture.” He would send two emissaries through the French lines to locate the area commander and persuade him to cooperate. From many volunteers, Truscott selected Maj. Pierpont Morgan Hamilton and Col. Demas “Nick” Craw, the commander of his air contingent.

Why these two? Harvard graduate Hamilton had been an Air Service pilot in World War I. In the interwar years, he was engaged in international banking. He had lived in France for several years and spoke fluent French. He was serving as General Truscott’s intelligence chief. Craw, a 1924 graduate of West Point, had commanded pursuit units before serving as Military Air Observer with the RAF in Egypt and as a military attache in Greece and Turkey. A man of persuasive personality, he had many friends among foreign officers, including the French.

At first light on D-Day, Craw and Hamilton headed for shore aboard a landing craft. They intended to go as far up the Sebou River toward Port Lyautey as possible, then proceed in a light truck driven by Pfc. Orris Corey, but heavy artillery fire from shore batteries prevented them from entering the river. They finally made a landing on the beach at Mehdia at 7:20 a.m., After being pinned down by repeated attacks from strafing French fighters, they worked their way across the beach, only to be pinned down again by friendly naval gunfire and French artillery. When the bombardment lifted, they passed through two French formations. The truck bore American and French flags and a flag of truce.

As the truck passed over a slight rise, a machine gun opened fire at close range, killing Craw, who was seated between Corey and Hamilton. The two survivors were taken prisoner and driven to the French headquarters. The local commander refused to order a cease-fire, but agreed to pass the message Major Hamilton was carrying to Major General Mathenet, commander of the North Morocco area. Hamilton was not allowed to contact his headquarters by radio or to meet with other American prisoners. The French feared American reprisals for having killed an officer traveling under a flag of truce.

On the evening of Nov. 10, after two days of often heated discussions, Mathenet agreed to capitulate. The following morning, Marshal Petain’s deputy, French Admiral Jean Darlan, who was in Morocco, ordered all French troops in North Africa to cease resistance. The formal surrender took place at a meeting arranged by Major Hamilton.

On the recommendations of Truscott, Patton, and Eisenhower, the Medal of Honor was awarded to Major Hamilton and posthumously to Craw for a daring mission that contributed to saving many American lives. They were the first Army Air Forces recipients of the Medal in the European-Mediterranean theater of World War II and the only airmen to be awarded that decoration for valor not involving air combat.

After the war, Hamilton served as a military-political officer in Washington and Europe and at many international conferences. He retired as a major general in the Air Force Reserve, and died at his home in Santa Barbara in 1982.

Thanks to Lt. Col. Raymond Fredette and the Office of Air Force History for making available his research on this mission.

Published November 1988. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.