Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die: Memoirs of a World War I Marine
by Elton E. Mackin, Presidio, 264 pages
Fifteen years ago a boxful of limp old onionskin arrived in our offices. The manuscript told the story of a young Marine private who had fought his way from Belleau Wood to the Meuse, in the process surviving some of the bitterest action the Western Front had to offer. It was terrific. We ran a full sixteen pages of it and only wished we could publish the whole thing. Now someone has, and it takes its place among the finest accounts of the soldier’s lot in the First World War. Now and then Mackin superheats his prose with youthful floridity, but there is real eloquence here, along with fierce vignettes recounted with clarity and perfectly controlled understatement. Northeast of Vierzy, for instance, Mackin’s outfit faces a German advance. The Marines spot a battery of French 75s coming their way, flag them down, and the rapid-firing guns save the day. But a German shell lands directly on four French officers standing by their guns studying a map: “Of men and map there was but a reeking hole, smoke-clogged and rancid. No other trace was left.
“We were startled by a burst of hearty laughter, and turned to find Gene Clevenger, the Missouri mule, arms crossed over his belly, rolling in the wheat in an uncontrollable spasm of mirth. It wasn’t funny, yet we had to smile. His laughter was infectious, and while we puzzled some and could not understand, we joined in, too. At long last, after the paroxysm had subsided somewhat, we asked for an explanation.
“Gene tried to give it to us through his chuckles and tears.
“‘But Gene,’ someone said, ‘What in hell—just what in hell was there to laugh about?’
“Half convulsed, Gene pointed weakly down and gasped, ‘Oh, Jesus, I bet they was surprised.’”