A Marine Remembers the Battle for Belleau Wood
On the first day of June, 1918, the third great German offensive of the year drove into a tangled old hunting preserve called Belleau Wood. General James Harbord, commanding the Marine Brigade, received an order from the rattled commander of the French 6th Army: “Have your men prepare entrenchments some hundreds of yards to rearward in case of need.” Harbord answered tartly, “We dig no trenches to fall back on. The Marines will hold where they stand.”
Many of the men who would have to do the holding and standing had never been in action before. They would be spending the next month trying to dislodge four seasoned German divisions from superb defensive positions in the mile-square forest. Among them was a young soldier named Elton Mackin, a private in the 67th Company of the 5th Marine Regiment. He never forgot his first sight of battle and, after the war, wrote an account of the grim struggle for Belleau as part of a book-length manuscript he called Flashes and Fragments. Through the courtesy of his daughter, Mrs. W. T. Sage, it is here published for the first time. In this vivid, unusual narrative, Mackin appears as the character “Slim”; the section titles are his own.
Zero hour. Dawn of June 6, 1918. Undertone commands brought the chilled, sleepy men to their feet. A skirmish line formed along the edge of the woods. There were last minute instructions, and bits of advice flung here and there. Careless of cover, the first wave stood about in the wheat, adjusting belts, and hitching combat packs to easier positions.
The mist of early morning thinned before a red-balled sun. There were half-heard murmurs of conversation among the men and, at times, a spurt of nervous laughter, quickly stilled. The entire front was quiet where we were. There was only the distant background of way-off guns warning the lines to come awake.
First Sergeant “Pop” Hunter, top-cutter of the 67th Company, strode out into the field and threw a competent glance to right and left, noting the dress of his company line. Pop was an old man, not only of portly figure and greying hair but in actual years, for more than thirty years of service lay behind him.
No bugles. No wild yells. His whistle sounded shrilly, once. His cane swung overhead and forward, pointing toward the first objective, a thousand yards of wheat away, where the tensely quiet edge of Belleau Wood was German-held.
The spell was broken. A single burst of shrapnel came to greet the moving line of men. There was a scream of pain. A soldier yelled, “Hey, Pop, there’s a man hit over here!”
Reply was terse and pungent. “Gawdammit, c’mon. He ain’t the last man who’s gonna be hit today.”
We met the war at a crossroad. We were young. Europe had been aflame for more than three years, and we had come a goodly way to smell the smoke. Full of wonderings and wanderings, full of restlessness and spice, we heard it scream and writhe and crash among the distant trees. The guns around us added to the din and suddenly we didn’t want to die.
The fellows walked with disciplined eyes that stared in fascination. They walked in fear and pride. They shot quick glances here and there at other men to gather strength to imitate their still-faced calm and to match their stride. It was difficult to still that awful growing dread. Dark of night would have been welcome then so that a man might hide the terror in his eyes.
The war met us at a crossroad near Marigny Château. Because the long-range German guns over Torcy way were spewing high explosive, we were put into partial shelter of the roadside hedge, allowing time to pass. The war had come down our road to meet us. We took the time to study it, to note its greeting. We had an hour or more of sunny June-time afternoon through which to wait and watch, and gather swift impressions.
Somewhere off to north of us, a German battery was zeroed in, firing from the depths of Belleau Wood. The shells came down in perfect flights of four, always of four, and four and four, just spaced enough between the blasts to serve the guns. Methodical, precise, deadly, the gunfire swept the crossing. Men and horses died. Huge old Army camions and Thomas trucks crashed and smashed and burned, while engineers died recklessly, moving wrecks to keep the roadway clear.
Have you ever watched a gut-shot horse, screaming, drag his shell-killed mate, his dead driver, and his wagon down a bit of road until he dies? Horses die more noisily than men, as a rule. Most men die quietly if death comes soon. They seldom make a lot of fuss unless the first dulling shock has worn away. The strongest weaken and scream, given enough of burning pain.
The business of war is a pressing one and movement must go on in spite of anything. We were enthralled. We were privileged men to lie out there, short rifle range from carnage, learning, watching how things went.
Traffic scarcely slowed. Horse teams went their way, their heads held high, snorting as they passed insensate things.
A figure came among us along the right of way, seeking our Lieutenant. Word spread that a runner had come down to guide us in. We would be needed on the firing line that night.
We had been hearing tales about the runners—the risks they dared—the prices they paid. Not without reason were they included among the elite details known as the “suicide squad. ” We understood that the work, except in an emergency, was voluntary and that no man need accept the job as regular assignment if he preferred otherwise. Of all the risks we had heard about along the front, we were of one mind concerning the job those fellows did. “No runner job for us—too dangerous.”
A wounded fellow, walking, came our way and was hailed with a shower of eager questions by us ‘boots.’ He didn’t even take the time to talk to us, just passed us by, stony-faced, looking holes through us in some contempt, as though he missed a quality we lacked and didn’t think us much.
We heard him call the runner Jack, saw him stop to chat awhile, and later, answer our Lieutenant civilly enough.
As he left us, drifting back to find an ambulance, he shouted, “Hey Jack, has the outfit got to hold the woods with them goddam replacements?”
The path out of Lucy-Le-Bocage skirted a trampled garden, passed a dead cow, followed the road to a gap in the hedge and dropped into a drainage ditch. It cornered a bit of the field, and was covered by a copse of saplings across some open ground.
At the copse the path divided, one way going forward toward the ravine; the other turning half-left through the underbrush to Hill 142. In the fork of the path, a German soldier had died, grotesquely and in pain. One upflung arm, spread-fingered and beseeching, was caught among the branches of a scrubby bush.
For the guidance of travelers, some humorous soul had laced a cardboard sign between the dead man’s fingers. Rough lettering bore the legend “Battalion P.C.” above an arrow pointing west.
The garish flare of a star-shell, blasting the deep gloom, brought into relief a file of replacements cautiously groping their way along the front opposite Torcy, and gave to each his first view of No Man’s Land at night.
In the blinding light every man froze in his tracks. Rigid, their figures merged with the shadows of the wood that no enemy eye might detect movement among them. Since early dark these green troops had been making their way toward the firing line. Now, with night half gone, they were filtering through the trees along the crest of a ridge to take position in that thin line of shallow trenches and fox-holes which constituted the only barrier between Paris and the German drive.
“Come on, close up! Close up!” came the hoarse whisper of a guide. The ghastly light waned and suddenly went out. There was muted sound of movement from the head of the column. Men dared to breathe freely again. Stiffened fingers relaxed their startled grip on rifle stocks, and again they groped forward.
After a few hundred yards came a command: “Pass the word to halt!” Each received the whispered message as he bumped into the man ahead and soon the diminishing sound of rasping branches and stumbling feet ceased. Shortly there came a vague activity from the rear of the line and a gradual shuffling forward a few steps at a time, interspersed with undertone remarks to: “Step out a little!” “Hold it!”
Shadowy forms came working from man to man. A quiet voice of authority bade each: “Take a five pace interval, and lie down!”
One felt an oppressive loneliness at losing contact with the next in line, a feeling soon replaced by relief as tired bodies relaxed on cool earth. The occasional boom of a heavy gun gave background to the eerie, brooding gloom. Somewhere a machine gun rapped into the darkness. At times, the sharp crack of a rifle, in the hands of a nervous watcher, punctuated the stillness. The damned replacements had arrived. …
[At dawn] a distant gun barked and immediately after came a screaming roar followed by a flash—an explosion. There was a spatter of falling fragments among the trees, and somewhere near at hand, an anguished voice cried out in pain. As though by signal, entire batteries took up the chorus—the clatter of a machine gun—another—and the rising tide of sound merged into a crescendo that stifled thought and, for a moment, paralyzed all motion. Shrapnel rained upon the ridge. A running figure dashed along the line with a yell to take cover. Men sought shelter behind half-finished mounds of earth and hugged the ground. Whole trees crashed down as heavy shells shook and jarred the earth. The fumes of H. E. powder became a blanket which crept over the forest floor. There were cries for “First aid, First aid,” and other cries—wordless, terrible cries of men in agony.
Figures moved between the inexperienced men. Someone crouched at Slim’s side and the voice of Sergeant McCabe came yelling at his ear, “Fix bayonets- fix bayonets—an’ watch that goddam wheat!”
“Are they coming?” Slim managed to make himself heard1, from a throat which seemed to choke the words in his breast.
“Yeah, when this barrage lifts, they’ll come—and in numbers, Bud. Shoot low, and be ready to go meet them if they get too close.”
His words penetrated Slim’s consciousness like a sentence of doom. Further speech was beyond him. His pet horror—the prospect of using a bayonet, of facing enemy bayonets in action—appalled him. The very thought, the threat, left him weak.
“Don’t turn yellow and try to run, because if you do and the Germans don’t kill you, I will.” With that the Sergeant left him.
Fascinated, Slim watched the sergeant’s progress down the line. He marveled that anyone could walk through such a hail of steel. He expected to see the man go down with every step.
As McCabe passed from sight among the trees, the meaning of his last words suddenly came to Slim. A flush of shame relieved the scared whiteness of his face and for a moment he lay his head upon his arm. It robbed him of what little strength remained. To be thought a coward on his first day of battle, in his first hour of action, threatened to place him beyond the regard of these men he strove to copy.
The taunt had reached him and hurt his pride. At that moment, boyhood lay behind forever—a page of life’s story turned—and back of a small mound of earth, a disciplined, determined soldier faced the long slope ahead.
The shell fire slackened. There were bursts falling behind the ridge now, centered on support positions; sweeping favored paths and roads over which reserves might come. How well the old Boche knew this bit of front! Just two days back he had consolidated here and now his dead and the debris of battle lay about. This ridge had been a strong point of his stubborn defense, the main objective of the Marine attack of—“Was it only yesterday?”
It was time for the assault. Over to the right of the hill on which Slim lay arose the clatter and clash of a pitched battle. Officers hurried toward that part of the Battalion position, the better to observe the result of what was evidently a flanking attack. The first assault had been aimed at a hollow off there to the right out of sight among the trees, and its outcome might easily prove whether or not their hill was to be held.
Someone near at hand cried: “Here they come,” and Slim’s attention went to his immediate front. Out there beyond mid-field, figures took shape—a long double line of fighting men formed a wave of advancing infantry. Behind, at the far edge, another took shape, and even as he watched, a third wave debouched from a distant line of wood to join the advance. Three massed lines of bayonets reflected the first rays of a red sun peeping over the horizon.
Somehow the excitement which Slim had imagined would mark a battle scene was lacking. His own line was quiet now—too quiet; one could feel a mounting strain, a tension. The entire scene reminded him more of a maneuver, a sham battle, than the actual beginning of a fight. Word had passed: “Hold your fire!” The distant waves came nearer. Out in front, khaki clad figures emerged from a low thicket and fell back with unhurried steps, the men glancing over their shoulders. Someone shouted: “The outpost is in!”
Came a rapping burst of fire from a Hotchkiss gun close by. A gap opened in a gray-clad wave. Rifles began to crack, and, as the gap closed and the attack came on, the volume of fire increased to a pulsing roar.
Slim lay spellbound. His emotions were a mixture of fear, horror and appreciation of a spectacle undreamed of in all his little experience. The merging roar of rifle and machine gun fire gave rise to a feeling of elation—a thrill—a mounting hysteria, which drew him higher and higher from behind his protecting pile of earth to better see the panorama of courage and death depicted on that awful field before him.
Unheeded, shells burst nearby, their splinters keening round like angry hornets. Bits of bark spun off the trees and twigs and leaves came drifting down, but these were sensed, almost unnoticed. Rapt vision could not leave that scene in front.
Experimentally, his rifle raised to cover one of those forms. They were so like the silhouette targets of the rifle range at, say, six hundred yards. When glimpsed through the small aperture of a peep-sight they were nearly identical in outline, the breast-high figures of men, head and shoulders rising above the flood of waving grain through which they came. The difference was that these targets bobbed and swung along with the rise and fall of the terrain and were, or so it seemed, in never-ending numbers.
In fancy, all the German army was coming there. Here was a pageant of men at war, but with actors who did not behave like the story men of the older wars. Nothing was to be seen of the brave clash of bold spirits. No waving flags nor battle cries. Just a trudging mass of modern soldiery, closing in on another group of fellows who, for the most part, waited patiently to test in each the teaching of their trade—“Kill or be killed!”
Somehow the three enemy waves had merged into one and yet it was no stronger than the one had been before. Gaps opened in the surging rank and closed again but not so rapidly as at first. The line thinned, and thinned again, while the air was wild with sound of gunfire.
A fear that was almost panic gripped Slim’s throat. The range was shorter now—too short. With its lessening his panic fear fought for mastery over reason. The urge was to flee, to get away. This was impossible—unreal. That thin line must go back. “Damn it, why wouldn’t it go back?”
A cold bleak anger rose. It would go back! “Kill or be killed!” And here was the tool of his trade, a fitting of wood and metal. It came up, to snug in comfort like the arm of a pal. Its smooth stock caressed from shoulder to cheek-bone. Habit? Training! Target—the half drawn breath—a finger pressure—recoil.
Target? No. A man, a breast-high silhouette in dirty gray, under a dome of hat. He staggered and seemed to sag, suddenly, wearily, so close that one could see the shock of dumb surprise. A hand flung out, instinctive, to ease the fall; then, the figure settled, limp, at rest, pillowed in broken grain.
What had been a wave of fighting Germans became a broken outline—groups—individuals. Some still fell, some fled, while others dropped their arms to plead in fearsome stricken voices.
Most firing fell away, though here and there the most hardened killers shot men as they ran.
Victors rose. There were readjustments, shouts, commands. Stretchers passed, carried by willing prisoners. “Dig in! You—and you. Get ammunition, quickly now!”
“They’ll be back again.”
“Sure! They want this hill. Lucky we broke up that flank attack early.”
An elated comrade, drunk with excitement, dropped down beside Slim. A cigarette changed hands.
“Light? Well, we sure stopped ‘em ‘at time, Son, didn’t we?”
“Gee, I was scared at first. Did you see———?”
Slow puffs, a nod, an empty word or two. The elated one passed on.
The warm sun of a June morning poured on the now quiet wood. Its heat soothed and rested. Slim turned a bit to let his glance sweep the field. His look paused to note a sodden bundle of gray, among others. His wandering eye was caught by the gleam of a single empty cartridge among the drying clods of his little breastwork. Its brazen shine peered back, unblinking, accusing, reflecting a bit of life-giving sun.
Slim turned face down, his head pillowed in the crook of his arm. He feigned sleep—. One can always dream.
By the time the question of who was to hold Hill 142 had been hashed over a few times and seemingly settled in our favor, the Germans slacked off for a number of days while their spearhead swung to the eastward toward Chateau Thierry.
Details, working at night, gathered the Battalion dead into parkings just at the forest edge, opposite Lucy-Le-Bocage. Some of the 67th’s survivors of June 6 and 7 had guided members of the “damned replacements” with the harvest, having vivid memories of the road the Company had taken to get the bayonets into Belleau.
There were seventy-six dead Leathernecks at a corner of the wood, across that first wide field outside of Lucy, and the replacements had plenty to do. Most of them had been dead for a week, the majority having died in the wheat. The stretcher bearers wore their French gas masks while at work.
During the night the Second Division Engineers, temporarily relieved from firing line duty, had dug a long shallow trench for the burials.
Someone had to work in the trench to receive the dead, and Lieutenant Long asked for a volunteer. “Tugboat” Wilson, an old-time Marine with a Corporal’s chevrons, took the job but found the work heavy. He was patient with our squeamishness (we had been at the front only a week), and he asked repeatedly that some boot give him a hand with the laying out. We kept hurrying away for new burdens.
It so happened that on one of his trips, Slim had passed his finals in wretchedness. In picking up a man who had been hit dead center above the eyes, he had noted that the fellow’s chinstrap was still tightly in place. In swinging the corpse to the stretcher by his shoulders, the tin hat had flopped. The dead man’s brains slopped messily across Slim’s shoes. The gas mask was a handicap then, and by the time he reached the trench, burial work held no more terrors for him. Surprisingly, it was easier and more pleasant work, entirely in the shade.
An old-timer came by on business of his own and stopped to watch. Occasionally, as a man rolled down, Slim noted the watcher’s hand flick outward from his thigh in a half-conscious gesture of farewell.
After a time, as the work progressed, a body was brought down, full-dressed in Forest Greens, with a top-cutter’s chevrons above the hashmarks of seven enlistments. A whistle dangled loosely from a thong about the Sergeant’s neck, and the flap of his holster flopped about untidily.
Then it was that the old-timer, who watched, made full salute. Turning to a boot he said, “Get a blanket, soldier. Wrap him up. That’s Pop Hunter.”
Someone shouted: “Here they come—lots of them!”
Officers hurried to points of best advantage—standing openly among the clearings—to focus glasses, measure them.
Riflemen clambered up from little firing pits among the trees.
The Germans came over a shoulder of grassy hill, a thousand or more yards away, walking slowly into a sunlit valley through all the glory of a June morning.
Sunbeams danced in vivid flecks of light from off their bayonet points.
A breathless Major panted up the slope behind our line, surveying preparations, shouted orders here and there.
A Hotchkiss crew trotted up and chose a clearing, slamming the tripod into the forest loam to brace it well.
Men stood about, nervously adjusting rifle slings, rising and falling along the ridge in quest of prone position, sighting, looking for an opening through the screen of brush below.
Some braced against the trees to shoot from standing positions, easing their pieces back to set the peep sights to a figured range.
Somewhere on the flank, a Hotchkiss chattered sharply several times and shortly silenced, suddenly.
A shot was tried by over-eager lads.
The Major shouted: “Damn you, hold your fire!”
The waves of men came on, closing in across a field of knee-deep grass.
We saw the flaming beds of poppies trampled underfoot, so far away.
They did not come directly to us, moving across the field diagonally leaving us high away along their leftward flank.
Almost at battle sight we realized the press would come no nearer, aimed as they were at outfits further west.
Men craned their necks to watch the officers, impatient, wanting but the word to open fire. Even our replacements felt the urge of it.
Killing at long range is such an impersonal thing; a sporty testing of the nerves, like practice on the training range. Here was fair game. The men were feeling cheated.
Ragged crashing shooting started, somewhat like a volley, fell away in volume, steadied to a pitched roar of sound. We watched death strike the looseknit ranks of walking men.
Leaders tried to charge; slowed, wavered, melted suddenly. Men dropped to cover in the grass, set about the business of a firing line in striking back.
Others rested quietly where they fell. The wounded? Ah those wounded, always optimists. Such as could walk stood up in hail to make a try for distant cover; turning their backs with seeming unconcern, to get away.
There were not so many dead, so far as we could see. Surprising that, in all that roar of sound.
Too far to charge on in with any chance against such firing power. Somehow we had known that too, when first they came across the hill.
Numbers do not matter much to men who aim each shot.
Queer where bullets go at such a time.
Do very many make sure to miss? You seldom hear the fellows mention that. Some fellows tell you things, in confidence.
Broken, the attack went rearward, starting suddenly. Running figures shouldered comrades from the grass. Some stumbled, staggered on, or lay quiet.
The scattered waves became a mob of infantry retreating.
Some had charmed lives and wove about the place from men to men, not rattled; being soldiers, splendidly.
Killers took their toll. There’s always some.
We watched the last of them, the wounded, lurch and fall.
Did we forget the shrapnel? Watching?
It came, the first just after the start of rifle fire and broke in spotty bursts quite viciously, with scream and flashes. There wasn’t much of it, it seemed. We didn’t have so very many guns at Belleau Wood.
Shell bursts tore the greenness of the meadow, ripping off the grass to leave a black loam scar, below a smear of smoke, or burrowed deep in mucky stuff to spout a flaming geyser, throwing blobs of muddy earth away. All were gone at last, it seemed.
Except some scattered figures in the grass.
A knowing voice said two had taken shelter in a shell hole and tried to point the place. It was quite far away. The fellows argued, “See those two dead together?” “Well, at three o’clock from there—in that big shell hole—”
“See now—a helmet showed.”
“Yeah, sure I got it—the damn bastards!”
A sniper; ours. Rifle with a telescopic sight. He slipped away to find a better place. You heard odd shots from time to time along the ridge.
There was discussion; excited talk.
Old-timers gazed across the field, with bleak, still eyes. They gruffly answered questions.
“Hell, that was just a demonstration,” the skipper talking, “acted like it from the start. I wonder what the plan was anyhow?”
I heard the Major—to a tall first Louie—the adjutant, I guess—“The Boche don’t give a damn about conserving man power, do they?”
He spoke regretfully, in seeming disapproval. Soldier-wise, against a system that he didn’t understand.
Our guns were French. Their observer talked into his phone, flicking his eyes from a checkerboard of map to gauge across the little fertile valley.
A ranging shot came over, fell too wide. Another went too far beyond the hidden men. Shortly they were bracketed by searching shell bursts.
We watched this added act. One fellow clenched his nails into his palms. He looked as if he were in prayer as arcing shells swept down.
The two broke cover, running, fleeing desperately toward the looming hill.
We watched them separate, and tire against the first low rise of slope.
Snipers threw long searching shots; aimed carefully to try again.
The leading man went down, hit hard, falling in a headlong dive—twisting. His comrade jumped to cover in a hole. The snipers took it up, contentedly, a watching chore to kill the sunny day.
With borrowed glasses you could sometimes see the flick of dust from sun-baked earth.
He was a canny lad. He kept cover—planned to see another sunrise.
Quick glimpses at the little unimportant things, the trivia of battle, helped to make us into soldiers of a sort. New to the front, more than half-scared through all those days, we pretended a show of toughness and competence and tried desperately to survive.
Ours was not a real hardness. We were too young to be truly hard so soon. We did age fast, and functioned more or less well; depending on the individual and the leadership of the moment. We became brittle, which differs from hardness by many degrees. We were not tempered as good lasting material is tempered, by slow fire and learned hands. We were brittle with a brittleness which was to mark all the days of our remaining lives. We were too damned young and under fire too soon.
Throughout the thirty-odd days required to clear the Germans from Belleau Wood, we replacements were fathered about through the mazes of underbrush and bits of fields by those old-timers who had survived the first two days of wild assault. Some of these were grizzled, greying men of many enlistments. A surprising number were fellows just a little older than ourselves, who had been in the outfit long enough to be soldiers. Instinctively, we looked to them, for even though they may not have always known what to do next, they at least seldom betrayed the fact to us. Their cocky bearing, their sneering self-confidence, and disregard for danger, coupled with a demanded and absolute discipline, allowed us to follow them anywhere under any circumstances.
On an afternoon when a platoon of our 17th Company jumped off with abrupt suddenness to take an enemy outpost, our small group was assigned to cover their left flank. We were not a squad—just a detail, led by a stony-faced old-timer. We were five rifles, and while scarcely enough to cover a two-squad job, we were what could be spared. Besides, if we got overrun in a counterattack, there were but the few of us—not too many to lose if things went wrong.
We left the firing line on our bellies, snaking away into the trampled wheat, to gain the partial shelter of a shallow drainage ditch which led out and away from our front. From time to time, the Sergeant would motion us down while he surveyed the terrain ahead and to our right, where things were getting hot. Finally, satisfied of our position, he scattered us along the ditch, charged us to be quiet and not show ourselves. Peering through the shrubbery, we were sometimes able to glimpse a running German or two, filtering back from the outpost. They were good at taking cover, offering poor targets at quite long range. Resistance stiffened. More and more Maxims came into play. The action to our right became a bedlam of sound and fury. The flank we guarded was not threatened so we maintained our cover.
Bullets came from most anywhere. A well-placed gun needs a field of fire of at least a thousand yards. Scattered shots and an occasional burst came our way—mostly wasted stuff overshooting the targets. We kept low and quiet. There was a chance we had not been seen. In less than half an hour, firing fell away in volume, and it was evident that the 17th had taken the place, were busy digging in for the counter attack which was sure to develop. We knew they held it when a barrage of drum fire began falling on the position. Heinie wanted that outpost and meant to get it back.
When watching, and not under direct fire, a fellow is inclined to inch upward for a view of things. It is always a show, no matter how terrifying. We may have been spotted. In any case, Heinie was feeling really peevish and generous with ammunition. A long burst of Maxim fire swept along our ditch, swung away; swung back again, dropping leaves and twigs onto our sprawling bodies. After that we were quiet for awhile. We could see that the Sergeant had not ducked; was keeping a good watch.
A man can stay quiet just so long; then has to move if only to relieve the tension. There were no more bursts directed at us so we regained a bit of confidence, taking turns at snatching quick glances towards where the firing was diminishing.
The afternoon stretched into long shadows. Westward, behind us, the sun became a glowing ball of fire. It would be hours before full dark, but still, the day was running out. We began to fret some because we were really in No Man’s Land, far—too damned far—from our battalion line. Not a good place to be with Heinie feeling as he did.
Baldy, the most assured of us (none were at all brave) finally ventured to question, “Hey, Sarge?” He got no answer—not even the grunt we expected. The Sergeant was full-length out of the ditch, snuggled down in a patch of shrubs and weeds; his chin rested on his folded arms, and he was peering under the brim of his helmet. His field glasses lay in front of him.
“Hey, Sarge?” Baldy shook one foot to get his attention. There was no response. We knew better. We should not have left him there, but the evening star was glowing against the east and we were suddenly a bunch of lost, scared kids—a long way from home.
The evenings were long and darkness late in coming, and those among the HQ men who didn’t have a chore to do would sit around the battered pits and talk things over. The fighting had swept over here some days before and left the waste of battle all about. To us, the firing line was something far away—a quarter mile or so. We knew a temporary, brooding sort of ease.
One night as darkness fell, replacements joined us. New men are always fair game, no matter what their rank, and no morbid tale you might give them could be too far wrong in such a place as ours. We pitied them and tried to help them too. Behind the banter of our cold descriptions, we knew their need and their nervousness, but knew too that we couldn’t really offer any comfort.
Someone laughed—too loud—to cover quakings and a flat voice said, “Son, you won’t laugh that way long—you’ll make a pretty corpse.” It wasn’t nice, but neither was our war. Someone said, “By God, I wish I could smoke.” And the same voice, flat, said, “You will, kid, in hell, in a day or two.” And then the general conversation died down.
As is usual in such a gathering, the majority fell away to listening and only two or three keep up the talk. It was a black night, under the shadow of the trees, and men became just voices in the dark.
The voice of the newly arrived Sergeant began to ring a little bell of memory. Somewhere in another time and place, I’d heard him talk before. Kidding was over, since he was asking questions for the boots and he got respectful answers, not because of chevrons; they didn’t rate so much to men up there, but because the soldier in him spoke to us. We told him what we could from our great store of knowing gained in just a week or two of life along the Front.
Where had I heard that voice before, so set apart and individual and full of man-made stuff?
It had been in the past December at Paris Island—where we boots were trained—and once a squad of us went to the mainland for supplies. The voice fitted a red-headed stocky sort of guy, who ran the boat among the brackish channels of Royal Sound.
The supplies? Two bundles of brooms and only that and eight young men to handle forty pounds or less, and how we were surprised, and asked him why.
That same good laugh, it was a sort of happy chuckle, and he had said he thought we needed a vacation—and, “What the hell, I wanted company anyway. Where you boys from?” We had shipped out from many different places, and gathered there, and spoke the names of hometowns, full of pride.
The memory made a bond of sorts in the black of the woods, lighted at times by the faint glow of star shells. I took a chance and questioned him.
“Red, how was old Beloit the last you heard from home?”
It was like a fellow touching a live wire somewhere in the dark. I was almost sorry to have startled him like that. My memory had been right. This was Red Van Gaulder. Of all the men I knew who spoke of homes and distant towns, his pride was of his center of the universe, Beloit. When he spoke of his Wisconsin home, he made us feel it so.
We took Belleau Wood over a period of weeks, a bit at a time. Our method of attack was a departure from orthodox warfare as practiced by Europeans. We didn’t confine our time of attack to dawn, but were liable to go forward without warning at any hour of day or night. These attacks were an aggravation to the enemy in that they were always unexpected and not planned to be extensive; instead being gauged only on the ability of the men concerned to take for themselves a bit more, ever a bit more of enemy held territory. The quiet of a summer afternoon might be and often was, shattered by the head-long rush of a company, a platoon, or a squad or two. The enemy found this most disconcerting.
On a quiet afternoon in late June, the Seventeenth Co. of the Fifth Regiment launched one of these attacks and took by surprise an enemy force who had held a corner of woodland for days in apparent security. Most of the affair was out of our sight in the trees at the right and slightly to our front. We could trace its progress by the intensity of fire at the initial rush and suddenly silenced yammerings of Maxims in the isolated strong-points.
We who were best located to act as witnesses of the affair occupied an outpost trench where sloping meadowland came up like an arm of the sea to penetrate the woodland. There were about fifteen of us, and we were very much on our toes and watchful of the result. It was interesting to watch a battle of that sort, seeing the other fellows do the fighting. I believe we were enjoying a measure of selfish security without thinking of what might be expected of us should the situation turn against our men.
As the attack reached the climax, the enemy stragglers began showing through the trees at our right front as they filtered away to the rear. But our rapt attention to the show before us was rudely interrupted by authority in the person of Gunnery Sergeant John Ailiers, who said flatly, “Fix your bayonets!”
The order was to us a complete surprise, startling and appalling in its potentiality; and when we questioned with our eyes his meaning at giving that order at such a time, he said, “When the main body of the Bosche are driven out of that neck of woods, we’ll go down with the bayonets, and try to capture some!”
The outpost had a feeling of its own. It was a spooky, threatening sort of place and full of smells. It smelled of powder, and of smoke, and the putrid tang one gets around a slaughter-house, and raw, fresh soil. It smelled of mystery and rolling farmland mist.
Most trenches offer sanctuary of a sort and let a fellow feel protected, some snuggled down against the breast of Mother Earth, half hid from harm.
In all our little time in it we never felt secure. We lived instead, on nerves; beneath a weight we hadn’t known before in other places.
Bushy headlands reached at us from either side, across the wheat, and both were held by German infantry. Our little trench was dug below a loom of hill, in front of, and outside the firing line. Though there were fellows scattered thinly through the trees along our flanks, we had a sense of being pocketed between the jaws of giant pincers; of something watching us, poised to strike.
We were, in fact, a listening post of sorts and somewhat of a strong point in advance. But then a listening post, when there is time, may fall back to a battle line to fight. A strong point stays. Our job was just to hold the gloomy place, which meant staying there, in any circumstance.
We held it with a squad of men at night and left it empty during daylight hours. By day it would have been a harvest ground for snipers, working from the headlands out in front.
We had a captured Maxim on the parapet, for company. Its use was questionable in such a range-choked place, but then it gave us confidence of sorts.
The wiser men among us laid their rifles back along the parados from under foot and fingered hand grenades, instead, while keeping watch.
In all of nature, is there any spot so dark as that black band where meadow merges into woods against a hill? Where half-seen shapes of trees at forest edge in seeming movement, never move away; and peering eyes grow tired, and conjure things?
It’s good to feel a comrade’s shoulder then, to know that men like him don’t run away. It’s then you get the feel of soldiering.
One night, the Skipper came down quietly among the trees and spent a time at looking over things, and whispering among us. man to man. He sensed the feel about the place, I guess. He must have known our quiet, stifled fear, because he sent an old-time sergeant down—to father us and ease us with his voice. Old campaigner that the sergeant was, he gave us confidence to face the dark. A soldier does a thing like that—for amateurs.
Leaving the trench at dawn was ticklish business—hardest on the fellows who came last. Sometimes the night mist thinned a bit before the push of morning breeze and let the flooding light of day come rapidly. It left a fellow feeling naked as he climbed the slope to reach the shelter of the firing line. Your shoulder muscles bunch in tight-pulled knots, held taut against the blow of an expected bullet; it leaves you breathing gustily and deep with inner tremblings.
It’s good at such a time, to slip away among the trees behind the line; to sprawl in restful comfort on old leaves; to watch the little summer clouds; to smoke a cigarette and dream.
We had come back the day before from Belleau Wood where we lived eleven days of Hell. We rested, taking belly wrinkles out with plenty of rations, enjoying as we could the job of being in reserve.
It had been our first time in the lines. We had learned many things; the courage of the enemy coming at us over open ground; his generosity with shells in greeting any movement; the spiteful viciousness of what we called his whiz-bangs.
It was pleasant, peaceful among the trees, around the little grave-like pits that we had dug for shelter from the long range stuff. All of us were older by a dozen years than we had been a dozen days before.
Some of the fellows slept away the drowsy June-time afternoon.
Some sat about in little groups and swapped experiences or tried to engage our old-timers in talk, hoping they would tell about the first attacks which we recruits had missed.
A few came in for lots of kidding because they read their pocket Testaments for hours on end. We called them hypocrites and pitied them. They were so damned sincere.
We remembered times they hadn’t been, before we reached the front.
It wasn’t funny.
We all had Testaments.
A loving people back in God’s Country had issued them to us with many blessings—and sent us out to fight the Germans.
They had not cared to see that we had tools of war.
We borrowed most of those.
Here were men who tried to make their peace with God before they kept a rendezvous with Death.
The Germans had “Gott Mitt Uns” stamped on their buckles.
Christians are such charming people.
The Americans suffered 9,777 casualties taking Belleau Wood, but Mackin survived the battle and the tough campaigning that followed. He was there on November eleventh when the front fell silent for the first time in four years. “Was there ever,” he wrote, “in the history of the race, a night like that? So queer, so still, so full of listening?”
By that time, Mackin had become a first-rate soldier. At Mont Blanc in October he was the only one of twenty-five runners to escape unhurt. For his work there he received, among other decorations, the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Silver Star.
After the war he served as a constable in his native town of Lewiston, New York. He moved to Norwalk, Ohio, during the Depression, and lived there until his death in 1974.