I had been arranging prayer books and hymnals in their racks on the backs of seats some five rows in front of him, so I had no trouble recognizing him for what he was.
He was a United States Marine. I saw this, then made a mistake. Approaching the pew, I put on my brightest welcoming smile, extended my right hand and exclaimed, "Semper Fi!"
From grimly lowered, pressed-together eyebrows there came a piercing stare, an arrow with an icicle point. It made me feel like a boot who had incurred the withering wrath of a drill instructor. My smile melted like warm Velveeta cheese and dribbled off my face. His eyebrows rose to release the stare as he spoke in a voice with that had the sound of a .45 ammunition clip being rammed home.
"Sir," he said, "that's a Marine Corps expression."
"Ah, well, yes, I know," I ventured. "I, uh, I've served with some Marines. I'm a Navy Commander. Retired, that is." His demeanor changed instantly.
The man in the pew had popped to attention as we talked. Hazarding a guess, I said, "At ease, Sergeant."
"Your pardon, sir. It's Private. Private Hal P. Spencer, 6th Marine Regiment. Sir!"
I surrendered and fell into the routine.
"Why are you here?"
"I'm going to visit Belleau Wood and other World War I battlefields where I saw action in 1918. Permission to ask a question, sir?"
"Does the Commander know where I can rent a motorcycle? I want to go to Metz. I can reconnoiter from there." I pictured this silver-haired gent in French traffic, closed my eyes, and shuddered.
"Hear this, Private Spencer," I said. "You won't need a motorbike. I'll drive you to Metz, on two conditions. One, that you show me around where your action was, and two, that we knock off the military protocol. I'm George, you're Hal. Deal?"
We skipped Metz and went to the scene of Private Spencer's war.
It is not possible to express the emotions I felt as we walked over the terrain at Belleau Wood, Soissons, and Chateau Thierry. Since childhood I had been fascinated by stories of Americans "somewhere in France" in World War I. I got to France on Navy duty with NATO in Paris in 1958, where I had the use of a light reconnaissance airplane. Flying low over the old battlefields, I could clearly see myriad trenches zigzagging across the landscape. Many were caving in and overgrown, but they remained visible.
This battlefield tour on the ground, with a guide who had actually been there during the fighting, was an almost indescribable moment in life. No better way to get the picture than to let Hal Spencer himself describe in his own words what he called a "minor patrol action," when he wrote me in 1970, five years after our stroll through historic Bois de Belleau, "The Wood of the Marine Brigade."
"There is a small incident which may be of interest, what our folks (Marines) would call a `minor patrol action,' near the Lucy side of the Wood. [Lucy was Lucyle-Bocage, a tiny hamlet on the edge of Belleau Wood. Private Spencer and Marines of his platoon found brief refuge there with a French family in a small white cottage. We found the cottage still standing; he said it looked exactly as it was in 1918. He did not want to call on the people: `There might be too many unhappy memories.']
"Some time after the initial attack by our third battalion on the 6th of June, whereby we gained a toe-hold in the wood, I was ordered together with eight or nine other men under the command of a corporal to make a reconnaissance of the southwestern area of the Wood. This was about the ninth or tenth of June, I think. We traveled along a path (A on the sketch) back of our troops to a clearing (B) of several acres covered with low brush and containing a number of ricks, or stacks of cut wood about four feet high.
"We traversed this clearing along a faint cart track which ran across the clearing and through the Wood to its far side. Upon entering the woods, we found that the undergrowth became rather thin and we deviated from the cart track to a fairly open area (C) when I saw a German trooper leap from behind a large bush (D) and disappear to our left approximately at (E). I pointed this out to the corporal, who immediately ordered us to file back along a ditch (F) to get out of the more open area. Our point man climbed up the rising ground from the ditch approximately at (G) and was killed by one shot at approximately (H).
No sooner had the shot been fired, we came under intense M.G. [machine gun] fire from approximately (I) and (J). The gun at (J) seemed to be closer, but [we were in the shallow ditch and] the fire of both guns was going over our heads. Since I was the `Sho-Sho' gunner [French Chauchat machine gun], I worked up the slope to my left and opened fire on gun position (J)-which fire was only partially effective, for although we heard a yell or two, the gun kept firing. Both German gun positions were covered with thick brush and were thus invisible. While this was going on the remainder of the patrol filtered back along the ditch, crossed the gully (three- to four-feet deep), traversed the clover patch past the shell hole (K2) and behind the small projection of the high bushes at (L). As soon as the last man reached the gully, he was followed by my loader and myself, who (you may well believe) lost no time in executing that well-tested military tactic known as, `Getting the H . . . out of there.' We immediately set up a small group composed of my gun and seven riflemen at (M). The Germans had followed directly on our heels, occupied the shell holes (K1) and (K2) and the clearing (B). The line (N)-(O) was held by the remainder of my platoon, about 50 men.
"I could not see into the clearing from my position at (M), but immediately took the [German] group in the shell holes under fire, dropping the group in (KI) as they scrambled about. The group in (K2) had a light M.G., but could not bring it into action because of the hot and accurate fire we laid on them. While we kept them pinned down, we sent a man over with grenades, who eliminated them!
"About the time our grenadier was running for cover, our group came under tire from the clearing, probably situated at the edge nearest the point where the cart track entered the wood proper (P). Two of our people were killed and one man wounded. One of the people killed was the corporal. We were pulled in by the C.O., and I set up again behind the edge of the woods and just to the right of the cart track about position (Q). I could see up the cart track about 30 - 40 yards.
"We had hardly got into position when the Germans sent four men down the cart track with their hands up, yelling `Kamerad' in loud voices. The C.O. made us hold fire in hopes, I suppose, of taking them prisoner. l hey came to a point within 100 feet when the two first men dropped to their knees and the two rear men threw grenades, one of which struck me on the shoulder and spun off, exploding behind me, and the stuff really hit the fan!
"We came under intense M.G. and rifle fire from the clearing and a portion of the clover patch screened by the bushes at (L). Most of this was too high to be effective. I clearly recall one of the machine guns ripping the bark off a large tree by me, dropping bits of bark down my neck from about 18 inches above my back. We, of course, returned fire at once. The four decoys were dropped at the first burst of our fire (R), but they had covered the approach of the others. This fire fight lasted about 30 minutes and they drew back to the original position somewhere about (P). In all this, they lost IS-20 men killed to our 3. I will say that they were brave and aggressive, but a touch foolish for seasoned troops. Apparently they were not sure who we were. Prisoners later claimed they thought us to be some kind of French Colonials and had never come up against real accurate rifle fire. (Our people were all qualified as Marksmen or better!) They learned a lot about accurate aimed small arms fire later on the road where I showed you. I would like to again walk the paths of the Bois de Belleau with you, but probably will never be able to do so . . . (Yours sincerely, Hal. P. Spencer)"
Spencer's "the road where I showed you" bordered the wheat field where the "accurate aimed" long-range rifle fire of the United States Marines so astounded the advancing German troops. The ferocious German assault of the Second Battle of the Marne, threatening for the second time the French capital of Paris, came to a grinding halt here. Never before had German troops, nor any others, been felled one by one by small-arms fire at a range of 600 yards. No credit is withheld from the U.S. Army's soldiers fighting fiercely on the front sectors adjacent to Belleau Wood, but the Marines, as untried in bloody battle as the doughboys, were all "Marksmen or better."
Another Belleau Wood Marine, Private Elton F. Mackin, the only surviving runner of four from the fight at Hill 142, wrote in his eloquent chronicle, Suddenly We Didn't Want to Die, that he and his comrades had received minimal training before combat; they had been taught only "to march, to shoot, and to do as they were told." The Marines shot well enough with their bolt-action Springfield rifles to cause the enemy to fear the opposition had a new, secret weapon. The momentum of the German advance was lost that June and July of 1918, the Allies pushed forward, and on 11 November came the Armistice ending four years of mutually merciless slaughter.
Hal Spencer showed me the historic road and the field where he got his first glimpse of feldgrau uniforms and coal-scuttle helmets advancing through the shoulder high wheat. "I never had heard a shot fired in anger, much less one aimed at me," he said. "We Marines were dumped off a truck in the night that was pitch dark until a shell went over our heads and burst close-too close-on the right side of the road. The flash lit up the road and the wheat stalks. Another hit on the left side, showering us with dirt.
"I thought we were bracketed," he said, "and the next one would be it, but we got off the road and into the woods with no further rounds near us. As dawn began to break, we started digging in on a ridge on the slope away from the enemy. I think I can find the place-let's have a looksee."
We looked. We found distinct indentations, fairly evenly spaced, overgrown with grass, but clearly visible.
"See those?" he said. "People probably think they're shell holes. They're not. They're Marine rifle pits."
He rested an elbow on an arm and rubbed his chin, reflecting, and the Marine soul shone forth when he said, softly, to himself, "I wonder if I could p'lice up a little brass around here."
He didn't find any, but we didn't search long (after 47 years?). Still, there were the rifle pits. And, flying over the old battlefields in a light airplane I had been allowed to use while on Navy duty at NATO, then in Paris, a few years earlier, I clearly saw old trenches zigzagging across the landscape. French museums are replete with metal artifacts of war, ever being turned up by farmers' ploughs along with old bones of young soldiers known only to God.
"Look here," he called. "These trees have never grown back-the shell fire destroyed them. The Germans were using impact fuses, and the shells burst when they hit a tree-seldom hit the ground. But the rest of the Wood has grown up again. It looks to me just like it did in '18." He walked a few paces down a narrow trace "See," he said, "how the French keep their woods clean? They clear the brush and cut selected trees. They pile the cut wood in ricks and cart it off to use or sell for firewood. Used to use horse carts on these paths, but trucks, now-same tracks."
"You never read about it, but a lot of the action in the Wood was at night. We played hide and seek for keeps with German patrols around these stacks of cut wood." He emerged and pointed back the way we came. "Those rifle pits-the Germans dug their own on the other side of the ridge."
After a last look at the farm cottage that had sheltered him briefly, we found the cemetery where Marines lay forever in peace. He did not want to go in to find names he would know, but stood silently for a short time while I stood a discreet distance away and waited. When he came back, he said, "I know who they are." I was struck by the present tense.
We drove to Chateau Thierry and then northward to Soissons. He was very quiet on the way back to Paris. He thanked me for the trip. We shook hands and parted at his small hotel. We corresponded for about five years thereafter, but then lost contact. I never saw him again. He was 20 when he fought at Belleau Wood.
Epilogue: Hal Spencer came home, graduated from Texas A & M with a degree in architecture, and went on to help build a series of air bases: Randolph in San Antonio, Texas; Hamilton in Marin County, California; and Hickam at Pearl Harbor on Oahu in Hawaii. He and his family were there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Called up in the Army Corps of Engineers, he served on Saipan and was a major when the war ended. He died in 1979, and was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.