The Corps' Day of Destiny

By Colonel Richard D. Camp, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

The Forbidding Forest

The Bois (Wood) de Belleau was an old hunting preserve covering about a square mile and generally elevated above the surrounding wheat fields. The forest was almost a mile and a quarter long from north to south, more than half a mile across at the widest part, and about a quarter mile at the narrowest. In June, its tall hardwood trees were in full leaf. Under them, the woods were choked with heavy underbrush and second growth. One deep ravine ran along the forest’s southern edge and another almost across the woods, angling northeast from the western edge. Within the forest, knolls rose abruptly and great boulders thrust up from the ground. An outcropping of these enormous gray stones crowned a height in the southern part of the woods, offering natural protection from shell fire and an ideal location for machine guns.

According to Marine historian Robert Debs Heinl, “The Bois de Belleau was a carefully organized center of resistance held by the crack 461st Imperial German Infantry, close to 1,200 men strong—the largest single body of combat-seasoned regular troops which the Marines had confronted since Bladensburg [in 1814].” Major Josef Bischoff, who commanded Belleau’s German defenders, had led troops in West Africa, where he had “learned the art of bush-fighting,” Marine Lieutenant Colonel John Thomason wrote. “His infantry positions everywhere [were] stiffened by machine guns and Minenwerfers [large 17-cm mortars], and his dispositions took full advantage of the great natural defensive strength of the woods.” In the three days after occupying Belleau, his men turned it into “one huge machine gun nest,” containing nearly 200 automatic weapons. For his defense of Belleau Wood, Bischoff would receive one of Germany’s highest decorations, the Pour le Mérite.

 

Early Morning Action

On 4 June, the day after then-Lieutenant Lemuel Shepherd and other Leathernecks had turned back a German thrust at Les Mares Farm, the 2d Division took control of a section of the front west of Château-Thierry, where elements of the U.S. 3d Division had prevented the enemy from crossing the Marne River. The French 167th Division was on Marine Brigade’s left, and the 3d Infantry Brigade was on its right. To straighten a bulge in the front line, on the afternoon of 5 June, the sector’s French corps commander ordered a general advance for the next day. Major Julius Turrill’s 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, was ordered to seize Hill 142, west of Belleau Wood, to protect the right flank of the advancing 167th Division.

As dawn was breaking at 0345 on 6 June, Turrill’s 49th and 67th Companies began pushing through a wheat field toward the objective. But the Marines soon encountered withering German machine-gun fire. Marine Lieutenant Vic Bleasdale of the 15th Machine Gun Company, which was supporting the advance, watched as enemy bullets

knocked down the men from the first two lines. They’d knock a man down and the goddam bullets . . . would roll his body, and bullets would tear tufts of wool out of their uniforms. Of course, the man was dead—riddled, you know, with bands of fire; they couldn’t help but be dead. We hadn’t gotten across the damn field before the first line, the survivors, had merged with the second. The walking wounded headed for the rear.

In his thinly veiled war memoir, Fix Bayonets!, Thomason, a first lieutenant in the 49th, wrote:

The sergeant beside the lieutenant stopped, looked at him with a frozen, foolish smile, and crumpled into a heap of old clothes. Something took the kneecap off the lieutenant’s right knee and his leg buckled under him. He noticed, as he fell sideway, that all his men were tumbling over like duck-pins; there was one fellow that spun around twice, and went over backward with his arms up. Then the wheat shut him in, and he heard cries and a moaning.

Eventually, after sustaining heavy casualties, the remaining Marines seized Hill 142. Before long, the 1st Battalion’s 17th and 66th Companies and other reinforcements arrived to support the hard-pressed defenders.

Preparing to Attack

Later that day, a motorcycle roared up to the 5th Marines’ post of command. Lieutenant Fielding Robinson, a member of 4th Brigade commander Brigadier General James G. Harbord’s staff, jumped out of the sidecar and rushed into the building. He immediately was escorted into a large, well-appointed room that served as the regimental commander’s office. With the barest of formalities, he began briefing Colonel Wendell C. “Buck” Neville, commanding officer of the 5th Marines, on the contents of Marine Brigade Field Order No. 2. In it, Neville’s 3d Battalion, led by Major Benjamin W. Berry, less one company, was to attack straight east against the northern mass of Belleau Wood, while Major Berton W. Sibley’s 3d Battalion, 6th Marines (3/6), was to seize the southern lobe of the woods and the town of Bouresches. Major Thomas Holcomb’s 2/6 was to cover Sibley’s right flank.

Neville asked about artillery support and was told it was not planned because there was no need for it. An observer from French Escadron (Aircraft Squadron) 252 had earlier reported, “sector calm.” Neville accepted the decision. With that, Robinson departed to brief the 6th Marines’ Colonel Albertus W. Catlin.

As H-hour, 1700, approached, Berry’s three companies faced the western edge of Belleau Wood, which curved like the inner line of a crescent. Hill 169 dominated the left flank of the battalion. There was no cover in the intervening wheat field, 400 or more yards across. Meanwhile, Sibley’s battalion had to rush into position to meet the attack schedule. There was “no time to reconnoiter the area and no maps. The company commanders hurried forward to have a quick look at the terrain they would be going over and through.”

As the Marines in the two battalions waited for the signal to “go over the top,” one wrote: “The captain came along with a rifle slung across his shoulder and bayonet fixed. He said, ‘Five minutes more; get all the rest you can.’ I lay down in the wet grass and said a prayer. Then the word came, ‘One minute; get ready!’”

A 2d Division unpublished report stated: “At 5:00 p.m., the officers’ whistles shrilled, and the two battalions of Marines went forward. Their lines were carefully aligned in the four-wave platoon formation taught by the French. The sun was low behind the ranks, casting long shadows on the wheat in front of them.”

Through the Wheat

Floyd Gibbons, a dashing, reckless Chicago Tribune correspondent, had received permission from Neville to accompany the attack—“Go wherever you like, but I want to tell you it’s damn hot up there.” Gibbons linked up with Berry’s battalion and started across the field, “which was perfectly flat and was covered with a young crop of oats between ten and fifteen inches high. The field was bordered on all sides by dense clusters of trees. In the trees . . . were German machine guns. And then it began to come hot and fast. Perfectly withering volleys of lead swept the tops of the oats just over us.”

Almost immediately, Gibbons heard a shout. “It came from Major Berry. ‘My hand’s gone,’ he shouted. A ball had entered his left arm at the elbow, had traveled down the side of the bone, tearing away muscles and nerves of the forearm, and lodging in the palm of his hand. His pain was excruciating.” Gibbons crawled over to help. Suddenly, he felt a burning sensation in his left arm and another in his left shoulder—two machine-gun bullets had hit him in less time than it takes to tell the tale. “Then there came a crash. It sounded like someone had dropped a glass bottle into a porcelain bathtub. It seemed that everything in the world turned white.” A bullet ricocheted off the ground, tore through his left eye and out his forehead, leaving him near death. Word went out that he had been killed.

Before the attack, Gibbons had sent a skeleton dispatch to the Paris censor, an old friend. When the censor heard that his colleague had been killed, he released the dispatch unedited. Gibbons’ story opened with, “I am up front and entering Belleau Woods with the U.S. Marines.” Newspapers in the United States picked it up. The New York Times trumpeted, “Our Marines attack, gain mile at Veuilly, resume drive at night, foe losing heavily.” And the Chicago Daily Tribune banner screamed, “Marines Win Hot Battle Sweep Enemy From Height Near Thierry.” The accounts were the first that mentioned specific units of the American Expeditionary Forces by name.

The Army was not amused. Army Major General Robert L. Bullard wrote sarcastically: “The press reports of the 2nd Division’s fight shouted, ‘Marines, Marines, Marines’ until the word resounded over the whole earth and made the inhabitants thereof, except for a few Americans in the Army in France, believe there was nothing in the 2nd Division and, indeed, nothing in front of the Germans, but Marines.”

Major Berry’s companies quickly were shot to pieces, ending their attack almost before it had begun. Within an hour of going over the top, a severely wounded Berry sent a message to Harbord: “What is left of battalion is in woods close by. Do not know whether will be able to stand or not. Increase artillery fire.”

The major’s adjutant clarified one unit’s losses: “Three platoons of the 45th Company went over. Only a few [men] returned.” In all, Berry’s battalion suffered 4 officers and 268 men killed or wounded. It was now up to Sibley’s battalion to take Belleau Wood.

Into the Woods

When the shrill notes of officers’ whistles sounded at 1700, Sibley’s 1,000 Marines deployed into formation in a two-company front about 1,000 yards wide. The 82d Company was on the left, 84th Company on the right, with the 83d and 97th Companies in support.

Colonel Catlin watched as the ranks moved into the open fields. “It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed,” he proudly recalled. “The battalion pivoted on its right, the left sweeping across the open ground in four waves, as steadily and correctly as though on parade; the men placed five yards apart and the waves fifteen to twenty yards behind each other. There was no yell and wild rush, but a deliberate forward march, with lines at right dress.”

The two left flank companies quickly advanced into the southwestern end of the Belleau Wood against light opposition and gained an unoccupied height. But the thick scrub growth broke up the formations. Small groups of Marines led by a noncommissioned officer or junior officer continued the attack. Suddenly, they ran into the main German defensive line and were stopped cold. Platoon commander Lieutenant Louis S. Timmerman of the 83d, however, slipped through the enemy line, continued to advance eastward, and emerged from the southeastern edge of the woods into a wheat field, where his depleted platoon occupied a rocky mound. The lieutenant wrote in his diary:

Immediately a terrible fire from the left flank was opened up from a little rise of ground about fifty yards away also from out left rear by machine guns . . . at this moment I was hit in the left side of the face and fell forward thinking, “I’ve got mine,” as I thought a bullet had ripped through under my eye. It knocked me out for a minute, and then I felt better and although I was covered with blood I realized I had not been dangerously hit. My men were dropping all around, so I told them to follow me and we ran back to the shelter of the woods.

Sibley’s two right-flank companies had hardly started when a murderous barrage of machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire opened on them, driving the Marines to the ground. They had run into Major Bischoff’s entrenched 461st Regiment. Private W. H. Smith saw “German machine guns everywhere, in the trees and in small ground holes, and camouflaged at other places so they couldn’t be spotted . . . every blamed tree must have had a machine gunner.” Sibley’s Marines attempted to advance across the killing fields. “My God, we tried,” Private Bob Benedict agonized, “but the machine guns were just too much. They just cut us to pieces.”

Major Thomas Holcomb’s 2d Battalion, 6th Marines, had been assigned to cover the right flank of Sibley’s advancing battalion. But Second Lieutenant John West of the 2/6’s 79th Company was ordered to follow Sibley’s men into Belleau Wood. West recalled the “cries of the wounded, ‘first aid,’ ‘stretcher bearer,’ pitiful pleading cries, cursing, pleading demands, ‘Christ, Christ, Oh God.’ Wounded men pleading with me to kill them to put them out of their misery, God, what a [day].” Don V. Paradis, a sergeant in the 80th Company serving as a 2/6 messenger, recalled, “The wounded kept calling for help but a runner can’t stop to be a medic.” After delivering a message to Holcomb, Paradis asked permission to go back to help them, but the major refused his request, saying, he “would be needed again.”

The Day’s High Cost

By the end of the day, five of the Marine Brigade’s seven battalions had been in action. Turrill’s successful morning attack had advanced the brigade’s lines more than 1,100 yards to Hill 142, but Berry’s evening attack against Belleau Wood had been a complete failure. His battered remnants had pulled back to their old positions, where they were reorganizing. Sibley had gained a toehold in the south face of the wood, but at a severe cost—5 officers and 194 men killed. On the right, Holcomb’s battalion was under heavy German pressure in Bouresches. In addition to fighting at Hill 142, elements of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion had supported Berry’s and Sibley’s attacks.

Throughout the day, sketchy reports had filtered back to brigade headquarters. It was not until early the next morning that the full extent of the day’s operation was known. The losses were staggering. More Marines had been killed and wounded in action than in the 143 years of the Corps’ history. Total losses were 31 officers and 1,056 men, of which 6 officers and 222 men had been killed or died of wounds.

General Harbord forwarded an operations report admitting serious difficulties: “The brigade can hold its present position but is not able to advance at present.” Sergeant Paradis listened to an officer recite the names of all the killed and wounded in his unit. “I couldn’t see his face because it was so dark but I feel I could hear his tears.”

As night fell on 6 June, the two sides were locked in a deadly embrace, often within hand-grenade range in the dense forest. Nervous sentries’ random rifle and machine-gun fire kept the exhausted survivors awake and on edge. Dawn would bring another assault, with gains measured in yards and lives. It would be three more weeks before Major Maurice Shearer, commanding the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, in place of the wounded Major Berry, reported, “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”

For more on Belleau Wood, check out these Naval Institute Press volumes: 

Devil Dogs: Fighting Marines of World War I   by George B. Clark

Through the Wheat: U.S. Marines in World War I by Edwin Howard Simmons and Joseph H. Alexander

 



Sources:

Robert B. Asprey, At Belleau Wood: The Full Dramatic Story of America’s Baptism of Fire in the Great War (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1965).

Dick Camp, The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood: U.S. Marines in World War I (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2008).

George B. Clark, Devil Dogs: Fighting Marines of World War I (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1999).

Warren R. Jackson, His Time in Hell: A Texas Marine in France: The World War I Memoir of Warren R. Jackson (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 2001).

Elton E. Mackin, Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die: Memoirs of a World War I Marine (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993).

BGEN Edwin Howard Simmons, USMC, and Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC, Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008).

CAPT John W. Thomason Jr., USMC, Fix Bayonets! (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926).

COL Frederic M. Wise, USMC, and Meigs O. Frost, A Marine Tells It to You (New York: J. H. Sears, 1929).

Colonel Camp served 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps before retiring in 1988. He is the author of numerous books on Marine history, including The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood: U.S. Marines in World War I (Zenith Press, 2008) and Assault from the Sky: U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam (Casemate, 2013).
 
 

4th Marine Brigade Order of Battle

Brig. Gen. James Harbord, USA

5th Marines 6th Marines

Col. Wendell Neville Col. Albertus Catlin

1st Battalion 1st Battalion

Major Julius Turrill Major John Hughes

17th Co. 66th Co. 74th Co. 76th Co.

49th Co. 67th Co. 75th Co. 95th Co.

8th MG Co. 73d MG Co.

2d Battalion 2d Battalion

Lt. Col. Frederic Wise Major Thomas Holcomb

18th Co. 51st Co. 78th Co. 80th Co.

43d Co. 55th Co. 79th Co. 96th Co.

3d Battalion 3d Battalion

Major Benjamin Berry Major Berton Sibley

16th Co. 45th Co. 82d Co. 84th Co.

20th Co. 47th Co. 83d Co. 97th Co.

6th MACHINE GUN BATTALION

Capt. Edward Cole

15th Co. 23d Co. 77th Co. 81st Co.

 

 
 

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