World War One: Belleau Wood, June 1918

On June 1, Château-Thierry finally fell. The Germans took Vaux and moved into the Belleau Wood. The French General commanding the sector placed the 9th U.S. Infantry between the Paris-Metz highway and the Marne, facing Vaux, and urgently called for another regiment. Major General (Omar) Bundy, commanding the 2nd (U.S.) Division, ordered Brigadier General James G. Harbord, USA, who had taken command of the Marine Brigade when the ill Doyen went home to die, to put in one of his regiment.

Thus did the 6th Marines move up to the left of the 9th Infantry, and deploy north from Le Thiolet on the Paris-Metz highway. Major Holcomb’s 2nd Battalion was on the Marine right, Major Maurice E. Shearer’s 2nd Battalion on the left to the north. The 5th Marines and the 23rd Infantry took positions in support. Bundy and Harbord agreed that the Marine Brigade would fight as a unit north of the highway and the 3rd Infantry Brigade to the south of it, “and on that spur of the moment decision came the alignment and the tremendous consequence, to the glory of the United States Marine, to the fortunes of the two brigades, and the to the future of the world.”

That evening, the Germans knocked a hole in the French line to the front and left of the Marines. The 23rd Infantry, Major Julius S. Turrill’s 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines, a part of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion and a company of Engineers rushed over in a forced march of 10 Kilometers to plug the wound before it became fatal. By dawn, they were in place; and Harbord put in Major Frederic M Wise’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines to strengthen the defense between Turrill on the left and Shearer on the right. Wise’s men were stretched over more than two miles of the line. (Later Turrill was pulled back in reserve and the 23rd Infantry filled in) Now, from the 9thInfantry south of the highway, through the Marines, to the 23rd Infantry, this section of the line-12 miles long- was American.

By the night of June 2nd, the German held a line from Vaux to the Bouresches to Belleau Wood and occupied Belleau Wood. The Americans faced them across rolling farm land from Triangle Farm to Lucy to Hill 142. The Marines job was, simply stated “Hold the line at all hazards.” Harbord countermanded a French order to dig trenches several hundred years to the rear; he said “The Marines will hold where they stand.” With bayonets and mess kits, the men dug shallow foxholes, in which a rifleman could lie prone and do his job. There would be no falling back the Germans were not to pass.

The Germans ordered an advance on Marigny and Lucy and through the wood. Further south, other German Divisions were ordered to cross the Marne.

That afternoon of June 3rd, the German infantry, in extended lines, bayonets fixed, attacked the Marine positions through the wheat fields. Marines were hit; LT. Lemuel C. Shepherd, JR. took a bullet to the neck. They waited, watched the Germans come on in waves-and then, when they were only 100 yards away, the Marines opened with a deadly rifle fire. They mowed the enemy down and finally forced the survivors to stop and break through the grain fields for the tress behind them. That charge was the peak of the German drive; the Marines had held.

Wise later wrote “If ever was a miracle in the war that was it. With a wide front, much of it open, to pick and choose, the German attack had smashed squarely into the center of the lone two and a half miles we held. Had the same force hit either of our flanks, they could have crumpled us and cleaned us up.

I was in no position to exploit our success. The only thing in the world we could do was stick in our foxholes and hold that line. Out in front of us were Germans in unknown force. Both our flanks remained unprotected. God alone knew how far back of us any support might be. But the Germans never attacked us again.”

The German offensive was finished for the moment, unable to pierce the defense and extended to its utmost in men and supplies. German casualties were enormous. Paris was now out of reach. The German commanders gave the order to dig in on a defensive line including Torcy, Belleau Wood, Le Thiolet and the Hill 204 just west of Château-Thierry.

But the French were exhausted; all that night they made their way back through the American lines. One French major ordered Captain Lloyd Williams, commanding Wise’s right-hand company, to withdrawal his men. As legend has it, Williams retorted:”Retreat, hell. We just got here.” (Wise later claimed he had said the famous words.)

By 8A.M. on June 4, Major General Bundy took command of that piece of the Western Front. Now, the 23rd Infantry held the line from the Paris-Metz road north to Triangle Farm; then Holcomb’s battalion to Lucy, and Berry’s to hill 142. Artillery, communications and supply were moving up.

The next two days were a standoff; the Germans continued to make local assaults, and were thrown back by the Marines’ expert fire. Between the two forces fell a rain of rifle and machine-gun fire and shrapnel. The Marines recognized the bravery of the worn out German troops advancing in close formation to certain death. And shot them down.

The 167th French Division arrived to help out, and Bundy could consolidate. His 3rd Brigade was now on the south; the Marine Brigade to the north. They touched at the Triangle Farm. Each of Bundy’s four infantry and Marine regiments held some 2,000 yards of line, with two battalions up front and one in reserve. Catlin later wrote: “ We now stood facing the dark, sullen mystery of Belleau Wood, Berry on the west and Holcomb on the south.” It was time for the Americans to attack.

Again, the Germans coiled to strike out; but at 3:45 A. M on June 6, the Americans and the French jumped off first. The Plan: on the 2nd (U.S.) Division’s left the 167th French Division was to attack, while the Marines took Hill 142 to eliminate flanking fire against the 167th. Then in the climatic second phase at 5 P.M., the 2nd Division was to size the ridge overlooking the towns of Torcy and Belleau and occupy Belleau Wood and the town of Bouresches at the southeast corner beyond the wood.

But the battle would not go that way.

The Marines had made an important mistake. When the French had pulled back on June 4, they had told the Marines that Belleau Wood was empty of Germans; and the Marines had failed to send out scouting patrols to check for themselves. The French were wrong. The Germans were there- a regiment of German infantry with an  interlocking network of machine-gun nests and covered by artillery-the hard-nosed tip of their push to paris.

Before dawn, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (Turrill) was supposed to hit hill 142 with the 8th and 23rd Machine Gun companies and D Company of the 2nd Engineers. The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (Berry) would move up on Turrill’s right. But most of Turrill’s command was still scattered on previous assignments. By H-Hour, only Captain Orlando C Crowthers’s 67th company and Captain George W. Hamilton’s 49th Company were on the mark. In the fark, they went over the top in four waves, with bayonets fixed, advanced in ranks into the wheat fields. After 50 yards, the machine guns destroyed them. Hamilton forced his men to their feet and to rush into a small woods. There, they found the entrenched Germans with steel. Crowther and 1st Sargent Daniel A “Beau” Hunter were both killed almost immediately. Hamilton urged his men through the woods and into another wheat field, where they again  came under heavy fire until they could reach the next little woods. Hamiltons men over ran their objective by 600 yards. Three Marines actually got into Torcy, where the Germans were concentrated. One of the three, wounded, was sent back for reinforcements. The two others found a hole and continued to fight from it. Two Germans attacked them. All four men died in that hole.

Hamilton had lost all five junior officers, and the 67th Company had only one of its five officers still alive. Hamilton tried to reorganize the two Marine companies; he established strong points and set up a defensive line. Suddenly, the Germans counterattacked, hurling grenades at the few Marines.

Gunnery Sargent Ernest A. Janson of the 49th Company spotted 12 Germans with automatic rifles crawling toward the Marines. He yelled a warning and killed the first two Germans with his bayonet. The others fled. For his swift stroke that saved his company, the thirty-nine-year-old sergeant from New York City ( who served under the name of Charles Hoffman) was the first Marine in World War I to win the Medal of Honor.

The rest of Turrills units began showing up and went into action. Captain Ll Williams’ 51st Company of Wise’s battalion was thrown in on Turrill’s left. But both Turrill’s flanks hung unprotected, and his men were exhausting their ammunition. His battalion lost nine officers and most of his 325 men and by afternoon won hill 241.

At 5 P.M., with a good three hours of daylight left, the second part of the American offensive began. Berry’s and Sibley’s Battalions went over the top and into a hail of German bullets. They moved forward and entered Belleau Wood.

As June 7th began, the battlefield was littered with the dead and wounded. The marine Brigade held a line more or less from Triangle Farm to Bouresches (the Germans still held the railroad station there) through the bottom of Belleau Wood and then north toward Hill 142.

The shelling and firing went on all day. After midnight, the Germans attacked and were stoped cold. At 4 A.M. on June 8th, Sibleys Battalion attacked and by ten o’clock had been halted with heavy losses. The German defense was too strong.

The battle was deadlocked. And that night south of Belleau Wood, the 1st battalion, 6th Marines, now led by Major John A. “Johnny the hard” Hughes, moved up to replace Sibley’s weary battalion. Sibley had lost 400 men, killed wounded and missing. Second LT. Timmerman’s platoon for example had 19 men left. Every officer of the 82nd Company was out of action.

Major Shearer, for the wounded Berry, took over the 3rd battalion, 5th Marines and replaced Holcomb’s men on the right and in Boursches.

Though out June 9th, an enormous, thundering American and French barrage devasted Belleau Wood. The attractive hunting preserve became a jungle of shattered trees filled with the smell of death. The Germans counter-fired, shelling Lucy and Bouresches and the ground between, and reorganized their defense inside the wood.

At 4:30 A.M. on June 10th, Hughes battalion and some of Major Edward B Cole’s 6th Machine Gun Battalion attacked Belleau Wood. At first the attack went easily; but by 7 A.M., the 75th Company had been stopped by enemy machine guns, and Major Cole was mortally wounded, Brigadier General Harbord had seriously underestimated the German strength in the wood.

Next Harbord ordered Wise’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines to attack the middle of the wood from the west, while Hughes advanced from the south. Wise’s units were understrength and tired from days and nights of fighting and shelling. The thirty-nine year old New Yorker- a veteran of China, the Philippines and the Caribbean- had lost 25 percent of his men. Wise later insisted Habord had ordered him to attack the northern edge of the wood.

Before dawn on June 11th, Wise’s battalion moved through the freshly plowed wheat fields and into thick protective morning mist. As they advanced on Belleau Wood, the men began to fall to heavy fire. The lead companies were shot to pieces. Lloyd Williams was wounded early and died that night. In the wood, it was small unit, close range warfare in the underbrush, with isolated platoons against the terror of the interlocking machine gun fire. Wise wrote later “ Nothing in all our training had foreseen fighting like this. If there was any strategy in it, it was the strategy of Red Indians. The only thing that drove those Marines through those woods in the face of such resistance as they met was their individual, elemental guts, plus the hardening of the training through which they had gone.”

There were no landmarks in the wood; and , unfortunately, these determined Marines were off target. Rather than heading northeast as expected, they moved directly across the wood’s narrow waist. Wise’s left-hand companies (Captain Charles Dunbeck’s 43rd and Captain Lester Wass’s 18th) ended up where his right should have been.

At 7 A.M., Brigadier General Harbord announced: “the northern end of the Bois de Belleau Wood belongs to the 5th Marines.” He was wrong. The Marines had not reached the northern part of the wood. Wise’s company commanders were further south than they thought they were-a massive and costly error.

Where they did hit, the Marines smashed the German defenders momentarily and destroyed their southern defense line. On German private, whose company had 30 men left out of 120, wrote in a letter, “We have Americans [Marines] opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.” The Germans began calling them a name in which the Marines took pride: Teufelhunde– Devil Dogs.

North of Wise, the Germans established a new defensive line in the wood and poured in reinforcements. They were in the front of Wise and on his left flank. And half of Wise’s battalion was wiped out. That night, engineers and Marine replacements came up and went directly into the line.

Pershing’s headquarters had already announced to the world that the Americans had taken Belleau Wood. SO on June12th, the local commanders needed to make good the news. That afternoon, still believing there would be light resistance, Harbord ordered Wise to make another attack at 5 P.M. This time, the assault was led by the 55th Company of LT. E.D. Cooke USA; Dunbecks’s 43rd; and Wass’s 18th. Again Hughes’ battalion was to hit from the south, as Wise attacked from the west.

Because of the misinformation about the Marines’ location, the artillery barrage struck 1,000 yards too far in advance. Leaving the German defenders, nearest the Marines unharmed. The Germans met the attack with every thing they had, including mustard gas. The remaining Marines charged forward yelling. It was brutal no-quarter-given combat with rifle, pistol, bayonet. Private Aloysius Leitner, though mortally wounded, continued fighting and helped capture six Germans operating a machine-gun. He won the Army Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross posthumously.

Now the Marines pushed the Germans northward among the rocks and ravines of Belleau Wood. On the right, they pushed the Germans out of the wood; but other elements were still fighting inside. The entire Marine line was bombarded by high-explosive and mustard-gas shells. In the wood, young Captain Edward C. Fuller, the commander of the 75th Company and son of the future Commandant, was mortally wounded. At 3 A.M. on June 13th, the Germans struck at the wood’s eastern side and at Bouresches, where Shearer’s sharpshooting battalion stopped them cold.

Early that morning, Turrill’s 1st Battalion, 5th Marines was sent in but found that Wise was not where he saw suppose to be; the western part of the wood was unexpectedly full of Germans.

Holcomb was ordered to relieve Wise’s chewed-up battalion. But before he could move in, the Germans opened up a vicious mustard gas attack. Holcomb’s battalion suffered 160 gas casualties: Hughes’ and Wise’s battalions were also gassed. The 74th, 96th and 78th companies had to be evacuated because of the gas that choked men to death. Gunnery Sargent Fred W. Stockham of Detroit and the 96th company gave his gas mask to a wounded Marine whose mask had been shot away. Stockham was overcome by the poison gas and died several days later. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Finally, on the morning of the 15th, the 17th Company of Captain Roswell Winans, the young Hossier who had won the Medal of Honor as an enlisted man in the Dominican Republic, gained a foothold on the western side of the wood. Later that day and into the night, the Marine Brigade was relieved by the 7th Infantry, and the French. The front remained under Colonel Nevill’s command, with LT. Colonel Feland in charge of Belleau Wood.

The bearded exhausted Marines went to the rear; the Germans in their official reports called them vigorous, self-confident and remarkable marksmen. Two thousand eight hundred replacements filled the holes in their ranks.

In two weeks of battles the Marine Brigade had taken more than 50 percent casualties. Holcomb lost 21 officers and 836 men, Sibley lost 14 officers and 400 men, Turrill, lost 16 officers and 544 men, Wise , lost 19 officers and 615 men.

The 7th Infantry, untried in battle, was unable to budge the Germans from the wood. Shearer’s 3rd Battalion 5th Marines was brought back to clean out the German resistance, which Harbord continued to underestimate, Shearer attacked at 7 P.M. on June 23rd, quickly took 130 causalities and bogged down before the German machine-guns. It was a badly mangled operation.

Now, the Marine Brigade took over the front again. Shearer’s battalion was in the middle of the wood; Ralph S. Keyser, relieving Wise(who had been severely criticized by Harbord nd had blown up angrily at the General) was on his left, and Sibley’s battalion extended the line into Bouresches on the right. Holcomb, Turrill, and Hughes were in reserve.

At 5 P.M. on June 25th, following a massive all-day barrage-all too long delayed- Shearer’s battalion began to move through the wood. The artillery had knocked out the enemy machine-gun nest. The Marines took heavy casualties, but the Germans were running out of reinforcements and began pulling back to the Belleau-Torcy road north of the wood. One Marine runner Private Henry P. Lenert, stumbled into a German position was asked by its Captain in English whether there were more troops behind Shearer. The quick thinking private assured him that the 6th Marines were ready to pass through and attack at dawn. The captain conferred with his officers and then told the young Marine to lead the 82 Germans back to brigade headquarters as his prisoners.

At 7 A.M. on June 26th, Captain Robert Yowell’s 16th Company of Shearers’ battalion reached the north edge of Belleau Wood; and the battalion commander sent Harbord the message: “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”

Shearer’s men had suffered 250 casualties, killed 150 Germans and taken some 300 prisoners and captured 30 machine guns. That night they were relieved by Holcomb’s battalion. The fighting and dying were not finished, but Belleau Wood was taken.

LOSSES: Marine Brigade: 126 Offices; 5,057 enlisted men (Killed or Wounded, Missing)

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

SOURCE: The U.S. Marine Corps Story
BY: J Robert Moskin
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan

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