Friday, September 24, 2010

From the Pages - The U.S. Marines at Hill 142

In a U.S. Marine Corps legacy filled with honorable men and honorable moments, Belleau Wood stands out as perhaps its most memorable. In a battle that lasted most of June 1918, the Marines made six bloody sweeps into the meadows within Belleau Wood during the German Spring Offensive. Facing massed German machine guns, the carnage was terrible. The 4th Marine Brigade persevered, however, and the Spring Offensive—which had threatened to overwhelm French and British forces before the Americans even joined the battle—would never regain its momentum.

In the following excerpt from The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood, author Dick Camp details the Marines advance on Hill 142--one of the deadliest and most unforgiving machine gun fortifications U.S. troops would face in the entire war.
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Marine Brigade Field Order No. 1 issued 10:25 p.m., June 5: 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, supported by 8th and 23rd Machine Gun companies, will attack at 3:45 a.m. to seize Hill 142. Hill 142, a tree-covered ridge running two kilometers generally north to south, was flanked by dry streambeds, heavy with thick undergrowth. The ridge itself was a jumble of dense underbrush, boulder strewn, undulating terrain that provided a perfect defense. The northern portion of the ridge and the eastern edge were steep and covered with bush. A three-hundred-meter waist-high wheat field sloped gently upward from the Marine position to the crest of the pine-covered hill.

By three o’clock on the morning of June 6, the brigade was organized: the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 5th Regiment and the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 6th Regiment formed the front line. The 2nd Battalion of the 5th Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the 6th Regiment made up the reserves. The companies of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion were distributed among the battalions on the front.

The German defense of Hill 142 placed three fresh companies of the 237th Infantry Division squarely in the path of the Marine attack. Additional reserves were located within easy striking distance to be used as a counterattack force. Each company had an effective strength of between ninety and one hundred men and had six light and two heavy machine guns within its table of organization. The men holding Hill 142 were not considered attack troops. Rather, they were specially trained “sector-holding” troops, whose sole job was to defend and hold critical terrain.

Captain John Thomason’s poetic description of the enemy is well worth quoting. “A company of German infantry and a machine gun platoon lay in the three-cornered clump of trees on the forward slopes of Hill 142. . . . By the white piping on their uniforms, they were Prussians, and by the ugly, confident look of them, with a touch of Berlin swank, they were Prussians of a very good division; and there were no better soldiers in the world.” 

Just before dawn the word was passed from foxhole to foxhole, “Standby to move out.” The chilled, sleepy men got to their feet, shouldered their weapons, and cautiously moved to the edge of the woods, 49th Company (Capt. George W. Hamilton) on the right, 67th Company (1st Lt. Orlando C. Crowther) on the left. “We were all lined up behind our lines,” one private wrote. “In front of us lay a large open field and in front of that a thickly wooded hill. That was where we were going. We all had kind of a funny feeling, but we laid back there smoking and telling jokes while we waited for the order to form. Well, at daybreak we commenced to form.”

Private Mackin was “rudely interrupted by authority in the person of Gunnery Sergeant Eilers, who said flatly, ‘Fix your bayonets!’ The order was a complete surprise, startling and appalling in its potentiality.”

The battalion commander, Maj. Julius S. “Old Jule” Turrill, a tough old Corps regular, ordered them to advance even though two of his companies failed to show up. (Photo 5-3) (The 66th and 17th companies were still in line at Les Mares Farm waiting for the French to relieve them.) Pvt. Macklin described how “First Sergeant ‘Pop’ Hunter, the 67th Company’s top-cutter, strode out into the field and, a soldier to the last, threw a competent glance right and left, noting the dress of his company line. Pop was an old man, not only of portly figure and graying hair but in actual years—far more than thirty years of service lay behind him. His cane swung overhead and forward, pointing toward the first objective, a thousand yards of wheat away: the tensely quiet edge of German-held Belleau Wood. . . . A single burst of shrapnel came to meet the moving line of men. There was a scream of pain, a plaintive cry of hurt. In some alarm, a soldier yelled, ‘Hey Pop, there’s a man hit over here.’ Pop’s reply was terse and pungent: ‘C’mon, goddamnit! He ain’t the last man who’s gonna be hit today.’ ”

The two companies advanced at foot-pace through an open field of waist-high wheat and meadows, little copses and shallow ravines—“guiding center with great care”—toward the tree-covered ridge. Floyd Gibbons wrote, “There are really no heroics about it. There is no bugle call, no sword waving, no theatricalism—it’s just plain get up and go over. And it is done just the same as one would walk across a peaceful wheat field out in Iowa.” Four waves of Marines, “walking ankle deep in ground mist, rifles loaded, bayonets fixed, their eyes on the exploding terrain through which they soon must pass.”

Lieutenant John W. Thomason Jr. watched the line of Marines come out of the tree line. “The light was strong when they advanced into the open wheat, now all starred with dewy poppies, red as blood.”

As the assault waves left the cover of the woods, they were spotted by German balloon observers, who could then relay the location to German artillery. General Harbord complained to the division commander. “There is hardly a turn in the line or a portion of the road from which one or more German balloons in not plainly visible. I can see four German balloons from my headquarters. Any activity or appearance of people along that line in sight of these balloons is followed within a very few minutes by shell fire.”

John Thomason wrote his father, “By far the most Christianizing influence that I have run across . . . is the German 77mm shell shrapnel or HE (high explosive), which is the stuff that strafes you in your position—when your line is posted and all you can do is to lie low and make yourself as small as possible. You can hear the cursed things coming, a tearing whine that rises to a shrieking crescendo—then the burst. O, Lord, that was close! O, Lord, don’t let it hit me!”

Merwin Silverthorn remembered holding a bayoneted rifle as he moved “at a slow steady cadence that we had been taught . . . in trench warfare formation with rifles at ‘high port,’ not even firing. On our left, approximately two hundred yards, was a little rocky place—an eminence—teaming with machine guns and nobody, literally nobody, was firing a shot at those Germans. They had us enfiladed. It was like a shooting gallery and not a single Marine of ours was firing a shot.”

Thomason described how “the platoons, assailed now by a fury of small-arms fire, narrowed their eyes and inclined their bodies forward, like men in a heavy rain, and went on.” Casualties were heavy; Pop Hunter was “one of the first. Hit twice and up twice, hit the third time, he went down for good.”

Captain Hamilton “had not moved fifty yards when they cut loose at us from the woods ahead—more machine guns than I had ever heard before. Our men had been trained on a special method of [avoiding] machine guns, and, according to their training, all immediately lay down flat—some fell.” First Lieutenant S. C. Cumming hated the Germans because “The Hun machine gunners fire low, as after you are hit in the leg you fall and then they fill your body with bullets, so there is little chance.” Cumming was hit and “spun around and hit flat. I crawled to a shell-hole. . . . I don’t know how I got there, as the ground was being plowed by machine guns. I heard later that my company had one officer and twenty-nine men left. We had gone in with eight officers and two hundred and fifty men.”

Hamilton had “vague recollections of urging [my] men on—of grouping prisoners and sending them to the rear under one man instead of several—of snatching an iron cross ribbon off the first officer I got—and of shooting wildly at several retreating Boches. Farther on, we came to an open field—a wheat field full of red poppies—and here we caught hell. We rushed across the open and found out why it was so hot for us. Three machine-gun companies were holding down these woods and the infantry were farther back.” Lieutenant Crowther of the 49th took a machine-gun bullet in the arm but kept going with his men, refusing to give up command.

Merwin Silverthorn and his platoon commander made it to a ravine and took cover. The officer looked around and said, “Where the hell is my platoon?” Silverthorn shouted, “There’s only six of us left. All the rest have been killed, wounded, or pinned down.” The lieutenant told Silverthorn that he was going back and told him to stick with him. “Here’s where you and I part company,” Silverthorn thought, “because we just got across that place and that’s the last thing I’m going to do is go back. Nobody ever got in trouble for going toward the enemy.”

The two split up; Silverthorn joined up with the remnants of another platoon commanded by a gunnery sergeant. “The sergeant got wounded, shot through the shoulder blade, and I bound his wound. So now I was in command of a few people. We started advancing by rushes, as fast and as far as we could, until we dropped from exhaustion. About the second rush, when I dropped to the ground, it felt like I’d hit my knee on a rock. It felt as if somebody had hit me with a baseball bat right across the kneecap—a terrific blow, but fortunately no pain. A machine-gun bullet had creased my knee. It was stiff and I couldn’t run.” By this time there were only two of them. Silverthorn told the other Marine to go ahead; he was needed in the woods. Silverthorn decided to “stay right where I am until it’s dark and I can get out under cover of darkness.”

Lieutenant Victor Bleasdale watched as a “couple of Marines came along with a German officer prisoner. He was the most overbearing son-of-a-bitch I had ever seen. He wore a smart-looking uniform, spic and span—I don’t know how the hell he kept it so clean. He looked over at me like I was a worm and yelled haughtily in English, ‘Chin up.’ I felt like shooting the son-of-a-bitch!” (Photo 5-7)

“We got a lot of prisoners and they were mighty glad to be captured, at least they said they were,” Cpl. H. A. Leonard indignantly recalled. “I was talking to one who said that he was going to come to the United States after the war. I told him to get that idea entirely out of his head, as we were going to lynch them as fast as they come. Just two hours before he had been mowing our men down, and now he figured on going to America. Can you beat that?”

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