“…suddenly We Didn’t Want, To Die”

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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.

“HEY, POP”

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 WERE YOUNG

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.