- Historic Sites
“…suddenly We Didn’t Want, To Die”
A Marine Remembers the Bat for Belleau Wood
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
A cold bleak anger rose. It would go back! “Kill or be killed!” And here was the tool of his trade, a fitting of wood and metal. It came up, to snug in comfort like the arm of a pal. Its smooth stock caressed from shoulder to cheek-bone. Habit? Training! Target—the half drawn breath—a finger pressure—recoil.
Target? No. A man, a breast-high silhouette in dirty gray, under a dome of hat. He staggered and seemed to sag, suddenly, wearily, so close that one could see the shock of dumb surprise. A hand flung out, instinctive, to ease the fall; then, the figure settled, limp, at rest, pillowed in broken grain.
What had been a wave of fighting Germans became a broken outline—groups—individuals. Some still fell, some fled, while others dropped their arms to plead in fearsome stricken voices.
Most firing fell away, though here and there the most hardened killers shot men as they ran.
Victors rose. There were readjustments, shouts, commands. Stretchers passed, carried by willing prisoners. “Dig in! You—and you. Get ammunition, quickly now!”
“They’ll be back again.”
“Sure! They want this hill. Lucky we broke up that flank attack early.”
An elated comrade, drunk with excitement, dropped down beside Slim. A cigarette changed hands.
“Light? Well, we sure stopped ‘em ‘at time, Son, didn’t we?”
“Gee, I was scared at first. Did you see———?”
Slow puffs, a nod, an empty word or two. The elated one passed on.
The warm sun of a June morning poured on the now quiet wood. Its heat soothed and rested. Slim turned a bit to let his glance sweep the field. His look paused to note a sodden bundle of gray, among others. His wandering eye was caught by the gleam of a single empty cartridge among the drying clods of his little breastwork. Its brazen shine peered back, unblinking, accusing, reflecting a bit of life-giving sun.
Slim turned face down, his head pillowed in the crook of his arm. He feigned sleep—. One can always dream.
By the time the question of who was to hold Hill 142 had been hashed over a few times and seemingly settled in our favor, the Germans slacked off for a number of days while their spearhead swung to the eastward toward Chateau Thierry.
Details, working at night, gathered the Battalion dead into parkings just at the forest edge, opposite Lucy-Le-Bocage. Some of the 67th’s survivors of June 6 and 7 had guided members of the “damned replacements” with the harvest, having vivid memories of the road the Company had taken to get the bayonets into Belleau.
There were seventy-six dead Leathernecks at a corner of the wood, across that first wide field outside of Lucy, and the replacements had plenty to do. Most of them had been dead for a week, the majority having died in the wheat. The stretcher bearers wore their French gas masks while at work.
During the night the Second Division Engineers, temporarily relieved from firing line duty, had dug a long shallow trench for the burials.
Someone had to work in the trench to receive the dead, and Lieutenant Long asked for a volunteer. “Tugboat” Wilson, an old-time Marine with a Corporal’s chevrons, took the job but found the work heavy. He was patient with our squeamishness (we had been at the front only a week), and he asked repeatedly that some boot give him a hand with the laying out. We kept hurrying away for new burdens.
It so happened that on one of his trips, Slim had passed his finals in wretchedness. In picking up a man who had been hit dead center above the eyes, he had noted that the fellow’s chinstrap was still tightly in place. In swinging the corpse to the stretcher by his shoulders, the tin hat had flopped. The dead man’s brains slopped messily across Slim’s shoes. The gas mask was a handicap then, and by the time he reached the trench, burial work held no more terrors for him. Surprisingly, it was easier and more pleasant work, entirely in the shade.
An old-timer came by on business of his own and stopped to watch. Occasionally, as a man rolled down, Slim noted the watcher’s hand flick outward from his thigh in a half-conscious gesture of farewell.
After a time, as the work progressed, a body was brought down, full-dressed in Forest Greens, with a top-cutter’s chevrons above the hashmarks of seven enlistments. A whistle dangled loosely from a thong about the Sergeant’s neck, and the flap of his holster flopped about untidily.
Then it was that the old-timer, who watched, made full salute. Turning to a boot he said, “Get a blanket, soldier. Wrap him up. That’s Pop Hunter.”
Someone shouted: “Here they come—lots of them!”
Officers hurried to points of best advantage—standing openly among the clearings—to focus glasses, measure them.
Riflemen clambered up from little firing pits among the trees.