- Historic Sites
“…suddenly We Didn’t Want, To Die”
A Marine Remembers the Bat for Belleau Wood
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
The afternoon stretched into long shadows. Westward, behind us, the sun became a glowing ball of fire. It would be hours before full dark, but still, the day was running out. We began to fret some because we were really in No Man’s Land, far—too damned far—from our battalion line. Not a good place to be with Heinie feeling as he did.
Baldy, the most assured of us (none were at all brave) finally ventured to question, “Hey, Sarge?” He got no answer—not even the grunt we expected. The Sergeant was full-length out of the ditch, snuggled down in a patch of shrubs and weeds; his chin rested on his folded arms, and he was peering under the brim of his helmet. His field glasses lay in front of him.
“Hey, Sarge?” Baldy shook one foot to get his attention. There was no response. We knew better. We should not have left him there, but the evening star was glowing against the east and we were suddenly a bunch of lost, scared kids—a long way from home.
The evenings were long and darkness late in coming, and those among the HQ men who didn’t have a chore to do would sit around the battered pits and talk things over. The fighting had swept over here some days before and left the waste of battle all about. To us, the firing line was something far away—a quarter mile or so. We knew a temporary, brooding sort of ease.
One night as darkness fell, replacements joined us. New men are always fair game, no matter what their rank, and no morbid tale you might give them could be too far wrong in such a place as ours. We pitied them and tried to help them too. Behind the banter of our cold descriptions, we knew their need and their nervousness, but knew too that we couldn’t really offer any comfort.
Someone laughed—too loud—to cover quakings and a flat voice said, “Son, you won’t laugh that way long—you’ll make a pretty corpse.” It wasn’t nice, but neither was our war. Someone said, “By God, I wish I could smoke.” And the same voice, flat, said, “You will, kid, in hell, in a day or two.” And then the general conversation died down.
As is usual in such a gathering, the majority fell away to listening and only two or three keep up the talk. It was a black night, under the shadow of the trees, and men became just voices in the dark.
The voice of the newly arrived Sergeant began to ring a little bell of memory. Somewhere in another time and place, I’d heard him talk before. Kidding was over, since he was asking questions for the boots and he got respectful answers, not because of chevrons; they didn’t rate so much to men up there, but because the soldier in him spoke to us. We told him what we could from our great store of knowing gained in just a week or two of life along the Front.
Where had I heard that voice before, so set apart and individual and full of man-made stuff?
It had been in the past December at Paris Island—where we boots were trained—and once a squad of us went to the mainland for supplies. The voice fitted a red-headed stocky sort of guy, who ran the boat among the brackish channels of Royal Sound.
The supplies? Two bundles of brooms and only that and eight young men to handle forty pounds or less, and how we were surprised, and asked him why.
That same good laugh, it was a sort of happy chuckle, and he had said he thought we needed a vacation—and, “What the hell, I wanted company anyway. Where you boys from?” We had shipped out from many different places, and gathered there, and spoke the names of hometowns, full of pride.
The memory made a bond of sorts in the black of the woods, lighted at times by the faint glow of star shells. I took a chance and questioned him.
“Red, how was old Beloit the last you heard from home?”
It was like a fellow touching a live wire somewhere in the dark. I was almost sorry to have startled him like that. My memory had been right. This was Red Van Gaulder. Of all the men I knew who spoke of homes and distant towns, his pride was of his center of the universe, Beloit. When he spoke of his Wisconsin home, he made us feel it so.
We took Belleau Wood over a period of weeks, a bit at a time. Our method of attack was a departure from orthodox warfare as practiced by Europeans. We didn’t confine our time of attack to dawn, but were liable to go forward without warning at any hour of day or night. These attacks were an aggravation to the enemy in that they were always unexpected and not planned to be extensive; instead being gauged only on the ability of the men concerned to take for themselves a bit more, ever a bit more of enemy held territory. The quiet of a summer afternoon might be and often was, shattered by the head-long rush of a company, a platoon, or a squad or two. The enemy found this most disconcerting.
On a quiet afternoon in late June, the Seventeenth Co. of the Fifth Regiment launched one of these attacks and took by surprise an enemy force who had held a corner of woodland for days in apparent security. Most of the affair was out of our sight in the trees at the right and slightly to our front. We could trace its progress by the intensity of fire at the initial rush and suddenly silenced yammerings of Maxims in the isolated strong-points.