Bloody Belleau Wood

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The Vaux attack on the night of July i went off with dash and style. Colonel Malone of the 23rd Infantry directed it, and the doughboys displayed much daring on the wooded flanks where the French, in their now cautious style, failed to move up in time. When a French machine-gun outfit arrived tardily on the right of Vaux and tried to expropriate some Germans captured by the doughboys—to make a token showing—a Yank lieutenant overrode his sergeant’s blasphemous objections. “Oh, let ’em keep ’em. We’ll catch some more.” Vaux itself was the target for Major Elliott’s battalion, the same Elliott and the same battalion that had just finished a month of continuous fighting while being pestered with staff orders which he had called “absurd and ludicrous.”

The battalion was angry in three directions all at once, chiefly angry with the Paris Herald , which, by a censor’s lamentable slip, had reported that the Marine Brigade was fighting in Belleau Wood five miles west of Château-Thierry, the first and last mention of an infantry cadre by designation. It opened the floodgates of a managing editor’s fancy in every American city; and to them nothing but Marines were fighting in the Château-Thierry area, though the Marines, never ones to hide their fierce light beneath a censor’s bushel, claimed nothing of the sort. (The feeling that a censor’s lapse engendered still endures, though Pershing lopped no head because of the slip; he knew the fanfare would cause every sergeant in France, Regular, National Guard, or Selective Service, to die rather than suffer by comparison.) Secondly, the battalion was angry with officious staff officers whom Major Elliott had called foolish; and to some extent the doughboys were even angry at the Germans opposing them.

Many were its shooting gallantries that night in the crumbling streets of Vaux and in the woods to its left. No one ever knew how many doughboys were in the assault teams that night: men played hookey and went along, engineers, signallers, artillerymen, and mule skinners included, in a “show of their own.” The maddening headline of the Paris edition of the New York Herald , which ran a week of U.S. Marine exploits before Pershing stopped the leak, had stung the doughboys to a fury that the unfortunate enemy in Vaux had to sustain. “We have fought the Canadians and Australians,” a captured officer said, “but you fellows are rougher.” Everyone beamed, and the officer was showered with cigarettes.

Marine casualties lying in tents around Coulommiers saw the glare and listened to the faraway fury. The first ambulance clattered up around dawn. Bedridden men knew the scene outside: rows of stretchers bearing faintly moaning men leading to the operating trucks of Mobile Hospital No. 1, where Army medics instantly clapped wood battens upon a wounded man to restrain his first revulsion to sulphuric ether, big hands slapping vaseline on the patient’s face to avoid burns, and then the ether cone. Two breaths later the production-line speed came to a halt. The surgeons in their blood-soaked gowns took their time.

The first messenger bearing tidings from Vaux to the Marines in one tent was a giant doughboy captain, legs now in splints, overseas cap with the infantry’s blue cord for piping still on his head. He sat erect on his stretcher, drunk on ether fumes, shouting happily as orderlies lurched down aisles of grass toward the row of beds prepared at high speed by Army nurses from Council Bluffs, Iowa. “Oh, the goddam sonsabitchesl” the captain shouted joyously. “The headline-hunting bastardsl We showed the sonsabitches how to do itl” No one in that tent thought the captain’s remarks applied to the sonsabitches in Colonel General von Boehn’s German Seventh Army. … By noon, awaking thick-mouthed to gag down his tin plateful of an eye-stinging salmon salad—one part salmon, one part chopped onion and no fuel to boil any potatoes for it—the doughboy captain was courtesy itself to the leatherneck runner of Italian origin minus a leg in the neighboring bed. Had not Lieutenant von Buy said that all considered themselves unhesitatingly as genuine sons of America?

Thirty-two years later it was still true. The 23rd U.S. Infantry was crouched forlorn with MacArthur’s handful behind the fatal parallel in Korea, shaken by appalling casualties, when it was relieved by a regiment fresh from the Inchon landing. The old pros of the 5th Marines were giving some buddies from the days of Belleau Wood their turn to rest in the loud Korean woods.