Bloody Belleau Wood


First, he agreed that A Company, led by Lieutenant Helm, would lead the first wave at 3:15 in the morning, but it was absolutely necessary that he be given one thousand hand grenades and five hundred V.B. rifle grenades at once. Inasmuch as his men had had little to eat for twenty-four hours, he wanted some food sent Helm’s company by 11 P.M. Accompanying these sensible demands was the following message: ”… I do not believe any attack without a heavy artillery fire preceding can move the guns from the woods. They are all emplaced and strongly held. The woods is almost a thicket and the throwing of troops into the woods is filtering away men with nothing gained.” Adams then recommended withdrawal of two companies from the line, leaving Helm holding with only one company, and a murderous shelling of the machine-gun nests, and then an advance. “I can assure you that the orders to attack will stand as given, but it cannot succeed. This is only my original expression and has not reached the ears of anyone else.” He then told Harbord that after such an attack as he was ordered to make, his line could be crushed at any time, leaving the woods, bought with Marine blood, open to the enemy. The battalion had only two trench mortars. (The Marine Brigade’s six infantry battalions had none on June 6.) In a postscript, Adams added: “The two Stokes guns won’t even worry the German machine guns.” Adams kept his word next morning, June 2i, at 3:15, and everything he had written Harbord came to pass. The battalion was broken, and the woods were left open, though the Germans in their own confusion did not learn of it before nightfall; and by that time the lice-infested Marines, who hoped never again to enter Belleau Wood, were moving into its legendary hell once more.

No one knew where the lost positions were in the dark shambles ahead. Some of the leatherneck outfits took a chance and moved by the flank through wheatfields, long files of men freezing motionless lest moving shadows betray them when enemy parachute flares, daylight-white, burned long in the sky. The yth Infantry guide, after his four nights of horror, could not regulate his pace when ranging shells roared into flame a hundred yards away. When he quickened his step almost to a dogtrot, the files were broken and the company halted perilously to repair the break. After three such breaks the leading officer said harshly, “Do I have to shoot you in the ass to slow you down?” The doughboy was anguished. “Officer,” he cried, “don’t shoot me, officer! I got no business here. I only been in the United States Army five weeks.” He kept his pace thereafter and found his old position. The next morning in a foxhole his new friends were teaching him how to work the bolt on his Springfield rifle. He begged to stay until he had killed “just one Joirman” but was sent back with a runner that night, and a note of thanks to whomever it concerned in the yth U.S. Infantry. “The sergeants among the replacements,” the Chaumont inspectors noted, “know less than privates here in the line. …” Everyone liked the guide. “If that little guy learns to keep his head down, he’ll do all right.”

Where the gth Infantry’s 3rd Battalion lay in reserve, Private Leo Bailey and his buddies felt that inaction while their friends were fighting and dying was more bitter to endure than the trials of the combatants themselves. (Why were they not sent in to relieve such battalions as Elliott’s of the agrd Infantry? That was something the inept Major General Bundy would have to pay for.∗) The Germans had brought heavy guns into play, and they ranged and searched wooded patches for Bailey and his friends, maintaining a harassing fire of high explosive and toxic shells. Bailey heard one of their heavy shells coming the evening of June 15.

∗He was relieved of the command of the Second Division soon after Belleau Wood and replaced by Harbord.— Ed.

There was something unusual about the sound of this particular shell. It seemed to be coming closer than the general run of shells. I was certain that no shell could fall in this sheltered spot but I thought it best not to trust my judgment too far. Then I considered whether I would try to get to my dugout or lie down where I was and take my chances. … I decided I would try for my dugout. … I was diving through the air and just as I was about to disappear … the shell exploded. … I felt a stinging sensation in my right elbow. … At noon the nurse came around and told me I was to have the dressing on my wound changed. … I looked and saw that the little hole that had been there the night before had been enlarged to a cut that extended from a couple of inches below the elbow nearly to my shoulder and was into the bone.

Three days later, strolling in pink pajamas and robe outside the hospital gates, he saw some green 4th Division lads trying to figure head or tail out of French Chauchats they had just been issued with instructions in French. Private Bailey’s fighting days were over before he ever saw the enemy, but he had also served, and he continued to do so as he sat on the ground and with one arm conducted classes in how to affix a halfmoon clip of flimsy construction to that beastly looking weapon.