Bloody Belleau Wood

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Buck Sergeant Allison Page held a grade unattainable to a nineteen-year-old in the peacetime Corps. He was a tall boy, popular with his two-squad section of the 47th Company, with a darkly handsome face that seemed incapable of showing any meanness. He was from North Carolina, a college boy enlisted at Wilson’s call. His uncle had spent six years as Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, three of them dedicated to provoking American intervention in the First World War. Some historians looked upon the actions of Walter Hines Page in London as treasonable, in his disloyalty to Wilson’s demand that Americans remain neutral in spirit as well as in deed; but this was no concern of Sergeant Page. He was exactly in the center of the 47th Company at five o’clock on the afternoon of June 25, and the company was in the center of the full battalion attack. The corps artillery was in such fine fettle that it did not seem possible that any living thing could have survived its night-and-day bombardment, but the moment Sergeant Page stepped out, the machine gunners were beaded on him. He was killed instantly; and many times thereafter the officer with the Idaho willow foot who led that first wave was besought by Red Cross workers to describe just where Sergeant Page fell, so that salvage sections might recover the boy’s rifle for the Ambassador. It was not possible to denote the place for Mr. Page’s emissary. In the shattering confusion of the attack it was impossible to recall where everyone fell.

The officer himself was twenty-three, and he did not know whether he was a second lieutenant, a first lieutenant, or a captain in the expanding Regular line. But he was gas-sick, he had a piece of steel in his left leg, and he did not care. Having lost a spiral legging while crawling, he had cut his left breeches leg short, and his beautiful forest-green uniform was held together with strings. He still wore his Sam Browne, spitshined to conceal his cowardice in having to wear it, and his Colt .45, cocked, was stuffed into his shirt front. His company commander had been badly wounded, and Colonel Neville had given the company to an oldtimer, Captain Gaines Moseley.

The attack took the shape of a fan: the 47th Company in the center, with the longest distance to go to reach the north end of the wood; the aoth plus two platoons of the 45th on the right; and the igth on the left. As the barrage lifted, the scarecrow leader and his men moved forward, Moseley following a hundred yards behind, watching him like a hawk. At the first hundred yards someone from forty yards away threw a potato-masher grenade at the scarecrow’s feet. He dropped, but not before its explosion had driven fragments of his tin hat into his right cheek. He was up immediately, with ears ringing, for Harbord had said at Shearer’s old command post on the 24th, “When you reach the curve [drawn correctly to denote the north end of the wood by Lieutenant Colonel Logan Feland after a very perilous reconnaissance that morning], pick up a rifle and lead with steel.”

Feland had asserted, correctly, that there were no deep trenches at the end of the wood, only six-foot rifle pits about twelve feet in length and about three feet apart, scattered among boulders that dotted the area. On reaching the rifle pits the gas-sick boy jumped in and began fighting his way from pit to pit, diving headfirst over the undug links. The barrage had done almost nothing to the expert riflemen defending their posts, or to the light Maxim gunners deployed before them. Only twice, in diving from pit to pit, did this officer fall on the shell-shattered body of an enemy soldier; the German survivors, knowing it would be death to raise their hands, resisted stubbornly.

The 47th Company reached its center objective, the curve at the north end of Belleau Wood, with about seventy survivors, and was preparing to hold it against a counterattack when the scarecrow received his first and only suggestion from Captain Moseley. Lieutenant Jacob Heckman, leading the left platoon, had sent word by runner that he had reached some high boulders short of his objective with only twenty men left, and could not survive a counterattack, and would thus uncover the right flank of the igth Company that was being bitterly opposed on the left spoke of the fan. “You must try to uncover Heckman,” said Moseley. “Take as few as you can, begin your demonstration, and I’ll get word to Heckman, when he hears you, to go in with what he has left.”

The young officer took nine men, leaving the rest to hold the curve, and moved west by south, now out of the woods. He did not last two hundred yards. Awaiting him were about 150 troops of the counterassault teams, untouched by the bombardment. Half an hour later, well tourniquetted, he sat up and gave Major Ralph Keyser of the leapfrog battalion their exact position, and soon heard the shouts, shots, and screams of the mopping-up.