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A TEXAS MARINE WHO DREW BEAUTIFULLY AND WROTE AS WELL AS HE DREW BECAME THE LAUREATE OF THE MEN WHO CHECKED THE LAST GREAT GERMAN OFFENSIVE. ALL BUT FORGOTTEN TODAY, HIS 1926 BESTSELLER REMAINS PERHAPS THE FINEST ACCOUNT OF AMERICANS IN THE GREAT WAR.
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
The Germans had already launched their last, gigantic effort to break through the Western Front, the Kaiser schlact , and the 2d Division was hurried to Château Thierry to plug a hole in the crumbling French line.
On June 1 the unblooded Americans found themselves facing Belleau Wood, strongly held by crack German troops, entrenched beyond a field of ripening wheat. To the Germans’ astonishment the Marines attacked through the wheat field; seasoned troops would never have tried that, in the face of barbed wire and concealed machine-gun nests and without a supporting artillery barrage. The Germans were even more astonished when the Marines got through the wheat and plunged into the tangled woods. The machine-gun nests had to be taken out one by one, and the Marines fought for five days, most of it hand-to-hand combat.
“The American fighting man has his failings. He is prone to many regrettable errors. But the sagacious enemy will never let him get close enough to see whom he is attacking. When he has seen the enemy, the American regular will come on in. To stop him you must kill him. And when he is properly trained and has somebody to say ‘Come on!’ to him, he will stand as much killing as anybody on earth.” Thomason was learning his trade.
Stallings, already wounded but still in the fight, took a machine-gun burst in his right knee, destroying the joint, while attacking German rifle pits on the edge of the wood, and was carried out. He would spend months in a hospital in France (which resulted in the exquisite novella Vale of Tears ) before returning to the States. Doctors grafted his femur directly to his shinbone, but the joint was weak and kept cracking, and pockets of infection remained. (Stallings didn’t help by trying to play polo.) In 1920 he had the leg taken off and replaced by an Idaho willow leg with a knee joint, with which, on a special saddle with a hook to anchor his stump, he could play polo. In 1924 he published Plumes , the first novel to deal with the problems of the returning disabled veteran.
On June 6 the Marines took Hill 204, the key to the position, and by the end of the month the Germans had been thrown back. The French renamed what was left of the wood Bois de la Brigade de Marine and awarded the entire brigade the Croix de Guerre, with palm; the unit is entitled to wear the fourragère to this day.
Even in the thick of battle, Thomason, who had stuffed sketch pads in his pack, kept drawing.
Thomason had found himself in combat; the years of aimless drifting were over. He was to be a professional soldier—a Marine . Those who had performed well in bitter fighting usually glossed over it in letters home; those on the fringes of combat usually exaggerated the danger and their deeds. Thomason did neither; his detailed letters to Leda and his parents were objective accounts of what he had seen and done. He sorrowed over the wanton waste but took enormous pride in what he and his men had accomplished.
“A man is born, gets married, and dies,” he wrote to his mother. “These are the three greatest events in life. If he can add going to war to those three, he can add the great adventure, for that’s what war is.
“War is certainly the great adventure. It is horrible beyond all words and so hideously and hatefully wasteful and wanton—and yet—you never know what getting down to realities means until you go to war. All a man’s pretenses and vanities and such things, as we all wear to mask the inside of us, are quite stripped away. … Life becomes unbelievably simple and direct. You stand it or you break under it. … There isn’t any middle ground.”
Even in the thick of battle, Thomason, who had managed to stuff a few sketch pads into his pack, continued to draw. There wasn’t time for finished drawings. The rough sketches showed men dead, men alive, men fighting; rifles and machine guns and village streets were jammed on the pages. (And he appropriated with delight a complete set of paints he found in a German officer’s dugout.) Sgt. Alexander Woollcott, a roving reporter for the Stars and Stripes , passed on stories of a Marine officer who sketched the war while under shellfire.
There were a few days of rest; Thomason was promoted to captain. Then his outfit was thrown into the fight at Soissons, alongside a French Moroccan division. Backed by his gunnery sergeant, Thomason took out a German nest, killing thirteen and capturing two Maxim guns. The Army awarded him a Silver Star; thanks to the tangled chain of command, the same citation slowly worked its way into Navy channels and, twenty years later, resulted in a Navy Cross.