Today, we sometimes hear talking heads and news anchors speak incorrectly of e.g., the 3d Infantry Division (Rock of the Marne) as “the 3d Infantry.” (Activated in November 1917 during World War I at Camp Greene, North Carolina, the 3d Infantry Division went into combat for the first time eight months later in France. At midnight on July 14, 1918, the Division earned lasting distinction while engaged with the enemy in the Aisne-Marne Offensive. The Division was protecting Paris at a position on the banks of the Marne River. When flanking French units retreated, the Division Commander, Major General Joseph Dickman, told our French allies "Nous Resterons La” (“We shall remain here"). The 3rd Infantry Division stood firm, repelling the enemy and earning the gallant title "Rock of the Marne".)
The 3d Infantry (The Old Guard), whose 1st Battalion guards the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, would be quite surprised to hear the 3d Infantry Division referred to as the “3d Infantry.”
TRADITIONS OF THINGS ENDURED AND THINGS ACCOMPLISHED
In his classic book Fix Bayonets! Col. John W. Thomason, Jr., USMC, wrote of the Marines he knew, loved, and led in France in WWI. He was a lieutenant and Executive Officer of 49th Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, an outfit that I also love; when the Marine Corps changed to alpha designations of companies between the wars, 49th Company became Company C, i.e., “Charlie” Company. In the summer of 1969, for a while, I was also XO, C/1/5.
Along with Fox Company, 9th Marines, Charlie Company, 5th Marines will always be “my company.” Charlie Company was my first combat unit, and Fox Company, my first rifle company command.
Those things are important—they stay with you and become part of who you are.
In 1978, my Commanding Officer invited me to join him at a function at which General Louis H. Wilson, Jr., then Commandant of the Marine Corps, was to be the guest of honor. As a Captain in 1943, Louis Wilson commanded Fox 2/9 in the invasion of Guam.
He led the attack on Fonte Hill (now Nimitz hill), up through 300 yards of machine gun and mortar fire, dislodging the Japanese troops there entrenched. In the course of the attack, he was shot through one lung. Through the night, he and his Marines hung on to repulse counter-attack after counter-attack. He ultimately lost the lung. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.
A tall, spare Mississippian, he had cold blue eyes and was a no-nonsense Marine.
As we went through the reception line, General Wilson spied Col. Hart and greeted him. Col. Hart introduced me thusly:
“General, may I present one of my officers, Major Mac McCarty. The two of you have something in common.”
Locking those eyes on me, he asked “And what maht that be, Majuh?”
“Fox Company, sir.” He visibly softened.
“So you commanded Fox Company? When?”
“Yes, sir. 1975. Mayaguez recovery.”
Very softly, “Was it a good company, Majuh?
“Sir, it was the best God-damned rifle company in the Marine Corps!”
He reached out and punched me on the shoulder. “Well, it by-God better be. Nice to meet you, Majuh.”
Between 1943 and his death in 2005, I do not believe Louis H. Wilson ever stopped being “Fox-6.” The rest of us just had temporary care of “his” company. Since 1975, I have felt the same way about all my successors.
But let us return to Charlie 1/5.
Robert Leckie, himself a distinguished WWII Marine, has said of John Thomason that he almost single-handedly created the stylistic convention between WWI and WWII, still extant in some circles even today, that the word “Marine” is always spelled with a capital “M”.
The 4th Marine Brigade of WWI, made up of the 5th and 6th Marines, first saw combat in the Battle of Belleau Wood, in which they drove a superior entrenched German force out of three square miles of tangled brush and trees and rock-strewn hills and gullies of an old hunting preserve.
As the Marines marched up from Paris to commence the attack on 1 June 1918, they met a French unit in full retreat. A senior French officer retreating with his units down the Paris-Metz highway advised that the Marines join him in flight.
Captain Lloyd Williams, USMC replied, “Retreat, hell! We just got here!”
Capt. Williams died on the field of honor in the ensuing battle.
(“Nous resterons la!” “Retreat, hell!” Both uttered by Americans to Frenchmen. There may just be something to the theory of national genetics.)
On 6 June, 1918, 26 years to the day before another little dust-up in France, 1/5 attacked across a wheat field ("the Wheat Field") west of Belleau Wood to seize, occupy, and defend the strategically important Hill 142.
While crossing the wheat field, 1/5 came under heavy machine gun fire. Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, one of only two Marines to receive two Medals of Honor, (he was nominated for a third for Belleau Wood, but received “only” the Navy Cross) was heard to shout to his Marines, “Come on you sons-of-bitches! Do you want to live forever?”
History reflects that not a Marine flinched as they followed the Gunny.
After a brutal month-long fight, the Germans were driven out. On the morning of 26 June, Major Maurice Shearer, USMC, signaled 2d Division headquarters, "Woods now entirely US Marine Corps."
The 4th Brigade was cited in dispatches by the French high command, and Belleau Wood was officially renamed by the French, “Bois de la Brigade Marine” (“Marine Brigade Wood”). The Brigade received two similar honors for Soisson and Mont Blanc Ridge. Thus, the Marines assigned today to the 5th and 6th Marines still wear a fourragère (designating a unit award, a fourragère is a braided red and green rope looped over the left shoulder and under the left arm), the colors representing the Croix de Guerre. (Col. Joe Griffis once suggested that 1/5 wear the "pogey rope" on our uniforms in the field in Vietnam. We finally talked him out of the idea—and it was tough to talk the Old Man out of anything once he had made up his mind—on the grounds that it made us an even more interesting target for souvenir hunting “tourists” from North Vietnam.)
German soldiers who fought at Belleau Wood later referred to the U.S. Marines, respectfully, as “Teufelhunden,” or Devil Dogs.
In 1941, when the First Marine Division was activated at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it had three infantry regiments: the 1st, 5th and 7th Marines. It soon acquired a nickname of its own-- The Old Breed. Read on, and you will learn from whence that came.
So now, from Fix Bayonets! in the lovely formal writing of Col. John W. Thomason, USMC, a few words from our sponsor. (All emphasis added.)
They tell the tale of an American lady of notable good works, much esteemed by the French, who, at the end of June, 1918, visited one of the field hospitals behind Degoutte’s Sixth French Army. Degoutte was fighting on the face of the Marne salient, and the 2d American Division, then in action around the Bois de Belleau, northeast of Chateau Thierry, was under his orders. It happened that occasional casualties of the Marine Brigade of the 2d American Division, wounded toward the flank where Degoutte’s own horizon-blue infantry joined on, were picked up by French stretcher-bearers and evacuated to French hospitals. And this lady, looking down a long, crowded ward, saw on a pillow a face unlike the fiercely whiskered Gallic heads there displayed in rows. She went to it.
“Oh,” she said, “surely you are an American!”
“No, ma’am,” the casualty answered. “I’m a Marine.”
The men who marched up the Paris-Metz road to meet the Boche in the spring of 1918, the 5th and 6th Regiments of United States Marines, were gathered from various places. In the big war companies, 250 strong, you could find every sort of man, from every sort of calling. There were North-westerners with straw-colored hair that looked white against their tanned skins, and delicately spoken chaps with the stamp of the Eastern universities on them. There were large-boned fellows from Pacific-coast lumber camps, and tall, lean Southerners who swore amazingly in gentle drawling voices. There were husky farmers from the corn-belt, and youngsters who had sprung, as it were, to arms from the necktie counter.
And there were also a number of diverse people who ran curiously to type, with drilled shoulders and a bone-deep sunburn, and a tolerant scorn of nearly everything on earth. Their speech was flavored with navy words, and words culled from all the folk who live on the seas and the ports where our war-ships go. In easy hours their talk ran from the Tartar Wall beyond Peking to the Southern Islands down under Manila; from Portsmouth Navy Yard-New Hampshire and very cold-to obscure bush-whackings in the West Indies, where Cacao chiefs whimsically sanguinary, barefoot generals, with names like Charlemagne and Christophe, waged war according to the precepts of the French Revolution and the Cult of the Snake.
They drank the eau de vie of Haute-Marne, and reminisced on sake, and vino, and Bacardi Rum-strange drinks in strange cantinas at the far ends of the earth; and they spoke fondly of Milwaukee beer. Rifles were high and holy things to them, and they knew five-inch broadside guns. They talked patronizingly of the war, and were concerned about rations. They were the Leathernecks, the Old Timers; collected from ship’s guards and shore stations all over the earth to form the 4th Brigade of Marines, the two rifle regiments detached from the Department of the Navy by order of the President for service with the American Expeditionary Forces. They were the old breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war as an occupation; and they transmitted their temper and character and view-point to the high-hearted volunteer mass which filled the ranks of the Marine Brigade.
It is a pleasure to record that they found good company in the U. S. Army. The 2d Division (U.S. Regular was the official designation) was composed of the 9th and 23d Infantry, two old regiments with names from all of our wars on their battle-flags, the 2d Regiment of Engineers-and engineers are always good-and the 12th, 15th, and 17th Field Artillery. It was a division distinguished by the quality of dash and animated by an especial pride of service. It carried to a high degree esprit de corps, which some Frenchman has defined as esteeming your own corps and looking down on all the other corps. And although it paid heavily in casualties for the things it did-in five months about 100 per cent-the 2d Division never lost its professional character.
Seven years after, across the world from France, I met a major of the American General Staff, who was on the Paris-Metz road that last week in May, 1918, and saw the Marine Brigade. “They looked fine, coming in there,” he said. “Tall fellows, healthy and fit-they looked hard and competent. We watched you going in, through those little tired Frenchmen, and we all felt better. We knew something was going to happen” - and we were silent, over Chilean wine, in a place on the South Pacific, thinking of those days and those men.
There is no sight in all the pageant of war like young, trained men going up to battle. The columns look solid and businesslike. Each battalion is an entity, 1,200 men of one purpose. They go on like a river that flows very deep and strong. Uniforms are drab these days, but there are points of light on the helmets and the bayonets, and light in the quick, steady eyes and the brown young faces, greatly daring. There is no singing-veterans know, and they do not sing much-and there is no excitement at all; they are schooled crafts-men going up to impose their will, with the tools of their trade, on another lot of fellows; and there is nothing to make a fuss about. Battlefields are not salubrious places, and every file knows that a great many more are going in than will come out again-but that goes along with the job. And they have no illusions about the job.
There is nothing particularly glorious about sweaty fellows, laden with killing tools, going along to fight. And yet-such a column represents a great deal more than 28,000 individuals mustered into a division. All that is behind those men is in that column too: the old battles, long forgotten, that secured our nation-Brandywine and Trenton and Yorktown, San Jacinto and Chapultepec, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Antietam, El Caney; scores of skirmishes, far off, such as the Marines have nearly every year in which a man can be killed as dead as ever a chap in the Argonne; traditions of things endured and things accomplished, such as regiments hand down forever; and the faith of men and the love of women; and that abstract thing called patriotism, which I never heard combat soldiers mention-all this passes into the forward zone, to the point of contact, where war is girt with horrors. Common men endure these horrors and overcome them, along with the insistent yearnings of the belly and the reasonable promptings of fear; and in this, I think, is glory.
And so, as did Thomason (although I would never presume to put myself in his class) I now write of my Marines in my war – “how they went up, and what they did there, and how some of them came out again.”
© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.