The Fifth Marines were born to fight. The Regiment came into existance at Vera Cruz, Mexico on 13 July 1914. After successfully campaigning against the pro-German, anti-American Mexican government, the 5th's colors were called home to the Philadelphia Naval Yard and it's Marines assigned to other Regiments and sea service. In the spring of 1918, with war looming on the horizon, the 5th Marine Regiment was reactivated. When the United States declared war on Germany 6 April 1917, the Commandant, Major General George Barnett declared that there would be a Marine Expeditionary Force on the very first convoy to sail for France. He was as good as his word, and just a few scant weeks later the 5th Marine Regiment embarked on the troop transport, U.S.S. Henderson. The Fifth Marines went to the front and in the very early part of 1918 were joined by the 6th Marine Regiment and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion to form the 4th Marine Brigade. The 4th Marine Brigade, with a troop strength of 9,444 men was combined with the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade and formed the 2nd Division (Army), American Expeditionary Force of which Marine Corps General John A. Lejeune came to command. The 5th Marine Regiment participated in, and was instrumental in the victories enjoyed in 15 seperate major campaigns in the war.
Attacking and Digging: The U.S. Army Engineers at Belleau Wood
by Col William T. Anderson, USMCR(Ret)
In the Marine Corps’ Hall of Heroes, there are few more revered than those stalwarts of the 4th Marine Brigade, 2d U.S. Division. The names of the young Marine officers who struggled in Belleau Wood read like a “Who’s Who” of our great combat leaders of the amphibious campaigns in World War II. However, often lost in the self-adulation of our own mythology are the significant sacrifices made by the soldiers of the U.S. Army who were attached to the 4th Marine Brigade in the hot, dusty days of June 1918. The purpose of this article is to highlight the important contributions of the 2d Division’s engineers, the 2d Engineer Regiment, in the bloody contest for Belleau Wood. With shovel and ‘03 Springfield, the 2d Engineers fought side by side with the Devildogs. As Col John Thomason reported in Fix Bayonets!
There was always good feelings between the Marines of the 2d Division and the Regular Army units that formed it, but the Marines and the 2d Engineers—‘Say, if I ever got a drink, a 2d Engineer can have half of it!—Boy, they dig trenches and mend roads all night, and they fight all day!’
Originally the 2d Battalion of U.S. Engineers, the 2d Regiment, was organized on 16 August 1916 during GEN Pershing’s Mexican campaign. After returning to the United States in February 1917, the regiment began training in earnest for the difficult tasks associated with trench warfare. The first portion of the regiment’s journey to France started on 22 August 1917 when it embarked for Washington, DC. It was on the grounds of the American University that the regiment was outfitted for further duty in France. The 2d U.S. Engineers left for the Great War on 10 September 1917. Training as part of the 2d Division, however, did not start until 1 January 1918 under the command of Col James F. McIndoe. He would remain in command until early July 1918 when he was reassigned and promoted to brigadier general as the Fourth Army Corps Engineer. In the interim, the regiment was employed building troop accommodations for the anticipated arrival of many thousands of American soldiers. Due to detached duties by the elements of the regiment, the division and regiment were not actually united until 9 May 1918 when the engineers arrived in the Marine sector.
Many have told the story of the 2d Division’s journey to Belleau Wood. Nevertheless, Marines have somehow forgotten that this odyssey included the 2d Engineer Regiment mixed in with the two infantry brigades. As we know, the long convoy of “camions,” or trucks, snaked along the Paris-Metz highway from Meaux to Montreuil-aux-Lions, where many members of the division commenced a bone-breaking foot march to the vicinity of Lucy-le-Bocage. While most of the division troops paused only briefly at Montreuil-aux-Lions en route, the division and engineer regimental headquarters would remain near that village throughout the Belleau Wood campaign.
Initially, it was planned to hold the engineer regiment in division reserve at Montreuil-aux-Lions. As events turned out, it did not stay there very long. Ordered to support the French units to the west of Chateau Thierry, the 2d Division commander assigned the 1st Battalion of engineers to the 3d Brigade, composed of the 9th and 23d Infantry and the 2d Battalion to the 4th Marine Brigade. The Marines were assigned the area running generally from Les Mares Farm on the left through Lucy-le-Bocage to Triangle Farm on the right. The two battalions were supposed to be used to perform only engineer duties in support of the infantry (i.e., entrenching, often referred to as “consolidating positions”). This plan for the utilization of engineer assets was quickly revised as eventually both battalions participated in combat with the Marines.
The two engineer battalions walked from Montreuil-aux-Lions to Paris Farm during the period 1-2 June 1918 where they drew their entrenching tools. The 1st Battalion—Companies A, B, and C—then deployed to the area near La Croisette Woods in support of the 9th Infantry. The 2d Battalion—Companies E, D, and F—moved between Lucy-le-Bocage and Triangle Farm in support of the 6th Marines. However, due to darkness and lack of maps, the companies did not arrive as planned. Companies D and E were near Triangle Farm, but Company F was in front of Lucy-le-Bocage. In the vicinity of Triangle Farm, the platoons of Company D were assigned to companies in the 6th Marines and received a taste of what was to come.
When not able to consolidate or prepare defensive positions for the Leathernecks, the engineers were put in the line with the Marines. They were in the line during German attacks on 2/3 June 1918. This proved to be their initiation to what it would be like to “support” the Marine brigade. Several soldiers would be recognized later for exemplary conduct during this period. For their heroism during the night of 2/3 June, PVTs Jefferson Holt and Charles Raffington from the medical detachment were awarded Distinguished Service Crosses. According to the citation, they continually exposed themselves to severe enemy fire in order to bring aid to wounded engineers and Marines. Although wounded and in great pain, 1SG Mack Byrd refused evacuation on 3 June and remained with the company commander during the battle. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his physical courage. As a result of this action and continued exemplary conduct, Byrd was later commissioned and ended the war as a first lieutenant.
Today, we know that 6 June 1918 was the most catastrophic day in Marine Corps history up to that time. More Marines would become casualties this day than all the casualties in the Corps’ previous history added together. The 2d Engineer Regiment would play a critical role in those bloody 24 hours and would share the glory and the sacrifice. Although the 1st Battalion was initially assigned to the 3d Brigade, on 6 June, it would participate in the brutal fighting for Bouresches and the southern edge of Belleau Wood with the 6th Marines. By the end of the day, the 2d Engineer Battalion would be bruised and battered after providing needed reinforcements for the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) following the assault on Hill 142.
The attack on Hill 142 north of Champillon was to begin at 0345 on 6 June. It was the first phase of the plan to take ultimately Belleau Wood, Bouresches, and the railroad station outside Bouresches. However, 1/5 and its support were not properly assembled when Maj Julius S. Turrill received the order from the 5th Marine Regiment. Notwithstanding absence of the rest of the battalion, supporting machineguns, and proper intelligence, the 49th and 67th Companies of Marines stepped out of the woods smartly on time into the unknown. After going about 50 meters, they immediately ran into murderous machinegun fire. Fighting “Indian style,” the survivors pushed their way into the woods and overcame the German machinegun positions. However, as they reached the objective near Vaillon Spring, the situation was desperate because of the number of casualties and the fact that elements of the 49th Company overran the objective. The 49th Company commander, Capt George Hamilton, realizing the error got his Marines back on the objective and quickly took charge of the remnants of both companies due to the loss of the leadership of the 67th. Organizing the entire position in anticipation of the counterattack as Maj Turrill called for reinforcements, Capt Hamilton proved himself as an excellent combat leader.
As hours passed, the remainder of the battalion and machineguns arrived finally and were rapidly sent forward. Mixed in with these fresh troops were two companies of engineers, CPT Edward N. Chisholm’s Company D and CPT John Steiner’s Company E. Placed in the line alongside the Marines to help them dig in, the engineers took part in the repulse of the numerous and vigorous German counterattacks. It was here that the 2d Engineers Battalion first exhibited the professionalism under fire that became so admired by the Marines. The engineers established outposts and conducted patrols. In addition, they performed critical supply duties by repeatedly going to the rear returning with water and ammunition—commodities in short supply.
Later on 6 June, the 1st Battalion significantly contributed to the efforts of the Marines on the eastern flank of the brigade area. Following the disaster of the attack of the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5) across the wheat field just north of Lucy and the subsequent stalled attack of the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines (3/6) into the southern edge of Belleau Wood, the brigade plan of attack was altered to direct 2/6 to seize Bouresches. Not reflected in the Marine history of this famous attack is the fact that a platoon from Company C led by 1LT Arthur G. Spencer was the fourth wave of 2/6’s assault that actually seized Bouresches. Due to the heavy casualties, the engineers found no Marine officers when they reached what was left of the first wave from the 96th Company. Continuing the advance, the few engineers able to scramble into the village provided tremendous support to the surviving Marines led by future Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt Clifton Cates. The remnants of the engineer platoon remained in Bouresches until relieved by Company A that evening.
While elements of Company C were consolidating positions in Bouresches, Companies A and B left Lucy late on the evening of 6 June with Company A in the lead using the Bouresches road. Company A was ordered to report to 2/6 in Bouresches. The mission of assisting 3/6 fell to Company B. When the column was about 2 kilometers from the village, it was swept by artillery fire receiving their first casualties. Continuing their movement, Company A reached Bouresches at 0200, 7 June 1918, and sought shelter where they could find it. This was a critical concern as the German artillery fire was intense during 7 June. Thereafter, the platoons were employed to improve the defensive positions in the village. The 1st Platoon under 1LT Tucker Wyche, barricaded the street in the center of the position while the 2d Platoon commanded by 1LT Allan Burton built machinegun emplacements on the left flank. About 20 men from the 3d Platoon with 2LT George Woodle in the lead improved positions on the right flank as 2LT Walter Booth’s 4th Platoon constructed machinegun positions covering the center of the village.
At 1230 on 8 June, the Germans began a very strong counterattack against the southern edge of Belleau Wood and Bouresches supported by heavy machinegun fire from the railroad embankment outside the village. Immediately, the engineers in Bouresches dropped their tools and grabbed their ‘03 Springfields. Every engineer in the village was used in some fashion to repulse the German attack. Any engineers in reserve, not working on something when the attack began, became part of the operational reserve under Maj Randolph T. Zane. Maj Zane was the senior Marine in the village and commanded 79th Company, 2/6. At the height of the battle, there were 110 engineers in the frontline positions with the Marines. When the Germans withdrew, the engineers had suffered surprisingly only seven killed or wounded. This close support between Company A and the Marines in Bouresches would continue until 9/10 June when the entire force was relieved by 3/5. When the engineers left, the Marines greatly admired them for their courage and coolness under fire during this struggle for Bouresches. Maj Thomas Holcomb, 2/6’s commanding officer, in recognition of the company’s significant contribution to the defense of the village, sent commendatory messages up the chain of command. Singled out for recognition were soldiers like PVT Louis D. Goodrich who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for successfully carrying the relief order from Lucy in daylight using the road to Bouresches that was under constant and accurate German machinegun and artillery fire.
As Company A was directed to Bouresches, Company B had been instructed to support 3/6 in the southern edge of Belleau Wood. However, when a man in the 3d Platoon lost contact with the man in front in the dark on that evening of 6 June, the rest of the 3d Platoon and the entire 4th Platoon got separated and didn’t enter the woods. Those that turned into the woods found the ravine (Gob’s Gully) and followed its course until about 0230 when they found 3/6, the Marines to whom they were attached. The 4th Platoon and the remnants of the 3d remained isolated until a guide came from Lucy to reunite them with the rest of the company. Still unlucky, this lost group stumbled past the trail to the woods and now entered Bouresches. The commander of this reinforced platoon placed his men at the disposal of Maj Zane.
In Belleau Wood, Company B prepared positions in support of the Marines during 7 June as this portion of the woods was subjected to German artillery, mortar, and machinegun fire. On 8 June, the Germans began a counterattack on Bouresches and simultaneously attacked 3/6 in the woods. Although the attacks were unsuccessful, Company B lost four men killed and three wounded. At 0430, the entire force was withdrawn to Gob’s Gully at the southern edge of the woods so that the division artillery could pulverize the southern portion of the woods. At dawn, the Marines commenced an attack with the engineer’s 1st Platoon, under 1LT Lester Smith, in support and the 2d Platoon, under 2LT James Gregory, providing patrols protecting the Marines’ flank. This attack was not successful and the remainder of the day was spent consolidating positions, that meant digging in to the engineers. At dark on 8 June, Company B was withdrawn from Belleau Wood and marched to a bivouac area near the village of Marigny.
Following the failure of the 6 June attack to seize both Belleau Wood and Bouresches, the Marine brigade commander, Army BG James G. Harbord, issued Brigade Order No. 3 on 9 June. It called for attacks by 1st Battalion, 6th Marines (1/6) into the southern edge from the vicinity of Bouresches. Due to the strain of combat up to that time, the German resistance in the southern area of the woods was not at the same level of effectiveness that destroyed 3/5 and stymied 3/6. As a result, the Marine battalion was able to penetrate the woods and establish positions. Then, later on 10 June, BG Harbord issued Brigade Order No. 4 that directed 2/5 to attack the northern end of Belleau Wood the next day at 0430. Taking advantage of the reduced state of the enemy, LtCol Frederick Wise’s Marines also fought their way into the woods. However, they were in the middle part of the woods not the northern part. Due to the confusion of close combat in a densely wooded area, 2/5 became disoriented and erroneously reported that they were in the northern edge of the woods.
As a result of this inaccurate report on 11 June from LtCol Wise that his command had reached the northern edge of Belleau Wood, BG Harbord quickly directed two engineer companies from the 1st Battalion to consolidate the Marine positions in order to exploit this success. However, once the companies reached the woods, it was quickly apparent the location of 2/5 was not as reported. Company D was then directed to assist the Marines of 2/5 in the center of the woods. Company F entrenched in the southern edge with 1/6. It was during this period that these engineers experienced the thrill of supporting Marines when the Germans mounted a vigorous counterattack during the hours of darkness. Company D engineers were intermingled with the Marines at every point of the action. Some platoons actually took part in raids against the German positions. The 1st Platoon, commanded by 1LT Lyman Chase, assaulted a German machinegun position. Going into action with 44 men, 1LT Chase could only count 26 effectives when they left the woods. During this fighting, CPL Joseph Sanders earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at an important observation post. On 13 June, he carried a wounded officer through intense fire to a dressing station.
At 1700 on 12 June, Company F was ordered to move north and reinforce the Marines from 2/5 on their front. However, this movement proved to be disastrous as they came under a mixed barrage of high explosives and gas that regrettably killed the company commander, CPT Lowen. Now commanded by Lt Harold S. Barrons, the remaining engineers totaled only 50 out of the 180 that commenced the deployment. Once they found the Marines, they were immediately placed in the line facing north. Continuing their frontline “support” during repeated shelling, the engineers from both companies remained with 2/5 until relieved on 14 June by elements of the 6th Marines. The combined force of Marines and engineers had reached the limit of its physical endurance. As a result of this duty with the Marine brigade, Company D could only muster 30 men for duty on 16 June. They had lost 11 men killed or wounded, some 40 to 50 gassed, and 20 to 30 evacuated because of physical exhaustion. Twice wounded, the battalion commander, Maj William A. Snow, was cited for extraordinary heroism on several occasions and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Following the withdrawal of the Marine brigade from Belleau Wood during 16-20 June, the 2d Engineers’ contribution to the Marine brigade’s success was ended.
After the battle for Belleau Wood, there began a debate within the 2d Division about the proper use of engineers. It was obvious that the engineer resources had been used as infantry reinforcements. This was justified as a critical requirement in the emergency circumstances at that time. Some believed the engineer units should be armed with Chauchat automatic rifles. Giving them machineguns was also considered. These proposals were rejected because they would have confirmed as correct the method of employment of engineer assets in Belleau Wood. Although the division staff viewed engineers as specialized troops who can fight if necessary, the supported infantry brigade or regimental commander had viewed the engineer assets as additional infantry and used them accordingly. Subsequently, the 2d Division staff adopted a new policy of avoiding assignment of engineers to infantry units. In the future, the engineers were retained under the direct control of the division commander and were never attached to an infantry unit except to accomplish a specific task. Once their task was completed, they would be returned to the control of the division commander.
As we have seen, the engineers of the 2d Division found themselves performing duties some might say were “outside their military occupational specialty.” Repeatedly, the engineers were called upon to go forward as reinforcements either in support of Marine attacks or to assist in the defense of positions already taken. The regimental history states that, from the first attacks of the Marine brigade on 6 June until the division was relieved in July, all or part of the engineer regiment was engaged in every offensive action. The members of the engineer regiment were very thankful for the infantry training they had received. It came to great use in close combat in the tangled undergrowth of Belleau Wood. Their achievements in this respect were duly noted in that the 2d Engineer Regiment ended the war as the only engineer regiment in the U.S. Army that earned the French Croix de Guerre streamer for its regimental colors. Unfortunately, another distinction is that the regiment suffered the heaviest major casualties (12.73 percent) of any engineer unit in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Major casualties were defined as killed in action, died of wounds or disease or accident, and missing. The average for engineer units during the entire war was only 2.65 percent. This high figure for the 2d Engineers is consistent with its service in the 2d Division that suffered the greatest casualties of any organization in the AEF. During the period 30 May to 16 July 1918, the regiment suffered 452 casualties (91 killed in action, 30 died of wounds, and 331 wounded) out of a total number of 1,697, or 26.7 percent!
It is fitting that Marines reflect upon the achievements of the 2d Engineer Regiment, U.S. Army in June 1918. I can now appreciate the full meaning of the Thomason quote in Fix Bayonets. I would share my canteen, too. The Marine brigade’s success in Belleau Wood was in every sense a joint success. We also forget that this effective relationship continued to the very end of the war when the 1st and 2d Battalions, 5th Marines forced their way across the Meuse River. This crossing under artillery and machine fire was facilitated by the improvisation of bridging by the 1st Battalion, 2d Engineers.
During the staff rides at Belleau Wood that I lead throughout the year, I always pause at the end to point out the small stone marker laid in 1919 just off the grounds of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Although the engineer emblem is worn by time and weather, and the marker itself needs restoration, it stands in silent tribute to the 2d Engineer Regiment. The next time you read about the Corps’ “first crucible,” remember those Army engineers who fought and died with the 4th Marine Brigade. They earned the right to be called Devildogs too.
BELLEAU, France -- For military historians and battlefield buffs, the wheat fields and farm villages here are rich in the details of heroic attacks, untold sacrifices and ultimate victory. For others, especially the U.S. Marine Corps, this is hallowed ground, a sacred place of pilgrimage. American, French and German military men and women come here to honor fallen brethren. They also come so that those who fought and died live on in the hearts and minds of those who follow. Silently, they visit the American cemetery, where white crosses and Stars of David mark 2,289 graves, 250 for unknown service members, and the names of 1,060 missing men adorn the wall of a memorial chapel. They also visit a nearby German cemetery where 8,625 men are buried; 4,321 of them -- 3,847 unknown -- rest in a common grave. In death, friend and foe are honored alike for their courage. Little has changed in the 80 years since 8,000 U.S. Marines, hundreds of Army soldiers and a handful of Navy medical corpsmen fought a prolonged battle to halt the Germans' advance toward Paris, a mere 30 miles away. It was here, in a former hunting preserve named Belleau Wood, that they faced what Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak considers the Marines' first crucible. "The flower of America's youth fought and bled to wrest this wood from the Germans," Krulak said at a May 31 memorial service marking the battle's 80th anniversary. The commandant and French dignitaries addressed 250 active duty U.S. Marines stationed in Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, and several hundred French visitors at the cemetery at the edge of Belleau Wood. Today, nestled among rolling fields, the 200-acre, 1.5- mile-long wood remains untouched. Sunlight filters through thick greenery, barely reaching the dark forest floor. Visitors pay homage to "Iron Mike," a faceless bronze statue in the heart of the wood. Outside the forest, crops flourish under warm summer sun. Villages stand as they did then, stone monuments to an unchanging agrarian life. Spent brass rifle shells and a lone artillery round rest on a shelf behind the bar in a rustic cafe. War shattered this peaceful countryside in June 1918. Artillery rounds sheared tree trunks, rending the still forest with the cracking thunder of war. Americans fought desperately using artillery, machine guns, rifles, bayonets, grenades, pistols and trench knives. Nearly 700 Americans died. Another 7,300 were wounded. France, with the help of the United States, had formed a last line of defense along the Marne River near Chateau Thierry. The U.S. 4th Marine Brigade, made up of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, was in the center with the French 167th Division on its left and U.S. Army 3rd Brigade to the right. The advancing German spearhead struck the Marine brigade near Belleau Wood on June 4. New to Europe and the First World War, the combat-ready Marines encountered retreating, battle-worn veteran French troops, who predicted only doom. Turn back, the French advised. "Retreat, hell. We just got here," responded Marine Capt. Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. Untried, but soon to prove their mettle, the Marines surged through a hail of machine gun fire to take Hill 142 on June 6. During a series of attacks and counterattacks on the way to the wood and in nearby villages, the Americans prevailed despite confusion and poor communications. Expert marksmen surprised German foes, hitting their targets from hundreds of yards away. Individual Marines charged German machine gun nests. When officers fell, sergeants took the lead. When sergeants fell, corporals led the way. When corporals fell, privates fought on. The Marine Corps lost more men on June 6 than it had in all the rest of its history. The 4th Brigade suffered 31 officer casualties and 1,056 enlisted -- of those numbers, six officers and 222 enlisted men were killed or later died of wounds. Only by walking the battlefield can one truly appreciate what happened at Belleau Wood, Krulak said. Walk among the rows of crosses and stars, among the wheat fields and trees of Belleau Wood. Krulak said he took his first walk a year ago, starting near the town of Lucy-le-Bocage, where the World War I Marines launched their attack June 6. "I walked toward the tree line through waist-high wheat, just as they did 80 years ago," the commandant said. "History books describe that 800-yard advance, but I never fully appreciated it until I walked it myself. The Germans had every square inch of that field covered by machine gun and artillery fire. The Marines paid dearly with every step they took." Within Belleau Wood, Krulak said, he saw the grossly distorted, misshapen trees that today bear testament to the carnage. "It took them 20 days to go through that forest -- 20 days of little sleep, little food, poison gas, machine gun fire, artillery, loneliness and death," Krulak said. "In those 20 days they beat back five German counterattacks, fighting off more than four divisions of crack German troops. They did it with their rifles, their bayonets and sometimes with their fists." What remained of the 4th Marine Brigade emerged victorious from Belleau Wood on June 26. The battle marked a turning point in the war: The American victory rekindled hope among war-weary Europeans and destroyed German confidence. Belleau Wood was dedicated as an American battle monument in July 1923. Army Gen. James. G. Harbord, the 4th Marine Brigade commander during the battle, was made an honorary Marine. In his address, he predicted the attraction future military men and women would feel for the site. "Now and then, a veteran ... will come here to live again the brave days of that distant June," Harbord said. "Here will be raised the altars of patriotism; here will be renewed the vows of sacrifice and consecration to country. Hither will come our countrymen in hours of depression, and even of failure, and take new courage from this shrine of great deeds."
In 1909-10, he commanded a battalion in Nicaragua and, after promotion to Lieutenant Colonel in February 1914, commanded the 2nd Marine Regiment in the capture of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in April 1914, winning the Medal of Honor. In 1915-17, he was in command of the Marine Guard at the US Legation, Peking, China, receiving promotion to Colonel in August 1916. In Decemebr 1917, he was sent to France to command the 5th Marine Regiment in World War I. He led the 5th, a unit of the United States Army's 2nd Division, in Aisne-Marne action, at Chateau-Thierry and at Belleau Wood. In July 1918, he moved up to command of the 4th Marine Brigade, comprised of 5th and 6th Marine Regiments and saw further action at Soissons, in the St. Mihiel and Blanc Mont operations and Meuse-Argonne offensive.