The year was 1983. Early in November I received a phone call from a funeral home in Fresno. I was the pastor of a small church in Fresno then. The funeral director asked me if I would be willing to officiate at a funeral for a former Marine. Absolutely I would! Then he said the family wanted a military funeral. I told him I was not a military chaplain, although I was to be sworn in as a Navy chaplain the next month, in December. He said, “But you’re a Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, aren’t you?” I said yes, but that did not authorize me to perform a military funeral. He said, “I think the family will be fine with the fact that you are a Marine.”
I met with this man’s two daughters (I’ll call him “Mac”), one in her late 50s and the other in her early 60s. They produced an old scrapbook filled with very old black-and-white photos of their father. I was completely taken by the pictures. Yet it was the stories the two daughters told me about their father that totally captivated me.
This man, Mac, this former Marine, had lived quite a life by the time he was 20 years old. Born in 1897, he joined the Army about 1915. He was assigned to the cavalry. When the border wars with Mexico heated up in 1916, he found himself attached to General John J. Pershing’s expedition of 4,800 men which was assigned to pursue the notorious Poncho Villa into northern Mexico with orders to bring Villa in, dead or alive.
After his two-year enlistment was up, the young soldier got out of the Army so he could join the Marine Corps to go fight the Germans “over there.” President Woodrow Wilson had finally agreed to allow American troops to enter into World War I. Now a Marine, Mac found himself sailing to France on a troop transport. That could not have been much fun, either. A couple of years before I met another veteran of WWI who described the 19 day transit across the Atlantic. He said he was sea-sick for all 19 days!
A game reserve not far from Paris became one of the most famous battle sites in Marine Corps history. It is known as the Battle of Belleau Wood. So much took place during this month-long battle in June of 1918 that time and space confine me. Let me give you a thumb-nail sketch of this battle.
When the Marines arrived in France they marched to the front which wasn’t very far off. The German army had advanced dangerously close to the capital of Paris. French units were mostly in retreat mode. One classic remark that lives in Marine Corps lore occurred when the Marines were marching to the front. French soldiers were straggling back to the safety of the rear, all the while telling the advancing Marines, “La guerre est fini!” (“The war is over!”). Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines responded, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”
As the battle of Belleau Wood raged on, the Marines constantly found themselves facing a determined German army which was laying down a withering assault of machine-gun fire and artillery barrages. Marines were dropping all over the place. The German’s were faring no better. Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daily, already a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, jumped out of the trenches and shouted to his Marines, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” At times the Marines were reduced to fighting the Germans with bayonets and fists in hand-to-hand combat.
The story also is told, though it is not verifiable, that the German soldiers were in such awe of the ferociousness of the Marines that they gave them the name, Teufel Hunden, which means, Devil Dog. This is a term Marines today typically use with each other (“Hey, Devil Dog, how’re you doing?”).
Every Marine knows these stories. They have become a part of who we are as Marines.
The German army also used a lot of mustard gas which was new in the art of warfare. It has since become commonplace on the battlefields of today.
So when I was asked to bury Mac in November of 1983, a man who fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood in June of 1918, later renamed by the French, “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” (“Wood of the Marine Brigade”), I was genuinely humbled.
My conversation with Mac’s daughters was rich in history, especially since one of my duties was to teach Marine Corps history in my reserve command. Their father, they told me, was shot twice at Belleau Wood, and then woke up in a field hospital with one lung destroyed by mustard gas. He came home, married, raised a family and even outlived two wives.
I wish I could have gotten to know him personally. I’m told he was a first class gentleman.