Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


              I was going through a bunch of boxes in the garage last week at my wife’s request, in a sometimes vain, even futile attempt to rid ourselves of so much junk accumulated over 38+ years of marriage. Cleaning the garage and the loft (my “man cave”) are at the top of her “Honey Do List.” The Holidays (read: family and company) are upon us.

Not surprisingly, there are marvelous treasures to uncover. One item in particular was a drawing of a squadron patch of my step father’s Marine Corps squadron during World War II by famed artist, Milton Caniff. United States Marine Corps Aviation Squadron VMSB 932 Unit Insignia, 1941-1946, is of a flying bulldog. The drawing is signed by Mr. Caniff who is best known for his cartoon strip, Steve Canyon.

Marine Squadron VMSB 932 stands for Fixed Wing (V), Marine (M), Scout (S), Bomber (B), 932. As all squadrons are inclined to do, they adopt a mascot/slogan of one kind or another. There are entire books written about the names and history of squadron names and how they acquired the moniker. For VMSB 932, they were called “Teufelhund.” That’s German for “Devil Hound,” but became more popularly known as “Devil Dog,” a title one Marine attributes to another. Milton Caniff’s drawing (and later the patch) has a circled yellow background with a white flying bulldog aiming down as if in the attack mode from the air. The dog’s face is stern and business-like, wearing a spiked collar and a “campaign hat” (think Smokey Bear), used today only by Marine drill instructors and other training officers. To complete the picture, envision this robust dog sprouting yellow-orange wings.

The history of Devil Hound (Teufelhund) is a fascinating one. During World War I, the Marines distinguished themselves at a place called Belleau Wood in France. President Woodrow Wilson was loath to have the United States enter this war, but finally relented in 1917, authorizing the Army to send troops to France. When the Marines arrived, there were French soldiers wearily dragging themselves to the rear (and safety), loudly declaring to the Marines who were marching to the front, “La guerre est finie!” (The war is over). One Marine famously said, “Over? Hell, we just got here!” The first time the Marines found themselves hunkered down in the trenches, one Marine jumped out of the trench and shouted, “Come on, you SOBs, do you want to live forever?” and charged the German lines. Marines swarmed out of the trenches, screaming like banshees as the startled German soldiers looked in shock and fear. They had never seen such a display of reckless warfare before, with many of the enemy soldiers dropping their weapons and running away.

In an article written for the New York Times, June 8, 1918, entitled, “Marines Win Name of Devil Hounds,” with the subtitle, “Germans promptly gave it to them after the first clash on Western Front,” the recruitment of Marines in New York City exploded by 50%. And Congress authorized the Marine Corps to increase their force from 30,000 men to 70,000.

Make no mistake: the Battle of Belleau Wood was bloody and costly in lives lost. But it was the beginning of the end for the Kaiser’s forces leading to the capitulation and surrender long sought for by a war-weary Europe. The loss of Marines killed and wounded was 60%. In simple terms, for every ten Marines going forward to face an entrenched German army, only four survived unscathed. In 1983 I performed the funeral for one of these Belleau Wood Marines who had been shot twice and awoke in a field hospital with one lung missing from mustard gas. He came home and lived a full life, passing away at age 86, outliving two wives!

The article goes on to say, “The German (soldier) has met and named the fighting American Marine. In the past the foe who encountered the prowess of Marines received a mingled impression of wildcats and human cyclones and movements as quick as lightening. When Fritz (a pejorative term for the German enemy) was first introduced to him, he uttered one guttural gasp: ‘Tuefelhunden!’ From now on the ‘Soldiers of the Sea’ (a term used for Marines from their inception) apparently have lost their old-time name of ‘Leathernecks,’ and are to be known as ‘Devil Dogs,’ or ‘Devil Hounds.’ Take your choice. Our Marines are the third fighting unit that has been the subject of the Hun’s (another pejorative) descriptive imagination. The Highlanders of Scotland they called the, ‘Ladies from Hell.’ The ‘Alpine Chasseurs,’ that brave fighting aggregation of Frenchmen, were given the sobriquet of, ‘Blue Devils.’ We Marines are not ashamed of our new special classification.”

I should say not. We wear the title proudly.  

So now you know how the Marines became known as Devil Dogs.

Semper Fi.