By Marc Kelley
Syndicated by: Montana News
This past week we acknowledged the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima. From February 18 thru March 26, 1945, the US Marines fought along side of their Navy Brother's, in one of the bloodiest battles in our nations history. Iwo Jima was defended by over 21,000 Japanese Imperial Troops, who had turned the island into a maze of tunnels, complete with barracks, a hospital and fortified fighting positions. Even though the heavy guns of the US Navy had bombarded the island for three days prior to the amphibious landing, they did little to blunt the Japanese resistance. When the first Marines came ashore on beaches of Iwo Jima, they were unable to dig foxholes, just inches under the black sand, was solid volcanic rock and the Marines found no cover, other than the craters left behind by the naval bombardment.
Twenty-seven Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to brave men who fought on Iwo. Many historians believe the bravery and valor shown on Iwo Jima, is emblematic of our Marines, following in the foot prints of the Marines who came before them. It is with this thought in mind, I want to tell you the story of another group of Marines, who fought in another war to defend our country and earned the name "Devil Dogs."
In what was called, "The war to end all wars", World War I, has its roots in the assassination of Arch Duke, Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria.
The motive for this assassination; was in fact, the Arch Duke's personal love life and marriage, to a woman named Sophie Chotec. As it is in any Monarchy, the unseemly behavior of any member of the Royal Family, is looked upon with disapproving eyes. In this case, Ms. Chotec was, what is commonly referred to as a "Lady in Waiting", a woman of good social standing; however, not socially equal to the Royal Family. Going against the wishes of his family Duke Ferdinand, gave up his descendants rights to the throne and married the love of his life, on July 1, 1900. In 1913, Ferdinand, who had always held influence with the countries military, was appointed inspector general of the Austro-Hungarian Armed Forces. At this time, many of the regions political factions were at odds with each other and tensions were on high. On June 28, 1914, Ferdinand and his wife were both assassinated, igniting what was called the July Crisis which ultimately led to the beginning of WWI.
For more than two years the United States attempted to walk the tightrope of supplying arms, munitions and financial aid to the countries of Europe, while at the same time publicly stating its policy of non-interference and neutrality. By 1917, Germany appeared to have the upper hand in Europe as their troops occupied parts of France and Britain.
The US again stepped up efforts to deliver supplies to our friends, which resulted in Germany threatening to begin a campaign of "unrestricted submarine warfare", against US merchant ships bound for Europe. At the same time, Germany made a secret agreement with Mexico, which promised the return of land, lost to America during the Mexican-American War, in exchange for their support in the current conflict.
The message, now known as the "Zimmerman Telegram", was intercepted by British Intelligence and conveyed its US counterparts. In April, then President Woodrow Wilson, briefed Congress and asked for a formal Declaration of War against Germany, for their actions. On April 6, 1917, following the Congressional Declaration, the US entered the "war to end all wars", and by the summer of 1918, our combat troops began major operations on the Western Front, under the leadership of General, John J. "Black Jack" Pershing.
In March, 1918, following the surrender of Russia on the Eastern Front, Germany began a series of attacks against the defenses on the Western Front. Their goal was to defeat the Allies, before the US could fully deploy our forces. By May of 1918, Germany was on full offensive, moving rapidly through France and coming within 60 miles of Paris. Utilizing heavy bombardment to deliver mustard gas against the allies, Germany pushed onward. On June 1, 1918, the German Army moved against the Allied forces, charged with defending an area known as Belleau Wood. Among the men defending Belleau Wood, was a group of US Marines.
As German troops advanced, French leadership began to collapse and an order to retreat was give to the men defending Belleau Wood. As French troops began pulling back, Marine Captain, Lloyd W. Williams, countermanded the French order to retreat, telling his men " Retreat Hell…we just got here." Williams ordered his Marines to dig trenches, fix bayonets and hold their positions. By June 3, the German Army, expecting light resistance, advanced on the position held by the Marines. When the Germans came inside 100 yards of the Marine position, the order to "fire at will" was given. The Marines, many armed with their Winchester 1897, 12 gauge "Trench Guns", opened fire. For the next two days this small group of Marines repeatedly held off German counter attacks.
By the evening of June 6, the Marines had stopped the German advance in its tracks, giving the Marines their opportunity to go on the offensive.
Now advancing on the German positions, a small group of Marines led by two time Medal of Honor recipient, 1st Sgt, Dan Daly, told his men "come on you son of bitches, do you want to live forever"? Facing heavy machine gun fire, snipers and row upon row of barbed wire, the Marines advanced. When the German positions were breached, the Marines engaged in hand to hand combat, eventually turning the tide of the battle in their favor.
In the end, The Battle of Belleau Wood would cost the lives of 31 officers and 1,056 Marine troops, however, Belleau Wood was now controlled by the US Marines. After action reports are filled with complaints from German troops over the Marines use of their Winchester, "Trench Shotguns." The unique design of the shotgun did not utilize a trigger disconnector, allowing the weapon to be fired in rapid succession simply by holding the trigger down and cycling the pump action. As is the case today, combat shotguns utilize heavy magnum, loads filled with 9 pellets of OO buckshot. While this ammunition is devastating at ranges up to 100 yards, in a trench warfare scenario, at ranges of less than 5 feet, the weapon has no equal.
The Marines affectionally called this shotgun, "the trench sweeper", prized by the the men who used it and praised by those who's lives were saved by its use.
The Marines defense and subsequent offensive at Belleau Wood, has been immortalized in Marine Corps Lore. The French, grateful for their sacrifices, renamed Belleau Wood "Bois de la Brigade de Marine" (Wood of the Marine Brigade). Official German reports describe the Marines who fought in Belleau Wood as "vigorous, self confident, remarkable marksmen" and likened their fighting spirit to the mythic
"Hollenhunde" (Hellhound). It is this term which is the basis for the Marine nickname "Devil Dogs." General "Black Jack" Pershing called The Battle of Belleau Wood, the biggest US battle since the Confederacy fell at Appomattox. Pershing went on to say the US Marine and his rifle are the "deadliest weapon in the world".
The Battle of Belleau Wood, became a milestone for the US Marines and began the larger than life story of the United States Marine Corp. The Marines who fought at Belleau Wood, provided the foundation for those who followed in their footsteps and the motivation which drove our Marines forward, across the black sand beaches at Iwo Jima, some 27 years later.