Saturday, November 10, 2012

Fix Bayonets!

In the spring of 2003, just after we invaded Iraq and soon after I was selected to join 1/5., Capt. John Maloney took me to the library upstairs in O'Bannon Hall at TBS, and walked straight up to a small red book on the shelf, the precise location of which he very clearly knew by heart. "You're going to want to read this one," he said. 

Since that day, I have loved the imagery and cadence in the writings of John W. Thomason, a Marine Captain during World War I with service in the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment. His book, Fix Bayonets, is in my mind some of the finest American writing (as well as battlefield sketches) to come out of that war. 

More than just his descriptions of factual events, the tone and measure with which he describes Marine traditions, set down in print nearly 100 years ago, still rings true with a certain timeless character that is the very best of our ethos. Thomason's essayLeathernecks, excerpted below, is a great example (the illustrations are Thomason's as well).


by John W. Thomason 

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 4 th 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.  Battles 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.

In Charles the Second's time the English formed the first sea regiment-soldiers equipped as infantry, to serve on the sea in the fleet; to clear with musketry the enemy's decks and fighting-tops when the ship's of the line went into close action; to go ashore, and take up positions when the naval forces seized a base preliminary to land operations of the army.

Here by the way, comes the quip of old time:  "Tell it to the Marines."  They relate of Charles the Second that at Whitehall a certain sea-captain, newly returned from the Western Ocean, told the king of flying fish, a thing never heard in old England.  The king and the court were vastly amused.  But, the naval fellow persisting, the Merry Monarch beckoned to a lean, dry colonel of the sea regiment, with a seamed mahogany face, and said, in effect:  "Colonel, this tarry-breeks here makes sport with us stay-at-homes.  He tells us of a miraculous fish that forsakes its element and flies like a bird over the water."  "Sire," said the Colonel of Marines, "he tells a true thing.  I myself have often seen those fish in your Majesty's seas around Barbados-...."  "Well," decided Charles, "such evidence cannot be disputed.  And hereafter, when we hear a strange thing, we will tell it to the Marines, for the Marines go everywhere and see everything, and if they say is is so, we will believe it!"

The Continental Congress, on 10 November, 1775, authorized a corps of American Marines.  This was the first Federal armed force to be raised by the young nation, and it antedated both the Federal army and navy, which had until that time, been matters of individual commonwealths.  And since that date Marines have participated honorably in all American wars, and in some affairs, more or less interesting, where powder was burnt but which do not rate as wars.    

Captain Richard Dale's Marines served with John Paul Jones, and manned the fighting tops of his ship, the Bonhomme Richard.   The task of the Marines was to shoot down on the enemy ships, attending, in particular, to enemy officers.  When the crew of one ship boarded another, it was difficult or impossible to tell friend from foe from high above.  For that reason Marines officers adopted the peculiar device that resembled an embroidered cross so that their marksmen could tell friend from foe.  Look at any Marine officers barracks or dress hat.  You'll continue to see that same device embroidered there as a tribute to those long ago Marines who fought so gallantly some two-hundred years ago.  Marines love tradition. 

Those Marines in the fighting tops were also tasked, when possible, to drop explosive devices on the decks, or better yet through the hatches of enemy ships.  Such a device thrown from the fighting tops of the Richard set off the powder-magazine of H. M. S. Serapis. This event turned the tide of events in favor of the poor old Richard, in the fight off Flamborough Head.  There were United States Marines in Barney's naval force, formed across the Bladensburg Road, when Admiral Cockburn's people marched to burn Washington; and they stayed there until the line was turned by British regulars and they were all, including Barney, casualties;  it was the only material resistance the British met.  Marines marched to Mexico City in 1846; the red stripe on the blue trousers of officers and non-commissioned officers commemorates to this day service in that war.  Marines served in the Civil War very widely:  Marines died on Henry Hill at First Manassas  and on the fire-swept beaches in front of  Fort Fisher, and on the Mississippi around Vicksburg and Island No. 10.  Colonel Huntington's Marines took Guantanamo, landing from the U. S. S. Marbleheadin 1898.  They marched to Peking in 1900, and were in the legation guard shut up there during the Boxer trouble.  Cuba knows them, and the Philippines.  They were ashore at Vera Cruz in 1914; every uneasy and volatile Wet Indian and Central American republic has become acquainted with them in a professional way, and their appearance at storm centers has always produced very presently a sweet tranquility.  The navy takes them there, and sends bluejackets and chow along always.  Every capital ship carries a guard of them.  Aboard ship, besides forming the nucleus of the ship's landing force, they man the secondary batteries, the five-inch guns; furnish guards of honor for the comings and goings of the admiral and distinguished visitors, and so forth; perform all manner of curious and annoying details; and post ship's sentries whose meticulous ideas about the enforcement of orders lacerate the souls of jolly mariners, seamen, and engineer ratings.  Normally, the strength of the corps is twenty per cent of the navy; just now there are about 19,000.  They constitute an organization within an organization, with their own commandant, who functions under the Secretary of the Navy, as a separate and distinct service like the U. S. Navy, as in the past, in time of war, the U. S. Coast Guard.  The rank and file are good enough Latinists to know what "Semper Fidelis"-which is their word-means; and any private will assure you the Marines are a corps d'elite.

In 1917, when trained Soldiers in the United States were at a premium, the Navy Department offered a Brigade of Marines for service in France; it was regarded desirable for Marine officers to have experience in large operations with the army; for it is certain that close co-operation between the army and the navy is a necessary thing in these days of far-flung battle lines.  The British distress at Gallipoli is a crying witness to this principle.  In a navy transport, therefore, U. S. S. Henderson, the 5th Regiment of Marines embarked for France in June, 1917,with the first armed American forces.  The 6th Marines followed.  The two regiments constituted the 4thBrigade, and served in the 2d Division.  U. S. Regular, until the division came home in August, 1919.  About 30,000 Marines were sent to France; some 14,000 of these were replacements to maintain the two regiments of the 4 th Brigade.  A brigade musters some 7,500 officers and men; this brigade took part in some very interesting events.

Elsewhere, I have written of the Marines in the war with Germany; how they went up, and what they did there, and how some of them came out again.  Being a Marine, I have tried to set forth simple tales without comment.  It is unnecessary to write what I think of my own people, nor would it be, perhaps, in the best taste. 

And I have written of Marines in this war because they are the folks I know about myself.  Those battle-fields were very large, and a man seldom saw much or very far beyond his own unit, if he had a job in hand.  As a company officer, I always had a job.  There is no intent to overlook those very gallant gentlemen, our friends, the U. S. Army.  Their story is ours, too.