The Germans had broken through the French lines just a few weeks earlier in an attempt to capture Paris and end World War I before the U.S. could fully mobilize and tip the balance of the war to favor the allies.
The Battle of Belleau Wood, where the Marines helped stop the German advance, was the Corps’ first introduction to modern warfare after an existence that mainly focused on fighting small wars in the Caribbean or providing security aboard Navy ships.
“These are not guerrillas, these are not poorly armed bandits … these are well armed, well trained, very experienced Germany troops,” Kyle Longley, the director of the war and society program at Chapman University, told Marine Corps Times.
The 1,087 casualties suffered by the Corps in the first day of fighting was more than it had taken in all its previous battles combined.
“They get slaughtered … one of those battalions just gets ripped apart,” Longley said.
The battle would take another three weeks before it concluded with one of the most famous victories in Marine Corps history on June 26, 1918.
“Without Belleau Wood we can’t do the rest of it,” Edward Nevgloski, director of the Marine Corps history division, told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview.
The battle that looms large in Marine Corps history, recently got President Donald Trump into hot water after The Atlantic reported that he allegedly called those who died in the battle and who are buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France as “losers” and “suckers” in 2018.
Trump has denied the claims.
‘Don’t worry about me, for I am coming back soon’
One Marine killed at the battle was John J. Callahan Jr., 18, from Troy, New York, whose descendants have painstakingly researched and studied to better understand what the two Marines did during the battle.
Callahan, a member of the 55th Company, 5th Marines, was killed on June 11, 1918, after being shot from a German machine gun, records collected from the family showed.
The young Marine enlisted in the Corps when he was only 17 on April 6, 1917, shortly after the U.S. entered the war.
When the family was first notified about their son’s death they were provided little details other than the date and location. Over the years, John Callahan Sr. sought out and talked to the surviving members of his son’s unit to gain insight on his last moments.
The family remembered Callahan Jr., but little was remembered about the work Callahan Sr. did to preserve his son’s legacy until 1998 when Jim Karam started to look into it.
Karam had married into the family; his wife was Callahan Jr.’s great niece. And, both Karam’s brothers were Marines, causing him to feel the need to discover Callahan Jr.’s story.
“I felt this connection with John and I wanted to make sure his story was told and we preserved the truth for the family,” Karam told Marine Corps Times in a September phone call.
Karam quickly started to find the pieces of evidence Callahan Sr. had collected, including a letter written prior to the Battle of Belleau Wood that Callahan Jr. sent to his family, recounting his first time in the trenches.
“We have done our bit in the trenches and have returned from the front … We did not have much hand-to-hand combat with the Boche, but when it comes to dodging shells and shrapnel I am there, because I had a couple of close calls with shrapnel,” Callahan wrote his family in a letter.
“Parents don’t worry about me, for I am coming back soon, because we expect the Allies with America’s help this year will ﬁnish the war. Give my love to everybody and don’t worry.”
When the Marines first got to France, they were put in one of the safest part of the front lines around Verdun, to get used to the realities of trench warfare in the safest way possible, Nevgloski said.
One piece rediscovered by Karam was a letter written to John Callahan Sr. from Hall Abrisch.
Abrisch had been with Callahan Jr. since the two started boot camp, where they quickly became best friends, according to the letter.
The two Marines eventually were assigned to the same company and experienced the war side-by-side until the day Callahan Jr. was wounded.
It was common at the time for Marines who enlisted to fight in World War I to spend their entire careers side by side, Nevgloski said.
“You would have a cadre of Marines that started together,” he said. “So you’re building that cohesion, that esprit, fighting for the guy to your left or right.”
Abrisch wrote, “On the second day of June, 1918, we went into the line to stop those German dogs, and as you know we stopped them.”
“On the 11th of June the Second Battalion of the Fifth made an attack on the German position in Belleau Woods, just one kilometers from the town of Lucy,” the letter added.
The attack was formed at 4:30 a.m. while the artillery bombardment started at 4:45 a.m. By 5:00 a.m. the first wave launched its assault, Abrisch wrote.
Abrisch and Callahan Jr. waited to join the attack until the third wave was launched, when they marched next to each other into the German machine gunfire, according to the letter.
“We pushed on until about ﬁfty yards from the woods when I saw John fall, and also heard him say something, and I stopped to see how badly he was hurt,” Abrisch wrote.
Callahan Jr. had been shot in the lower right of his chest. Abrisch suggested he stay down until the “hospital men” could pull him to safety.
But Callahan Jr. refused, telling his comrade that he wasn’t hurt that badly and he could join in the advance, Abrisch said.
Marines heroically continuing the fight despite their wounds was a common sight during the battle, Nevgloski said.
“You don’t leave the guys who have been with you all the ways up to this point,’ Nevgloski said.
“There’s camaraderie, there’s cohesion, it’s being developed, there’s love for your fellow Marines. so they don’t want to leave each other,” he added.
The Marine eventually made it to the woods, Abrisch wrote, noting that Callahan Jr. had gone pale from blood loss.
After attempting to bandage the wound and wrap him in a blanket Abrisch moved on, preparing for the German counterattack, he wrote.
The next time he saw the Marine was at the medical aid station, where he was optimistic his friend would recover.
The next day Abrisch himself was wounded and sent to Paris, only learning of his friend’s death while reading a newspaper, according to the letter.
“So, my dear friend, you have my sympathy, because I know how my mother and father would feel had I been killed over there,” Abrisch wrote to Callahan Sr.
“He was certainly a game ﬁghter and an honor to the branch of service to which he belonged and to the country which he served,” he added.
Callahan Jr. was buried on the battlefield, with a tag indicating that at some point he was promoted to corporal.
“I’m thinking that sometime during the defensive and the attack on the woods he ended up getting promoted somehow with the deaths that were occurring,” Karam said.
Callahan Jr.’s body eventually was returned to the family in New York, where he rests today.
Karam is seeking a posthumous valor award for Callahan Jr. ― he even wrote to then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in 2018 seeking his assistance.
“I’d like to see young John get it (an individual valor award), it means a lot to the family,” Karam said.
‘That 1,000-yard stare’
Pvt. Norman Roberts was a Marine with the 75th Company, 6th Regiment, who was wounded at Verdun and Belleau Wood but survived the war.
“My grandfather,” said Mack Shively, who was 12 when his grandfather died.
Roberts never talked about his experience in the war with his family, only ever, and only once, telling young Mack Shively to never enlist in the military.
However, the family still knew he was a Marine veteran from World War I.
It was when Mack Shively and his brother, Norman Shivley, discovered artifacts of his time in the war that they finally looked into Belleau Wood and found out what their grandfather did.
“I looked it up on Wikipedia on Belleau Wood and I said holy sh*t,” Mack Shively said.
One of the artifact discoveries was a journal small enough to fit into the breast pocket of the Marine as he traveled around France, providing only enough space to write one short sentence per day.
Once the brothers were able to decipher the faint and small cursive in the notebook lines it gave them amazing insight into the life of their grandfather.
“Basically what you get out of his diary is one or two sentences,” Norman Shivley told Marine Corps Times in a phone call.
“He was really good at keeping track of where he was, which makes it very interesting.”
“Carried rock for sidewalk morning. Sneaked around trying to keep out of work all afternoon,” Roberts wrote for his entry on Jan.19, 1918, showing the life for a Marine has not changed much in the past 100 years.
Once in France the Marine included as much detail as he could about his marches and battles.
Roberts first experience for World War I was at Verdun, France, when despite little actual fighting he still faced shelling and gas attacks on the front line, the journal revealed.
He was hit by shrapnel and was gassed during his time at Verdun, but never left the front, Norman Shivley said.
On May 31, 1918, Roberts got into trucks and rode all day to the eventual battlefield where they took up position on June 1, 1918, the diary reveals.
His notes revealed that the Marine spent most of the day being bombarded by German artillery preventing him from getting any real sleep.
On June 8, 1918, he moved to the front and on June 10, 1918, his company took several casualties while assaulting the German position, his journal noted. He got no sleep on the day of the attack, he added.
On June 11, 1918, the Marine went out on a patrol where he happened upon a German machine-gun position, where once again his unit took several casualties.
“I hit by HE, taken to hospital,” was his last entry on June 11, 1918.
“I interpret that as high explosives and that either the concussion or whatever managed to wound him,” Norman Shivley said, though his specific wound was never recorded.
By June 13, 1918, Roberts was sent to the rear where he eventually was tasked to guard German prisoners, Norman Shivley said.
Roberts died of old age in the 1960s, Mack Shively told Marine Corps Times, still affected by the war of his childhood.
“He obviously had PTSD, it wasn’t called that then but he had that 1,000 yard stare a lot,” Mack Shively said.
Originally published on Marine Corps Times, our sister publication.