View Full Version : Floyd Gibbons at Belleau Wood

07-31-03, 09:57 PM
Floyd Gibbons at Belleau Wood

by Floyd and Edward Gibbons

On June 6, 1918, Floyd Gibbons, war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, and Lieutenant Oscar Hartzel of the Intelligence Division entered Belleau Wood. There they met Major Benjamin S. Berry, battalion commander of the Fifth Marine Corps. Berry advised them to go back, as it was "hotter than hell" just ahead, but relented with the admonition that they were coming at their own risk. Gibbons and Hartzel found themselves in the midst of one of the roughest and toughest battles of the entire war. The French were so impressed with the heroic fighting abilities of the Marines, and the nullifying of the German threat to actually march on and capture Paris, that they renamed the area Bois de la Brigade des Marines - "the Woods of the Brigade of Marines".

Belleau Wood, west of the town of Lucy-le-Bocage, was not one solid mass of forest, but made up of many one- to five-acre patches of woods with oat and wheat fields in between. The advance of the Marines was so rapid and over such rough terrain that the men had only machine guns, their carbines with bayonets attached, hand grenades, and side arms for the officers. Although the heavy artillary in the rear was within range of the front, the speed with which the Marines were rolling forward prohibited the use of heavy shelling. The Fifth Marine Corps was poised on the edge of a V shaped oatfield, bordered on all sides by thick woodland. According to the international rules of war, Floyd Gibbons, a noncombatant, could carry no arms. He was armed with his notebook and pencil.

Berry gave the order to advance, stepping out first himself, with each man following at ten to fifteen yard intervals. Floyd was next in line to Berry, with Hartzell next to Floyd. As they reached the middle of the field German machine-gunners a hundred yards on their left, opened up. Berry ordered everybody down, and they flattened themselves in the young oats as best they could. Floyd looked up to see Major Berry, his right hand holding the stump of what had been his left hand, still standing.

Floyd yelled to him to get down, and started inching towards him. Trying to hide his movement from the German machine-gunners, Floyd crawled along, his left cheek hugging the ground and his helmut pushed over the right, partly covering his face on that side. Floyd had gotten but a few feet when a bullet hit him in the left arm, just above the elbow, going in one side and out the other. He continued to push himself forward. A few moments later another bullet hit him in the left shoulder blade, still he inched on. Another five feet along, a third bullet hit him, it ricocheted off a rock in the ground, and with an upward course ripped out his left eye, continued on, making a compound fracture of the skull, and finally coming out on the right side of his helmet where it blew a hole three inches long.

Remarkabley Floyd did not lose consciousness, he was dazed, and experienced a sensation of a lot of glass crashing around him, everything turning white in his mind's eye. His eyeball was lying on his cheek split in half. His left hand and arm were numb and out of commission. He wondered if he was dead, and pinching himself for reassurance, concluded he was still alive.

Movement in any direction was now impossible. A mortally wounded Marine near him lay thrashing about, bringing machine-gun spray just inches from Floyd. Floyd watched the bullets rip apart the young man's body, buttons and parts of his uniform flying off, 'til finally he lay still. A short time later Floyd looked up to see Major Berry jump to his feet, and in a hail of bullets, get back into the woods. Floyd later learned the major was able to get word back to a light artillary unit, enabling the unit to wipe out the German machine-gun nest holding up the advance. For his supreme effort, General Pershing decorated Major Berry with the Distinguished Service Cross.

Hartzell called to Floyd in a low voice, asking Floyd how he was. Hartzell was unaware of Floyd's condition before now. When he asked Floyd if he was badly hurt, Floyd said "No, I don't think so."

Hartzell said "Well, where are you hit?"

"In the head."

"You damn fool, you say you're not hurt badly. I'm coming right over to help you."

"You damn fool, if you do any moving, don't move in my direction. I think they think I'm dead."

They decided to give the addresses of their wives to each other in case they didn't get through alive.

Another thing was bothering Floyd, the fear of gas gangrene poisoning. He had seen many terrible cases among our soliders, it was easily contracted from lying out on cultivated and fertilized farm land. To try to reduce the possibility, he had placed his two-inch thick British gas mask up under his cheek, keeping his face off the ground. Then, realizing his French mask was only half an inch thick, he replaced it with that. With the machine-gun bullets whizzing right over his head, ten to twelve inches off the ground, that extra inch and a half gave him considerable consolation.

Since it was the 6th of June, it did not get dark until 9:00pm. Floyd had been hit at 6:00pm. They lay out there for 3 hours before they dared to move. Every fifteen minutes Hartzell would tell Floyd what time it was and try to cheer him up, telling him it would soon be dark. Finally Hartzell was able to inch his way over to Floyd. Floyd, anxious to know the extent of his injuries, looked at Hartzell. He was met with a look of horror; his eyeball was hanging down by the nerves, completely out of the socket, his skull had a deep furrow across it, his face and hair were covered in blood and his left sleeve was likewise drenched. He later learned had the bullet that hit his eye gone a sixteenth of an inch deeper, it would have killed him instantly.

Floyd was quite weak from lose of blood, and once they had crawled back to the woods, Hartzell had to support Floyd. They finally came to a road and started walking slowly down it in search of a first aid station, but without any idea of where there was one.

The following is Floyd's account of the complications encountered on his way to the base hospital and his reaction to undergoing a major operation.