Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps by Alan Axelrod

As a Marine I really enjoyed this book. I knew the story of Belleau Wood, as all Marines do, but not in depth as I do now after reading this wonderful book. I highly recommend it.

Review by Paul Weishaupt, Military Officers Association of America

It's Thursday afternoon, June 6, 1918, near Belleau Wood in France and the gunnery sergeant knows it's time. The officers are dead. Most of the noncommissioned officers are gone, and what's left of the platoon is hunkered down at the edge of a wheat field awaiting the word.

He gets to his feet and steps into the waist-high wheat, heedless of the bullets buzzing in the air. Looking over his shoulder he shouts, "Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?"

Marines rise off the ground like ghosts in the mist. Some groan, double over and kneel as if to pray. Others spin in a ghastly ballet as bullets turn the air around them red.

Few will live to see nightfall, but their sacrifice will snatch victory from the enemy's hands and guarantee that the Marine Corps will be around to fight its country's battles for generations to come.

In "Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps," Alan Axelrod has demonstrated his mastery at portraying battle at its most brutal and bloodiest. The fight for Belleau Wood is like a bayonet in the belly every step of the way.

The distant mirror that Alan Axelrod shows us reflects the fearful face of life and death in World War I. Called "The Great War," it was meant to be the "war to end all wars." It was neither, and into that hell went the 4th Marine Brigade, and against all odds, it turned the tide of an enemy onslaught that might have changed the course of history.

Technology outstripped tactics at the turn of the century, and the result was slaughter on a scale never seen before in battle. New machine guns gave one soldier the power to mow down hundreds in a matter of seconds. Modern artillery vaporized them before they ever heard it coming, and gas, the weapon of terror, blinded them, burned their flesh and seared their lungs. More than eight million in that war would never see home, and for 65 million, life would never be the same again.

At the outset of U.S. involvement, the Marine Corps was a mere 17,400 strong. Throughout its history, the Corps has been threatened and not always by enemies. President Theodore Roosevelt, along with Congress, and other military services questioned the need for the small group of elite warriors. The Marines would prove them all wrong.

What made this battle different was that it was a soldier's fight, not the generals'. Allied commanders were so hampered by a lack of communications and intelligence that victory depended on the tenacity and initiative of the officers and Marines in the field.

Those traits were the Marines' strong suit and were needed as the Germans pressed to within 40 miles of Paris, threatening to end the war on their terms. Defeatism ran rampant through the Allied forces. French soldiers, exhausted from four years of war, fled through Marine lines.

As they passed, French officers ordered the Marines to retreat. "Retreat, Hell! We just got here!" and "By whose command?" echoed up and down the line. If the order wasn't from one of its own, the line didn't move.

As in any battle, little things can tip the scale, and General John J. Pershing's restrictive censorship policy prohibiting war correspondents from identifying Army units by name or number — even between Army service branches, such as cavalry, infantry or artillery — was one that would make a big difference in the Marine Corps for generations to come.

The nation was starved for news about how our troops were faring at the front, and the correspondents were quick to point out that the Marines — separate from the Army — could be identified as Marines. Gen Pershing agreed and that was all the press needed to hear.

On June 6, the Chicago Daily Tribune, whose reporter, Floyd Gibbons, was severely wounded at Belleau Wood, broke the story with titles like, "U.S. Marines Smash Huns" and "Marines Win Hot Battle... Sweep Enemy From Heights Near Thierry." Shortly after, newspapers around the world were praising the Marines for their heroism at Belleau Wood and victories in the war. The acclaim resonated well with Congress, and by the end of July the legislators authorized expansion of the Marine Corps to 3,107 officers and 75,500 men.

"Miracle at Belleau Wood" is a testament to the courage of Marines and to their devotion to their country and the Corps. It is a must-read for Marines and Americans who care that their nation has a strong Marine Corps.

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