Million Dollar Wound

My apologies to all who are looking for a funny post today, but it’s another important, historical day for me. Actually, the First of June was the day when it all started… but I’m getting ahead of my self…

One day, very long ago, a little boy was on his way someplace far away with his parents. He was still of the age when he didn’t really understand direction or distance beyond his neighborhood, so he wasn’t sure where he was when the car stopped and everyone got out and went into a big, funny smelling building. It was a bit like a hospital inside, but a bit like a hotel too. After his father talked to someone at a desk, they were shown to a room containing a bed, a chest of drawers, a couple of tables and chairs and an old, bent man.

The man was tall, though most folks are to a five year old. He was frail and thin and white stubble decorated his leathery cheeks. The adults spoke, hugs were given and then the old man’s gaze shifted to the uncomfortable boy. An introduction was made and the man extended a hand for the boy to shake.

The boy stopped cold as he looked at the offer. He had seen old men’s hands before but this was not right. As the old man extended his outstretched hand, all the fingers drooped down at an alarming angle. An unnatural angle. The palm and back of the hand its self looked odd as well. Bent and twisted as if it had been remolded clumsily after being bent.

Not wanting to be rude and aware of the eyes upon him from his parents and the old man, he took the hand and shook it. Perhaps not as well as he normally would have done, but still, he held it.

As you might have guessed, the little boy is me. That was my experience from so long ago. The old man was my Great-great uncle Edward. So far as I know, this was the only time I ever met him and my memories of his face are indistinct and blurred but for a few items. The hand stands out vividly in my mind’s eye.

Uncle Edward was a marine, or as they were commonly called back then, a leatherneck. He was not one of the thousands upon thousands of young boys who signed up for war in 1917 and 1918. No. He had signed up long before that. Uncle Edward had the distinction if riding with General “Blackjack” Pershing down in Mexico, chasing the outlaw Pancho Villa, long before the U.S. had cast its eyes to the conflict that would break across Europe in 1914. He was still in the Marines when the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) deployed in France late in the Great War and was right there in the front line when the American Marine Corp hit the veteran German forces for the first time in Belleau.

What happened next was dubbed the “Battle of the Belleau Wood” and it was the battle front that the U.S. cut it’s teeth on, waging what we consider modern warfare. Out of this particular conflict came some amazing deeds. It forced the German Army to consider the Americans to be a more than capable enemy and convinced the French and the British that they had finally gotten the help they needed.

When the Marines were ordered to the spot where they were to dig in, defeated and exhausted French troops started spilling through their lines. The French had been fighting for three years and were near the bottom of their manpower and morale. As a French commander withdrawing with his forces stopped to tell one of the U.S. Marines’ officers that they should retreat with them and seek better ground. The American was reported to reply, “Leave?! Hell, we just got here!”

The Battle started in ernest on the second of June and stretched until the end of the month. It was brutal fighting and the losses were terrible for all sides. The American forces knew that the world was watching to see what kind of fighters they were and they were determined to set the tone for what an American was, here on this field of battle. They did. In the end, almost 10,000 U.S. troops were killed or wounded. It is unknown how many German boys died, though it is thought to have been far worse. One German soldier who was there said that the U.S. troops “Fought like devils and killed anything that moved.” The respect for their new opponents was rooted to that wood and would carry over to the rest of the war and into the next.

One of the men who survived was my Great-great Uncle. A piece of shrapnel had passed right through the back of his right hand and come out the palm. It would never be the same. He went to a dressing station, then to a hospital and then home. It was what was called a “Million dollar wound”. He was out of the fighting for good and still had most of his faculties. It probably saved his life.

I can’t tell you how proud I am to have met my Great-great uncle Edward. Though the memory is fuzzy, I shall always hold it dear. Now, I wish I could talk to him and ask a thousand questions, but that time is past. The stories have gone away with him.

I have been to the Belleau Wood. The French have renamed it “Bois de la Brigade de Marine, or Wood of the Marine Brigade”, in honor of the work done there by young American soldiers. I have stood in the trenches where 90 years ago, he stood, waiting for his chance to fight. I have signed his name in the book that they keep there and visited the chapel covered in the names of his friends and squad mates. I am glad for the quite of that wood now. The scars of the conflict, grassed over and root bound are still there to see. I am proud of him and I think of him today.

Take care, Uncle Ed. You were quite a Marine.

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3 Responses

  1. Your Great great uncle Edward is smiling down on you right now.
    We stand on the shoulders of others.

  2. Thanks for your kind words on my blog of World War 1 letters. Your recollection of Edward is very similar to my recollection of Sam. No doubt your great-great uncle and my great uncle fought over the same ground so many years ago! I love your writing & will be back often.

  3. Thanks to both of you. I’d like to think that he is looking down with approval. I wish I could talk to him again, this time with understanding and education.

    Of corse, he may not have wanted to talk about it, like so many who lived through war,

    Turkish Prawn

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