Parades, a Tornado, an Eclipse — and in a Distant Wood Called Belleau, a Sad Summer Begins

 

Perhaps the tornado that struck Genesee County in May, 1918 should’ve been taken as a warning of the summer to come, given that it coincided with a deadlier storm building “over there” as the Kaiser’s troops smashed through French lines toward Paris.

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“Portions of houses, roofs of buildings, garages and trees were gathered up in the mighty storm king’s leash and hurled whole rods from their sites.”

May 10, 1918 Batavia Daily News

“There came a sudden crash, a noise like a crackling of a mighty fire, then a switch that seemed like the indrawn breath of a giant and that intake of air plucked roofs from houses, windows from their frames, and trees from the earth. People ran out of their homes and stood in the drenching rain because they felt that their homes were unsafe.”

 

But in that summer’s opening days, no mere tornado could quash Genesee County’s overwhelming enthusiasm for giving the Kaiser what-for.

On May 21, thousands thronged to Batavia to watch Genesee County’s kickoff parade to raise donations for the Red Cross War Fund. Thousands more marched in the parade. Automobiles, floats, bands, and masses of marchers  streamed continuously along Batavia’s major streets for nearly an hour.

Two hundred white-clad Red Cross workers led the procession. Dozens of young women wearing veils of red, white, or blue formed an enormous “living Red Cross flag.”  Another section featured 800 school girls representing the Junior Red Cross.

Bands from every county town accompanied the floats and the footsteps of the marchers. There were massed ranks of social and patriotic organizations, and Polish and Italian societies. Throngs of employees of  businesses and factories created floats and marched too—among them were 300 workers from Massey-Harris, another 300 from  Batavia Steel Products.

May 22, 1918 Batavia Daily News

“One big float was piled high with shells and surmounted with the caption, ‘Pills for the Kaiser.’  This provoked many a cheer. The same truck carried a cannon which  . . . with the roar of a discharge . . . sent confetti scattering over the heads of the people.”

“From the Court House through Main and Jackson streets,” reported the Daily News, “a line of watchers sometimes six and seven deep along the curbs applauded and cheered, doffed caps to the waving flags, dug deep into pockets and flung coins and bills in the huge flags that begged contributions for the wounded boys over there.”

And the parades and rallies and calls to service kept coming.

May 28, 1918 Batavia Daily News

On May 26, just five days after the huge Red Cross parade, 2,000 county citizens turned out to cheer another group of draftees—97 men, the eighth contingent since last September—as they marched to Batavia’s train station to leave for Camp Dix.

Four days later, on May 30, Memorial Day rallies, prayer meetings and speeches stirred patriotic fervor in every county town.

On June 1, a call went out to Genesee County boys between the ages of 16 and 21 to join the United States Boys Working Reserve, to work on farms in place of the many men who’d left for the war.

On June 5, all males who’d turned 21 in the previous year were required to register for the draft. In Genesee County, 243 men reported, adding that many more to the ranks of those in line for service.

Then three days later, on June 8, amid optimistic news of U.S. Marines pushing back German forces headed for Paris, a total solar eclipse on the scale of 2017’s swept across the United States, darkening the skies over Genesee County from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m.

June 8, 1918 Batavia Times

It was an event that, like the tornado, had no apparent relation to the war, and no immediate effect on Genesee County’s patriotic fervor. But in hindsight, whether foreboding omen or not, it marked a turning point, the beginning of what would become an all-too-regular occurrence over the coming months in Genesee County newspapers.

Summer’s first announcement, eerily echoing descriptions of the eclipse casting shadows, appeared in the Batavia Times on June 29, three weeks later.

“A gloom was cast over Batavia yesterday when the news became known that Glenn Shotwell Loomis, son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Loomis of No. 21 Lincoln Avenue, had lost his life in the trenches of France.”

June 29, 1918 Batavia Times

Twenty-three-year-old Marine Private Glenn S. Loomis, Batavia’s first war loss, had been killed in action on June 7—only hours before the eclipse had brought somber skies to Genesee County.

“The young man had written several letters to his parents,” reported the Times. “On March 27 he wrote his parents: ‘I hope to see you before very long, as I don’t believe the war will last much longer.'”

The article continued, “Mr. Loomis was a young man of sterling character, and was highly respected. He possessed a cheerful and winning way, and made friends wherever he went. At one time he was employed as a reporter on the Batavia Times.”

Worse,  by the time the news of Private Loomis’s death reached the county, three more Genesee County Marines also had perished. July newspapers would announce the deaths of Privates Robert S Spencer and William K Bray of Batavia, and Private Hiram G Luhman of Oakfield. (Click on highlighted name for full honor roll profile in separate window.)

All four died in the vicious month-long fighting for a few hundred strategic acres encompassing tree-covered hills, wheat fields, and a dense, brush-entangled, boulder-strewn forest called Bois d’ Belleau, or Belleau Wood.

At the end of May, the American 2nd Division, which included the 5th and 6th Marine regiments, was rushed to the area northwest of Chateau-Thierry to halt the enemy’s advance toward Paris. On June 1 the division took up positions west and south of Belleau Wood, where several German divisions had taken the adjacent villages of Belleau, Bouresches, and Torcy and had set up strong machine-gun emplacements in the woods and on surrounding high ground.

For five days the division held its ground against German attacks, stopping the advance.

Then, on June 6, the 5th Marines’ 1st Battalion, which included Glenn Loomis’s 17th Company,  launched the Americans’ first offensive attack in what would become a grueling, bloody, nearly month-long series of attacks and German counterattacks.

June 7, 1918 — Glenn S Loomis Killed

Sweeping north from its position near Champillon west of Belleau Wood against strong machine-gun fire, advancing across a ridge, over an open wheat field, and through woods to take enemy-held high ground, Loomis’s battalion reached its objectives by mid-morning despite heavy losses and dug in, where it fought off repeated German counterattacks.

Private Loomis was killed in a counterattack sometime around midnight that evening.

October 21, 1918 Batavia Daily News

“I had sent him out to warn us of the approach of the enemy,” wrote his platoon commander in a letter to Loomis’s parents. “His last deed was to give us the warning.”

“He cried ‘Boche’ and came tumbling down the hill and fell against a tree. He was stabbed in the back through right side. Bayonet going through chest.” — Sgt. F.A. Seeres

 

 

Searcher’s report in Glenn S Loomis Burial Case File, National Archives, St. Louis MO

 

June 10, 1918 — Robert S Spencer Killed

Robert Spencer’s 6th Machine Gun Battalion was in the thick of the fighting, supporting key attacks by both Marine regiments. On the day he was killed, the 6th Marines were attacking north into the center of the woods. Spencer’s 17th Company was providing concentrated fire, despite heavy shelling all day from enemy artillery and minenwerfers (heavy trench mortars).

(Spencer is the center marine in photo, published in the July 12, 1918 Batavia Daily News.)

“The Germans were shelling us heavily and sent over a Minewerfer [sic], a large shell which you can not hear coming, which dropped in his trench killing himself and three others instantly.” — Lt. H.D. Campbell

Marines with captured German minenwerfer

Spencer’s lieutenant, H.D. Campbell, described the Marine’s death in a letter to Private Spencer’s family, which was published in the July 12, 1918 Batavia Daily News. “It was during the big drive which the marines stopped and after our second attack we were held up by machine gun fire and dug in.” He went on to express his sorrow, adding: “Bobby was my orderly and the most straightforward, big-hearted lad in the company.”

 

June 11, 1918 — William K Bray Killed

William Bray and Glenn Loomis were classmates at Batavia High School, and graduated together in 1913.  They surely knew one another, and because Bray’s 51st Company had assisted in the June 6 attack in which Loomis was later killed, it is likely that he was aware of his schoolmate’s death as he lined up with his company, five days later, for another assault on Belleau Wood.

Contemporary view of June 11 attack launch point; Belleau Wood in distance.

At 4:30 in the morning on June 11, under cover of a heavy morning mist, the 5th Marines’ 2nd Battalion moved out across an open wheat field toward the fog-shrouded forest in the distance. William Bray’s 51st Company was on the right of the leading wave.  The Marines made it most of the way across the exposed field before German machine gunners opened up.  Reads History of the Second Division in the World War:

“Once discovered . . . they were brought under fire, and the leading waves shot to pieces, the volume of fire coming from the right front in the angle of the woods.”

By the time the battalion reached the edge of the woods, Bray’s 51st Company had been virtually wiped out. According to one official account, only one officer and 16 men were left.  The battalion as a whole that day lost six officers and 176 men killed or wounded.

Typical German defensive views from western edge of Belleau Wood.

June 19, 1918 — Hiram G Luhman Dies of Wounds Received June 18
U.S. Marine Corps machine-gun crew

By June 15, after two weeks of repeated attacks and German counterattacks for possession of the woods, the 5th and 6th Marine regiments had taken 2,400 casualties, including at least 567 killed.  To give them much-needed rest, all units were temporarily relieved by the 3rd Division’s 7th Infantry—all, that is, except the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, including Hiram Luhman’s 23rd Company, which was needed to help the 7th Infantry hold the territory the Marines had taken.

Private Luhman was mortally wounded on June 18, just two days before his company was finally relieved. In a letter to Hiram’s parents published in the September 23, 1918 Batavia Daily News, 23rd Company’s Lieutenant H.D. Campbell wrote, “Your son passed through the battle of Bois Belleau and only a few days before we were relieved he was killed in a heavy artillery barrage.”

A  report signed by his company sergeant reads:

“He was wounded in the back and head by fragment of shell at 11 P.M. June 18th, sent to Hospital, died of wounds June 19th 1918.”

Hiram Luhman had turned 18 less than two months before he was killed. He was one of the earliest Genesee County soldiers to enlist—barely three weeks after the U..S. had entered the war, and just one day after his 17th birthday.

“When he left Oakfield, the same day he enlisted, the Oakfield High School students escorted him to the train,” reported the July 13, 1918 Batavia Daily News. “School was dismissed for an hour and the students formed in line and, carrying flags, marched to the West Shore station.”

 

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After several days of much-needed food and rest, the Marine 5th and 6th regiments returned  to Belleau Wood and repeatedly attacked remaining enemy positions until, at last, on June 26, the message went out to commanders: “BELLEAU WOODS NOW U.S. MARINE CORPS ENTIRELY.”

The ruins of Belleau following the summer’s fighting.

There would remain scattered skirmishes and additional casualties, and in July more intense combat by the relieving 26th Division to drive the enemy from the village of Belleau itself and from Germam strongholds in surrounding territory and towns. The Battle of Belleau Wood had been won, but at horrific cost.

 

In the one-month battle for possession of a faraway French forest, 665 American Marines had been killed, and another 3,633 wounded. In all, the casualties suffered by the 2nd and 3rd Divisions involved in the fighting totaled nearly 10,000 Americans killed or wounded.

One of several temporary American cemeteries after the fighting at Belleau Wood.

At home in Genesee County, regardless of enthusiastic media reports of Allied victories abroad,  the news of the four local mens’ deaths in June cast a shadow that would lengthen all too painfully over the coming months. Day after day that summer and fall, more sad announcements would appear in local newspapers.

The toll grew. By the end of August, ten more Genesee County men had perished.

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(Click on highlighted name for full honor roll profile in separate window.)

July 15, 1918 – George K Botts of LeRoy, killed in action near Fossoy, France.

July 18, 1918Clarence Heale of Batavia, died of disease at Camp des Souges, France

July 19, 1918Edward Coyle of Batavia, killed in action near Soissons, France

July 20, 1918John Kirkpatrick of Stafford, killed in action near Nogentel, France

July 23, 1918Albert Gelonek of Batavia, died of wounds near Courchamps, France

August 2, 1918Leonard Snyder of Batavia, died of wounds near Le Charmel, France

August 5, 1918Floyd Cochran of Batavia, killed in action near St. Gilles, France

August 9, 1918Ira Spring of Tonawanda Reservation, killed in action near Ancervillers, France

August 11, 1918Charles Votrie of Batavia, killed in action near Bazoches, France

August 25, 1918Leo Fiorito of LeRoy, died of wounds near Poperinghe, Belgium

 

Coming Soon: The Armistice That Wasn’t

Credits

Retrieved from the Library of Congress: “They Fight for You,” W.G. Sesser, artist (https://www.loc.gov/item/00652359/); “Come Across,” C.W. Love, artist (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002719758/); “Farm to Win,” Adolph Treidler, artist (https://www.loc.gov/item/2002722582/); “The Call to Duty: Join the Army,” Edoardo Cammilli, sculptor; “Belleau Village” photo, Bain News Service (https://www.loc.gov/item/2014708557/).

Others: “Now is your Chance,” author collection; Belleau Wood map from With the Help of God and a Few Marines by Brig. Gen. A.W. Catlin, Doubleday Page & Co, 1919; “Open wheat field across which … ” photo, from Where the Marines Fought in France by Ray P Antrim, Park & Antrim, 1919; “Marines with captured German minenwerfer, National Archives Photo No. 111-SC-50436 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/86706674); “Typical German defensive views” ©2017 Terry Krautwurst; “U.S. Marine Corps machine-gun crew, National Archives Photo No. 111-SC-9836 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/55180003); “American Cemetery at Lucy le Bocage” accessed at website “2nd Division – Second to None”
(http://2nd-division.com/_div.misc/chateau.thierry/lucy.le.bocage.htm).

Newspaper clips retrieved from fultonhistory.com

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