A modest cache of letters, photos and medals originally belonging to Cpl. Frank Dunham, USMC (1917-19) offers an evocative glimpse into the wartime experiences of several members of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, during the summer of 1918 at Belleau Wood near the River Marne.
There is not enough here for a cohesive narrative, but only isolated clues, such as might emerge from an archaeological dig– or, as in this case, from a soldier’s trunk.
The full story of Frank Dunham and his friends in 15th Company is lost to time. But his handful of photos & medals, and a couple of letters, open small windows on a place called Belleau Wood and, together with what is preserved in the official histories, at least a small part of that story can be pieced together.
For the Marines of 15th Company, as for much of the 4th Brigade, the decisive date was June 6, 1918, when the Marine Corps suffered more casualties in one day than during their entire history up to that time.
At 3:45 a.m. on the 6th, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines under Major Julius Turrill (of which only two companies were available, the 49th under Capt. George Hamilton, and the 67th under 1stLt Orlando Crowther) attacked from Hill 142 north to the Lucy-Torcy road. Ten machine guns from 15th Company, including Dunham and his friends, supported the attack with direct overhead fire on German assembly points and reserve positions. As a result of this firing, they drew fire upon themselves. While their objectives were attained, both companies had suffered such heavy casualties among officers and men that by mid-morning Capt Hamilton had to step in and merge the remnants of both companies into a single company under his command.
Meanwhile, the machine gunners of 15th Company suffered several casualties during the attack, though no fatalities. Cpl Frank Dunham was awarded the Silver Star Certificate and Croix de Guerre for his actions on this date. His citation reads: “He displayed coolness and leadership in conducting his guns throughout the day, under heavy artillery and machine gun fire.”
Also decorated for courage under fire in this attack was one of Dunham’s friends, Pvt. Russell D. Smith, who received the Silver Star Certificate. His citation reads: “He maintained the fire of his machine gun throughout the day while subjected to enemy fire which was so intense that parts of his gun were destroyed.” Pvt Smith would later be awarded another Silver Star and two Croix de Guerres for his actions at Soissons.
Among Dunham‘s possessions is a photograph of Smith and himself standing in the wheat field where the attack of the 6th had taken place. The photograph is undated, but it was so soon after the battle that bodies of dead Marines are still lying unburied on the ground.
Also taken at this time is another photograph showing Dunham standng by himself, with unidentified dead Marines.
And this photo of another chum, Irving Bigelow . . .
But the story and Frank Dunham, Russell Smith and Irving Bigelow, as well as their other chums, Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer, Edward Duda, Emanuel Smolik and Victor Bleasdale– all members of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, and all present at Belleau Wood– for all of them the story of their military service began earlier. For most, it began with the declaration of war by the United States in April, 1917. But for two of them, Frank Dunham and Victor Bleasdale, the story began two years earlier, in 1915, and involved an earlier conflict, an insurrection in Haiti— while for Irving Bigelow it began earlier yet, in 1914, in yet another conflict — in Mexico, at Vera Cruz.
Vera Cruz, Apr-Nov 1914
Irving Bigelow enlisted in Lansing, Michigan in January 1914 and was stationed at Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, in Norfolk, Virginia for the next three and a half months.
On April 22nd, Pvt Bigelow joined 20th Company in LtCol A.W. Caitlin’s 3rd Regiment and participated in the landing at Vera Cruz, taking part in the house-to-house fighting that took place in that city later the same day.
On the 29th, Bigelow joined 15th Company of LtCol Wendell Neville’s 2nd Regiment and remained in Vera Cruz for the duration of the American occupation, until late November of that year.
Haiti, Aug 1915 — Dec 1916
Next among the future friends to enlist was Frank Dunham, who joined up in Akron, Ohio on October 19, 1914. He trained as a member of Company F, Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, in the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia until mid-January when he was transferred to 15th Company, 2nd Regiment, 1st Brigade which by this time had returned from Vera Cruz and was stationed at the Navy Yard on League Island, Philadelphia.
The third friend to enlist was Victor Bleasdale from Janesville, Wisconsin, who joined up in Milwaukee on May 10th, 1915. He trained in Company D at the Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, in Norfolk until mid-July, when he travelled by train to Wintrop, Massachusetts, where he underwent marksmanship training on the Army rifle course.
At the end of July, Bleasdale was transferred to 15th Company in Philadelphia, just in time to join the company on board the USS Connecticut, which steamed out to sea on July 31st— carrying 344 Marines (five companies) of the 2nd Regiment, under Colonel E.K. Cole— and bound for Haiti, where a bloody revolution was underway.
At this point, on board ship, the three future friends, Bigelow, Dunham & Bleasdale, were all together for the first time in the same company, though at what point they became acquainted and struck up friendships is unknown.
The Connecticut steamed into harbor at Port au Prince on August 4, after a record run from Philadelphia. The capitol was in chaos. Two Presidents had been murdered within thirty-six hours— one of them dismembered with body parts displayed on poles; hundreds executed, many by machete; two foreign legations violated, and the government non-existant. Mobs stormed through the streets.
On August 15, Colonel L.W.T. Waller arrived on board the armored cruiser Tennessee with eight companies from the 1st Regiment of Marines and estabished the 1st Brigade (just over 2000 men) on shore, with the long-term purpose of pacifying the country and permitting the reconstitution of the Haitian government. The native insurgents, known as cacos, controlled much of the island, and driving them out of their strongholds became the main objective of the Marines.
The first job was to drive the cacos out of the capital of Port au Prince, and this was accomplished in the first few days by Col Waller’s 2nd Regiment, followed by the clearing of nearby town of Gonaives.
The next main trouble spot was in the north around Cap-Haitian. Colonel Cole’s 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, including 15th Company. was stationed in Cap-Haitian. The cacos, controlling the countryside, set up a blockade around the town, blocking all movement in or out, cutting off all supplies to the surrounded Marines. On September 20th, a Marine patrol, attempting to cut through the blockade, was ambushed. Cole called in a landing force from the USS Connecticut to hold the town, while he and most of his regiment went to the rescue of the surrounded patrol. In the ensuing conflict, forty cacos were killed at the expense of 10 Marines wounded. It is unknown if Bigelow, Bleasdale or Dunham took part in this fight, as no mention of it is found in their roster records.
The following week Cole attacked a caco stronghold at Quartier Morin, taking it on the 27th. At this point Waller turned his full attention to taking possession of the northern region of the island. He set up a three-town triangle of garrisons at Ouanaminthe, on the Dominican border, Grand Riviere du Nord, and Fort Liberte, leaving a company in each town. 15th Company was responsible for Fort Liberte.
The next objective in Waller‘s plan was the caco stronghold at Fort Capois. Waller sent Major Smedley Butler and Captain “Deacon” Upshur and forty enlisted Marines, including the legendary Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly (both Butler & Daly would end their military careers with two Medals of Honor apiece). Also present on this six-day, 120-mile expedition was Pvt Irving Bigelow. For an assault force, the Marines were lightly armed, their heaviest weapon being a single machine gun.
Unfortunately for the patrol, their guide was in cahoots with the cacos and led the Marines into an ambush. That night (Oct 24-25), as the Marines were attempting to cross a mountain river of whitewater, the forty-odd Marines were surrounded and attacked by some 400 cacos from Fort Capois and Fort Dipitie. The cacos kept them pinned down and under fire throughout the night. The Marines did not even have the benefit of their one machine gun, as the horse carrying it had been killed by gunfire while crossing the river. In the dark, while still under attack, GSgt Daly stole back to the river, hoisted the machine gun on his back and made his way back to camp (an action which earned him his second Medal of Honor).
At daylight, knowing the cacos would attack and overwhelm them by sheer numbers, Butler audaciously attacked the cacos, in three directions! The cacos were so dumbfounded and caught off guard that they panicked and ran. Captain Upshur and 1st Lt Ostermann (who was wounded), with just 13 Marines (one of whom was Bigelow) pursued the cacos back to Fort Dipitie, then stormed the fort and burned it to the ground (an action for which both officers received Medals of Honor). Bigelow, as one of the thirteen, would later receive a Letter of Commendation, signed by the Secretary of the Navy, for his participation in this attack.
After their long and sleepless night, Butler led the patrol back to Grande Riviere du Nord. Almost immediately Captain Chandler Campbell organized a column and set out to attack Fort Capois. This time the Marine column was far larger, composed of two companies of sailors from the Connecticut and five companies of Marines, including 15th Company. Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham were all present on this expedition. Le Trou was captured on Nov 2, and Fort Capois on Nov 5. Forts Selon and Berthol were captured on the 7th and 8th.
According to their muster roll records, Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham only participated in Butler‘s expedition through the 15th, but this is probably in error since the expedition lasted at least through the 18th, culminating in the major assault of Fort Riviere on that date. As none of the three Marines was wounded, or was reported sick, or AWOL, it seems unlikely that any of them would have been removed from the expedition while it was in progress.
15th Company was one of several units assigned to the initial assault on the fort on the night of the 17th-18th. The company, accompanied by Major Butler, attacked the south side of the fortification, and penetrated the fort through an opening so constricted that only one man could go through at a time. The first two Marines to enter were Sgt Ross Iams and Private Sam Gross, both of whom were awared Medals of Honor. A few more squads from the company squeezed through right after them, and were immediately attacked from within by the cacos. The hand-to-hand fighting which ensued was extremely brutal— involving firearms, bayonets, machetes, clubs and rocks. By the time it was over, all the cacos were killed (about fifty in all), while all the Marines were left standing. Major Smedley Butler earned his second Medal of Honor on this day.
15th Company, as part of the 2nd Regiment of Marines, remained in Haiti through the rest of 1916.
Irving Bigelow served on detached duty with the Haitian Gendarmerie at La Valliere throughout June and July, then returned to Port au Prince in August where, till the end of the year, he drove an “auto truck” for the regiment. Sometime in September, 1915, Pvt Bigelow was promoted to corporal. On Dec 27, Cpl Bigelow was promoted to sergeant.
Through most of his time in Haiti, when he was not participating in expeditions against the cacos, Victor Bleasdale served as payroll and muster roll clerk for the company. On June 25th, 1916, Pvt Bleasdale was promoted to corporal.
From September 1 to 26, 1916, Frank Dunham participated in a mounted expedition from Port au Prince, Haiti, over mountainous jungle, to Azua, in the Dominican Republic. Through much of November and December he was hospitalized in Port au Prince with an unspecified ailment.
Stateside, Jan-Apr 1917
Sometime in January, 1917, the 2nd Regiment, including 15th Company, returned to the United States and took up their station in Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Philadelphia. Bigelow and Bleasdale returned with the company. Dunham‘s movements are less clear, as his roster record for January is missing. Probably he remained in hospital in Port au Prince for a time after the regiment had returned to the States. By February, 1917, all three Marines were at Marine Barracks, Philadelphia Navy Yard on League Island.
Sometime in late February, 1917, 15th Company was transferred to the Marine Aviation Section, US Navy Aeronautic Station in Pensacola, Florida, and all three friends were included in the move. It was at this time that another future member of the Dunham “circle of chums” joined the Company: Russell Smith, who had enlisted the previous November.
War is Declared, April 2
While Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham were still at Pensacola with 15th Company, the United States declared war on Germany on April 2nd. In mid-May, the Secretary of War made a formal request to President Wilson that a regiment of Marines be included in the first contingent of troops being sent to France. Wilson issued an order to that effect on the 27th. Accordingly, Marine units with expeditionary experience in Haiti, Santo Domingo and Cuba, including 15th Company, as well as a number of shipboard detachments, were formally organized into the 5th Marine Regiment, commanded by Col Charles Doyen, and composed of three battalions. 15th Company was called up from Pensacola to Quantico and assigned to 1st Battalion under Major Julius Turrill.
It was at about this time that the rest of the Marines in Dunham’s “circle of chums” joined the company. Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Emanuel Smolik enlisted just days after the declaration of war, underwent basic training together at Paris* Island as members of the same “Company H” and joined 15th Company at Quantico on June 1st. Edward Duda also joined on this date from Paris Island, where he had trained in “Company I”.
Crossing the Pond
The Marines of 15th Company left Quantico on June 12, traveling by train to their old homebase at the Navy Yard on League Island, Philadelphia, and immediately boarded the USS DeKalb (formerly the German ship Prinz Eitel, seized at the outbreak of war), joining the rest of the Col Julius Turrill’s 1st Battalion.
Together with the USS Hancock (which held Headquarters & Supply Companies), the Dekalb weighed anchor and steamed out to sea on the same day, to a sustained cacaphony of every bell and whistle on the waterfront. Their journey up the Jersey coast was slowed by a heavy fog in Delaware Bay, but soon enough they made it into New York Harbor and anchored within sight of the Statue of Liberty. The two ships were joined by a third, the USS Henderson, which carried the 2nd and 3rd Battalions and the regimental band. On the 14th, together with other ships carrying the remainder of the 1st Division, they set sail for France.
A pair of encounters with German U-boats notwithstanding, the Dekalb arrived in St Nazaire harbor, on the coast of France in good order on June 26. The 1st Battalion disembarked with little fanfare on the same day and marched five miles to the western outskirts of the city, to a British campground known as Base Camp #1. This was to be their home for the next couple of weeks. They set up tents, and within a few hours were nicely settled in, making coffee and frying bacon over open fires. For the next couple of weeks, the Marines primarily busied themselves with marches and close order drills, sometimes marching back to the docks to spend a day unloading ships.
To be continued . . .
* “Parris Island” was not spelled with two “r”s until after the war.
Original photographs in this article courtesy of Paul Higgins. All other photos are in the Public Domain.
Last updated in the early hours of 11 Feb 2013. Additions, questions & corrections by readers are welcome.