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The “Devil Docs” of Belleau Wood: Stories of Valor and Sacrifice

08 June 2023

From ANDRÉ SOBOCINSKI

On June 6, 1918, Lt. Joel Boone, Regimental Surgeon with the 6th Marines, watched as Major Thomas Holcomb and his Marine unit trudged through a waist-high wheatfield in Bouresches, on the edge of Belleau Wood.“While I did not know it at the time, casualties began to occur among his men,” recalled Boone. “Later I learned one of the first wounded
On June 6, 1918, Lt. Joel Boone, Regimental Surgeon with the 6th Marines, watched as Major Thomas Holcomb and his Marine unit trudged through a waist-high wheatfield in Bouresches, on the edge of Belleau Wood.

“While I did not know it at the time, casualties began to occur among his men,” recalled Boone. “Later I learned one of the first wounded Marines was Captain Donald F. Duncan, commanding one of the companies of the Second Battalion. Lieutenant junior grade Weeden [sic] E. Osborne, Dental Corps, U.S. Navy, who was assigned to that company, went to the rescue of Captain Duncan, and in the process of carrying him toward the rear where he thought it would be safe. . . they both received a direct hit which proved fatal to each of them.”

Osborne, a 26-year-old dentist from Illinois that Boone remembered as the “clean-cut, blonde, rosy-cheeked young man,” was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the first military dentist to receive this award and the first Navy casualty in the epic battle of Belleau Wood.

Today, the name Belleau Wood garners instant recognition from anyone who has worn the uniform, and no more so than U.S. Marines. This is where the Marine Corps first earned the moniker “Devil Dogs”— fierce warriors who are always ready for the fight. And this is a legacy that has endured ever since.

From June 1 to 26, 1918, the 4th Marine Brigade (comprised of the 5th Marines, 6th Marines and 6th Machine Gun Battalion) fought through a gauntlet of thick woodland, jagged rock and barbed wire, and against unrelenting machine gun fire, poison gas and a formidable, entrenched force. Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, these Devil Dogs seized Belleau Wood and successfully turned back the enemy’s Spring Offensive.

For Navy Medicine, Belleau Wood is where our deep Greenside roots first took root and the developing concept of field medicine took that next formative step. All along the way, those Devil Dogs were joined by Greenside physicians, dentists and hospital corpsmen whose focus on keeping them in the fight and rendering lifesaving aid was unwavering. They included the likes of:

Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class Joseph Johnson of Elizabeth, New Jersey. After crossing the wheatfields with the 5th Marines, Johnson worked “unceasingly” in caring for and evacuating more than 200 wounded men while under unrelenting machine gun and shellfire.

Chief Pharmacist’s Mate George G. Strott of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While serving with the 6th Marines on the evening of June 6th, Strott fearlessly left his shelter to render assistance to personnel struck by “fragments of a large calibre [sic] shell.” Despite poor visibility and constant shell bursts, he helped carry wounded men across a difficult terrain to a dressing station.

Throughout Belleau Wood, Navy medical personnel operated several makeshift dressing and aid stations anywhere that offered a modicum of protection—in wine cellars, farmhouses, and culverts.

From an old farmhouse outside of Belleau Wood, Lt. Boone and his medical team operated a regimental aid station where they helped control hemorrhaging, bandage the wounded and even performed extensive debridement by “flickering candlelight.” To prevent shock, they used morphine (applied through syrettes) and kept patients as warm as possible with blankets and “canned heat.” There were no antibiotics or plasma, and wounds were often infected by contaminated soil and dirty clothing. And although the Carroll-Dakin therapy was used to control infections at base and field hospitals, it was typically not available on the front.

For several weeks there was little time for respite. “These weeks in the Belleau Wood area had nearly exhausted me, for I had had very little sleep, very little food and no opportunity even to change my clothes or take them off,” Boone recalled. “I had lived many times in a steaming inferno and the stresses and strains on the nervous system was tremendous.”

Throughout this fight, many of these aid and dressing stations were subject to constant bombardment. Boone’s aid station received a series of direct hits from heavy shells on June 9th and 10th which took off part of the roof and killed 10 patients.

On June 11, Lt. Orlando Petty, a physician with the 5th regiment, was manning a dressing station at Lucy-le-Bocage when it came under heavy fire from German artillery, including poison gas shells. Among the casualties being treated by Petty in the attack was Captain Lloyd Williams, commander of the 51st Company, 2nd battalion, 5th Marines, and famous for answering a French soldier’s call of retreat with: "Retreat? Hell, we just got here!" During the bombardment, Petty was knocked down by an exploding shell which destroyed the dressing station and rendered his gas mask useless. He discarded his mask and carried Williams through the shellfire and mustard gas to safety. Despite incurring severe chemical burns and irreparable lung damage, Petty continued to treat casualties until being evacuated to the rear.

Casualties at Belleau Wood were significant. In total, some 616 members of the 4th Marine Brigade were killed in action at Belleau Wood with an additional 332 later dying from their wounds. Some 2,468 were wounded in action and over 900 were exposed to poison gas.

Among the Navy medical personnel at Belleau Wood, two were later bestowed the Medal of Honor—physician Lt. Orlando Petty and dentist Lt.(j.g.) Weedon Osborne (posthumously). And a total of nineteen physicians, dentists and hospital corpsmen received Navy Crosses including Chief Strott and Petty Officer Johnson.

Dr. Joel Boone was later awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic services at Vierzy (in July 1918). After the war, he served as physician to three presidents and rose to the rank of Vice Admiral before retiring in 1950.

While reflecting on the battle some forty years later, in 1958, Boone noted that the “Herculean achievements,” at Belleau Wood came at a “frightful cost of human life,” but this has given the Nation a “spirit and new sense of pride in the American soldier and Marine to fight not only heroically and determinedly, but most successfully.” And more importantly for Boone, it was at Belleau Wood where medical personnel proved to the Marines that regardless of the fight they were always going to be “by their side, even in the most intense fighting experiences.”

For 115 years since Belleau Wood this has remained true. And you can bet everywhere and anywhere a Devil Dog is serving in the future, a Devil Doc will not be far behind.

Sources:

Andrews, John F. Biography of Orlando Petty. Retrieved from: https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/ebe1bf4e-4777-439e-a419-ec7559788b4b/downloads/ORLANDO%20PETTY%20BIOGRAPHY.pdf?ver=1598199621657

Boone, Joel T. Memoirs (Unpublished), Library of Congress Washington, D.C., Boxes 44-46.

Ferrebee, R.A. (Dec 11, 2014). “Retreat, hell! We just got here.” American Legion. Retrieved from: https://www.legion.org/stories/other/retreat-hell-we-just-got-here

Miller, J.M. The 4th Marine Brigade at Belleau Wood and Soissons: History and Battlefield Guide. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2020.

Strott, George. The Medical Department of the United States Nay with the Army and Marine Corps in France in World War I: its Functions and Employment (NAVMED 1197). Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED): Washington, D.C., June 1947.

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