By PVT Al Barker, No 118, 43rd CO, 5th Reg, US Marines
The US declared war upon Germany April 6, 1917. I was going to college at the time. I went to spend a weekend in New York City and happened to be in Union Square where recruiting of soldiers, sailors, and marines were taking place. A captain of the US Navy was speaking on patriotism. As I stood there and listened a thrill went through me and I decided to enlist at once. I chose the marines because they were always the “first to fight”. I was sent to Paris Island, South Carolina, for my training, where I spent three months, and on August 12, 1917, I was sent to Quantico, VA., for my overseas equipment. On August 21, 1917, I sailed for France.
The trip across was a very eventful one as we were twice shot at by submarines, but we succeeded in eluding them. Nine days later we arrived at Brest, France, where we were all stationed in barracks. My first real training began in France; drilled from morning to night, together with such things as trench digging, bayonet fighting, grenade throwing, and all other things necessary to an American marine. This lasted about three months. My first real encounter occurred when we were ordered to the Belgian Front with Australian Anzacs. There I had my first glimpse of the Germans. We battled with them for twelve hours and I received a bayonet thrust in my right foot which laid me up for three weeks, and I was sent to base hospital No. 3 near St. Lazarre. After I recovered I was again sent to the Belgian Front where, in the next encounter with the Germans, I was captured and sent to a prison camp, built in the German trenches. I was there with eight other marines, for twenty-one days, when a French air squadron descended upon the Germans and killed or wounded all of them. A French aviator–I do not recall his name–took me in his machine and we flew 102 miles to the French forces.
Being weak from loss of blood and sleep I was kept there a week, and then sent back to my own company. My fellow-marines had given me up for dead, and were more than overjoyed to see me. A few days later I was selected as a sniper with a few others, and we advanced to a point as near the Germans as possible.together with another marine, Jack Kneeland, who later saved my life, I climbed a tall tree as near as possible to the German trenches and stationed myself there very comfortably.
We could see the Germans setting machine guns in position to be used against our forces. We both had our rifles and plenty of ammunition, so we began to pick off the men who were operating the machine guns. These machine guns are the most disastrous and dangerous things in warfare. We succeeded in putting four of these guns out of commission when were discovered by Germans snipers, and had all we could do to defend ourselves. I received a bullet wound in my knee and fell twenty feet to the ground. The other marine, Kneeland, quickly descended and protected me with his own body, and although he received three bullets he carried me to safety. As we were far from any hospital we were treated in the trenches to the best of the abilities of the doctors there.
We had Germans all around us, and, although we kept up a heavy fire, we could not persuade them to come out and fight us as men. They preferred trying a means to defeat us which insured their own safety, and that was to try to starve us out. For six days we lived on hard black bread and dirty water. Our commander, previous to this, had sent out a marine, who had volunteered, to get through the German lines and bring us help. We never dreamed that he would succeed in getting through, but on the seventh day we saw several black specks in the air but thought nothing of them until they came close, and we saw that they were American airplanes come to our assistance. The fliers descended as low as possible and threw us food in water-proof canvas bags. They also dropped bombs on the Germans and then flew away after promising to send a company of marines to our rescue. This promise we found in a note contained in one of the bags of food. It also told us to keep up our courage as we would surely be saved. All this time I was laid up with the wound in my knee, but I could hear our boys firing at the enemy, and they had all they could do to keep me in bed. Five days later I was aroused by an attendant and was told than an American scout had succeeded in making his way into our trenches, and told us that our relief was on its way, and would be here at any time. I felt much stronger after I heard this news and felt that I could fight the biggest German and finish him.
The detachment of marines arrived after we had been in these trenches for sixteen days. We now outnumbered the Germans, so we speedily put them to flight. After the conflict we counted 421 German dead bodies and we also took 1,200 prisoners. our loss was sixty-two dead and thirty slightly wounded. We were then sent to a rest camp where we spent two weeks, and I had my wound treated. At the end of our two weeks I was able to walk about, and was sent to the western front near Cambrai where the Germans were gaining, and we were instructed to stop them.
This time we did not fight from the trenches but in the open field, and there were plenty of human targets for both sides. It was a terrible battle; shells were bursting in the air, cannons were roaring and there were loud reports every time a shell hit the dust. I was operating a machine gun, and, as a machine gunner’s life on a battlefield only lasted an average of twelve minutes, it must have been a miracle that saved me from being killed. My other two comrades were killed immediately and I was left alone to operate the gun. A German sniper took a shot at me, but instead of hitting me he put my gun out of order. That left me with only a revolver, and drawing this I kept popping away at every German I saw. At last we were given the order to advance and for the third time I went “Over the Top” to glory. As we pressed on the enemy gave way little by little, and by twelve o’clock, at noon (the battle had started the day before at the same hour), we had either killed or taken all our opponents prisoners. We were then given a much needed rest. We spent a month in a rest camp and were then sent to Chateau-Thierry, about forty miles from Paris, where we engaged in a battle which proved to be the turning-point of the war. I think I shall remember this fight all my life. We had drawn up all our ammunition trains, food supplies and other munitions and were gathered around our campfires telling stories. At a little past midnight we were told to get ready. I was in the second division and we were ordered to advance first. Suddenly someone fired a shot; whether it came from our line or the enemy I did not know. The battle had begun. With two hundred others I was cut off, and we found ourselves surrounded by the enemy. It was all hand-to-hand fighting, and more than once I felt a hand creep to my neck, or a cold blade touch my face, but always managed to ward it off. Five hours of hard fighting still found us in the midst of the Germans. Whispering a few words to my nearest companion, we made a dash and cut our way through the thick masses of the enemy. Having no cover, we gathered together the bodies of the German dead and piled them one upon the other and used them as protection against our enemies. While here a gas bomb exploded and I fell back unconscious. When I came to myself I was aboard a ship bound for the good old USA. As I was so badly gassed that I would no longer be useful as a fighter, they were sending me home. I made a good recovery and I thank God for my life.
That is my story, and if I had to go through it again I would do it gladly for my country and the flag.