Story by John W. Dennehy
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
Corporal Stevens crawled face-up beneath a string of barbed wire, disoriented by the darkness and commotion from explosives blasting around him.
Mist and gas clouds fingered through the dense wood.
Slowly advancing, the lenses of his gas mask fogged over, as cool air hit the glass and stressful breaths got trapped beneath the hood, warming the underside of his biological warfare protective gear.
Footsteps pounded the ground nearby.
The forest was an utter blanket of blackness, without a moon to guide him. He couldn’t tell if it were Germans or fellow U.S. Marines. Occasionally, a Very pistol shot off from behind the lines, illuminating the battlefield under bright, red clouds. Clearing fogged lenses required breaking the seal on his mask, letting in cool air and mustard gas along with it. He decided against it.
A combat boot stomped next to his leg. The distinctive coal-scuttle outline of a Stahlhelm helmet moved past. Stevens froze.
His Springfield rifle lay across his chest, with the bayonet sheathed in his web-gear. No way to get a shot off with accuracy.
Adrenaline pumped through him, heating up his body and fogging the lenses further. His pack snagged on the rough ground, and the wide rim of his Brodie helmet caught on the uneven ground, clanging against the barbed wire.
The footfalls stopped. As the German infantryman swung around, a flare brightened the night sky.
Then, a bullet ripped through the German’s throat, spinning him.
The enemy soldier fell into the barbed wire, entangled, while blood squirted from the wound. Stevens took a deep breath, and then cracked the mask, and cool air whisked inside. The lenses cleared; he wiggled through the rest of the wire.
Rolling over onto all fours, he slipped his rifle sling around his thumb and crawled face-down toward the base of a tree. Machinegun fire rattled from an entrenched German position about a hundred and fifty yards away. But the firing was aimed to his left.
Somehow, he’d flanked their position.
Most of his comrades were focused on trying to repel the German assault, but Stevens had led a fireteam through the throng and deep into enemy territory. All his men had been taken down by machinegun fire. Contingencies of Marines pressed forward, countering the Germans with offensive tactics. Many were gunned downed by the fortified German positions. The Marines didn’t have the benefit of trenches, so they plodded forward under heavy fire, using their bayonets to dig shallow holes where they fought from prone positions.
German artillery and mortars had bombarded the French forest. Cranked around on steel wagon-wheels, with barrels the size of small cannons, the heavy artillery was devastating. Treetops were snapped off by the blasts and landed on the ground forming barricades that impeded the advancing Marines. Forced to maneuver around the fallen brush, they had restricted lanes of movement and faced fortified lines of enemy fire.
Cracks of Springfield rifles echoed through the wood. Stevens slithered forward, slowly inching toward a machinegun nest. By the time he’d wormed his way to a position seventy-five feet from the machine gunner, it had already taken down countless Marines.
Days beforehand, Corporal Joshua Stevens had stood quietly on a dirt lane in a quaint French village. Surrounded by Marines that had never been tested, he’d observed their thirst for battle. The sleepy trenches of Verdun used during months of training for the European theater now seemed appealing.
Glimpsing through flare-light, Stevens watched the silhouettes of his comrades’ charge, only to be cut down by machinegun fire. Many toppled into the brush, while others got hung up in barbed wire. The wounded, ensnared by the battlefield barricades, bled profusely and wrought in agony while trying to free themselves. Most couldn’t get loose before German machine gunners lit up the night, riddling the defenseless Marines.
The more fortunate nonlethal casualties fell to the ground, where they could dig in, or wiggle into lowlands and wait out the night.
Stevens knew he needed to take out the ravaging machine gunner. But he’d only have one shot at it. Using periods of pitch-darkness, between the flares, he crawled forward and encroached upon the machinegun nest. He took fire from both sides.
Bullets whizzed by his head, cracking into the deadfall.
The machinegun nest was still too far away to lob a grenade. He waited. Rifle fire ringed his ears. A flare went off, and Stevens marked his destination.
When blackness returned, he plied his way to a small berm, fifty feet from the machine gunner. He waited for an eternity until the next flare brightened the sky. Friendly fire ripped overhead. Marines grew bold in their advance, and Springfield rifles resounded from two hundred yards.
A Very pistol snapped, then a flare whistled skyward. Stevens pulled the pin from a grenade. He waited for the flare to pop and burst a red light over the battlefield. When the night sky illuminated, he spied his target and moved into a kneeling position.
Two German soldiers swung his way, an infantryman shouldering a Mauser rifle, and an officer holding a Luger pistol.
Stevens lobbed the grenade, as bullets flashed from both gun barrels.
A bullet tore into his right thigh, and another struck his shoulder. The grenade exploded, tossing up dirt and debris. German soldiers in the machinegun nest were ripped apart by shrapnel and bodies flew into the air. Reverberations from the blast rang in his ears.
Allied bullets riddled the enemy soldiers who shot him.
Dropping to the ground, Stevens glanced toward the fortification. The explosion dismantled the machinegun. He tucked behind the berm and pulled out another hand grenade. He leaned on an elbow, pulled the pin and tossed it from a prone position. Another explosion sprayed earth and body parts into the air, annihilating anyone left in the machinegun nest. Turning dark, the fortified nest fell silent.
Hooting and hollering came from the Marines behind him. Scrapped metal around the machinegun nest reflected in the night, demonstrating a direct hit. The forward area only remained quiet for a few minutes.
The explosion caught the attention of more German infantrymen, who rushed from the far side of the machinegun nest, a senior enlisted man yelled: “Schnell, Schnell!”
Wounded and sure to get caught in the crossfire, Stevens grabbed his rifle and crawled toward friendly lines. He hoped the Marines wouldn’t mistake him for a German. He scuttled through the darkness, pain in his leg unbearable, clambering over broken branches and the limbs of fallen men.
Rifles erupted; shots rang out in the darkness. German reinforcements mustered into position ready to hold back the advancing Marines. Stevens scrambled into a dense pile of fallen tree limbs and huddled into a depression on the forest floor.
Thinking back to before the battle, he recalled the British and French troops were battle weary from a long war. The recent advance by the Germans, fortified with troops removed from the Russian front, made fresh, eager allied troopers a welcomed prospect. General Pershing finally conceded to the deployment of the Marines to the front but assigned them to the far end of the line near the Marne River. Stevens understood a lot was at stake, maybe the future of the Marine Corps. If they fared well, the Marines might be worthy of recognition as assault troops, capable of offensive strikes in full-scale wars. But if given an opportunity to fight, and they failed, the Marines would be relegated to guarding ports and small arms conflicts.
Now, writhing under the branches, he wormed into the center of the deadfall. Then, he took off his M1910 pack and used his bayonet to cut open his wool trousers. Removing the detachable portion of the pack, the diaper, he fished around for a handkerchief. Dabbing it with water from his canteen, Stevens cleaned the wound. He cut off a piece of his wool blanket and tied the handkerchief over the bullet hole; the round had plugged through the front of his thigh and exited out the back. He felt torn flesh on both sides of his leg while applying a makeshift bandage.
Stevens used a sock from his pack to tie off the wound on his shoulder. He gathered himself and then removed his belt. Placing it around his upper thigh, he grabbed his bayonet and entwined it with the belt, then twisted a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
Rifle shots exchanged from both sides of his position. The Germans didn’t replace the machinegun, but Mausers cracked from about a hundred yards to his right, and Springfield rifles roared from a similar distance to his left.
Wrapping himself in a wool blanket to ward off shock; Stevens hunkered down to wait out the evening and hoped to rejoin his troops at daybreak.
— ♦♦♦ —
Before the battle, their colonel used a villa to gather intelligence and make final troops assignments. The American Expeditionary Force had spread out along the front, but the Army’s 2nd Division, with two attached U.S. Marine Regiments, would be in the thick of things.
Staff Sergeant Hamilton stepped from the villa and scanned the lane. He approached Stevens and waived Sergeant Anderson over. The three of them huddled in the dirt lane twenty feet away from the men.
“Chateau Thierry and Vaux have fallen,” Staff Sergeant Hamilton informed them.
“What does that mean for us?” Sergeant Anderson said.
“As of June first, the Germans have established a front line for the southern end of the Western Front not far from here.” Hamilton pointed northeasterly.
Anderson and Stevens both nodded.
“We expect the Germans now consider this a launching point for taking Paris.”
“What type of vantage point do they have?” Anderson stepped closer.
“The perimeter is set up along a wheat field,” Hamilton said. “It’s not heavily fortified. But we expect that they have reinforcements heavily entrenched within Belleau Wood.”
“Where’s our initial position?” Stevens rubbed his chin.
Staff Sergeant Hamilton fetched a stick. He returned and etched a square in the dirt, with a dotted line dividing it into two triangles. “The top part, here.” He pointed with the stick. “This is where the Germans are positioned in the wood.”
Stevens and Anderson looked over the sketch closely.
“And the dotted line is their current perimeter.”
“We’re on the southern side of the dotted line, right?” Stevens said.
“Correct,” Hamilton replied. “We’ll come at them in three major forces. The First Battalion, Fifth Regiment Marines will take the northern corner. The 3/5 will strike at the center.”
“And the 3/6?” said Anderson.
“We’ll strike from the southeastern corner. The job is to hit them hard and drive them back. We’re to keep pushing ahead no matter what.”
“Understood,” Anderson said.
“You got it, Stevens?”
“Get your men together,” Hamilton said. “This is the real thing. Not like sitting in the trenches at Verdun, waiting to get shelled and gassed.”
“You’ve got that right.” Anderson chuckled.
“We’ll take heavy casualties,” Hamilton said, solemnly. “Deaths… not just wounded.” He looked Stevens in the eye. “And it won’t be like the Dominican Republic, either.”
“We got shot to hell there.”
“These Germans are highly experienced, capable, with the best equipment and support,” Hamilton explained. “They mean business.”
The comment lingered in the air. Hamilton scuffed out the drawing with his boot and walked off to chat with the brass.
Anderson gave Stevens a slap on the shoulder. “Good luck out there,” he said.
Stevens nodded, and then headed over to his troopers.
Closing around him, they were eager to hear the news. He explained the situation. Then, he paused and looked around the dirt lane for a moment. Clay had caked up on their boots and puttees, wrapped fabric around the lower legs meant to protect against briars; he thought about the trenches at Verdun and the long march along the Marne River.
“We’ve come a long way together,” Stevens finally said. He glanced at their quiet faces. “From preparing for this war to the French front. Now, this is the real thing. It’s what you’ve trained for and what you’re meant to do.”
Some of the men nodded, while others pressed in closer to hear him.
“This is our chance to show what Marines are made of…” Stevens said. “You’ve had some of the best training in the world, as marksmen and fighters. But people doubt what you can do. They question our capabilities in a war like this. I know from the Dominican Republic what stuff Marines are made of and we’ll prove it to the world soon enough.”
The crowd of troopers cheered and slapped each other on the back.
“We’re going to take it out on the Germans; because they won’t let us kick the Army’s ass. We’ll drive the enemy back… and make our place in history, for our families, and the Corps.”
The men smiled; they began hooting and hollering.
“Clean your rifles and equipment,” Stevens said. “Write to your sweethearts and mothers. We’re mobilizing this afternoon.”
Every inch of earth they took was soiled in the blood of Marines.
— ♦♦♦ —
When flares burned out and darkness returned, Stevens nestled in the deadfall. Springfield rifles cracked and the smell of horseradish wafted in the air. Mustard gas spread about with a late-night mist.
Bright green fog snaked through the ancient wood, slowly approaching his position.
As the ominous mist meandered over the battlefield, horrific moans emanated from the fallen Marines, unsettling wails, as the limey vapor caressed the dead.
Then, the fluorescent vapor fingered into the deadfall, seeping through branches and the filters of his gas mask. Stevens convulsed, gasping for breath. Just before passing out, he heard the unmistakable sound of vicious hounds growling in the forest.
Later, he awoke in the deadfall with his leg throbbed and pain resonated from both wounds. He expected daylight and was surprised to find dusk settling over the battlefield. Stevens had fallen in and out of consciousness and slept through most of the day. The fighting had ceased, with Marines preparing for another assault, and the Germans refortifying broken lines.
Looking around, the carnage of a cruel war appeared everywhere. The grayish skin of dead men, caught up in barbed wire, dangled, frozen in the throes of death. A few men had tussled and fallen, twisted into broken tree limbs, with gaping wounds from bayonets exposing viscera.
Marines had lost hold of their gas masks. Blisters on their faces had broken out in open sores. Puss and blood leaked from the lesions. Grey uniforms were strewed on the ground alongside the green, wool uniforms of the fallen Marines, but mostly the dead wore green.
Stevens hoped the Marines would occupy the empty machinegun nest before the Germans found a replacement. All would be for nothing if the enemy retook the fortification.
But it was quiet, too quiet.
A sheet of darkness crept across the sky. He heard the distinct sound of a Very pistol fire in the distance. Then, the pounding of boots reverberated the ground, as combatants charged into the wood. Germans rose from their positions, and the legions converged.
Mustard gas shelled into the wood from mortars, spread rapidly and obfuscated the forest. Stevens donned his gasmask and loaded his rifle. The sound of gunfire erupted around him.
Forces clashed in hand-to-hand combat. Marines used their rifle stocks in horizontal butt strokes to strike Germans in the head, caving in the skulls of the enemy troops. The crack of bone and shrieks of wailing pain echoed throughout the wood.
The Germans took advantage of the hazy conditions, pulling off Marines’ gas masks and stabbing them with battle knives. But Marines wielded their rifles, getting off shots, and using bayonets at close range.
All the combatants stumbled on fallen branches and decaying bodies.
A reinforcement of German troopers weighed into the skirmish. Stevens rose from his hiding place to join the fray. Fog and gas meandered through the forest, obscuring his vision. The fighting grew more intense and he couldn’t discern the enemy from his comrades. Stevens limped forward, wiggling his bayonet free of the tourniquet.
Scanning for the distinctive German helmets, he swiped at them, cutting throats and piercing limbs. Blood squirted over his gas mask; he stopped to wipe the lenses. Scuffling around him escalated, and the Marines got the better of the Germans, despite being vastly outnumbered.
Then, a few Germans screamed: “Teufelshunde, Teufelshunde!” And Stevens knew the words. Hellhounds. Devil Dogs.
German soldiers rushed by him, fleeing. Stevens madly swiped with his bayonet as they passed by, slitting throats and cutting striations into limbs.
Gaseous mist parted, revealing the battleground. Stevens spied what the enemy dreaded; creatures with dog-faces were dressed in Marine greens. Saliva dripped from their blood-thirsty jowls, and blood dripped from the sharp claws they used to eviscerate the enemy.
Firing at the beasts, the Germans did not impede the fiendish pursuit. The beasts marked their targets, moving through the forest in a vicious pursuit of their prey.
Tearing off their gas masks; they revealed wild red eyes consumed with rage. Strands of barbed wire entwined their torsos. Patches of green cloth, soaked in blood, stuck to the barbs, and bullet holes riddled the uniforms and decaying flesh alike.
Despite gas fingering through the wood, Stevens removed his mask and breathed in deeply. His lungs didn’t burn.
Stevens glanced at his hands: hairy and curled into massive claws.
Holding up the mask, he peered into a lens, aghast. Through the shimmering light, he spied the face of a Hellhound in the reflection.
All the Germans fled in fear, leaving the wood to the Marines.
Later, the French renamed the forest from Belleau Wood to Bois de la Brigade de Marine, Woods of the Marine Brigade; and, the term Devil Dog would describe Marines for the rest of time.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Ipthian Crystal Part 3. By Jon Vassa, Art by Bradley K. McDevitt
Read part 3 of “The Ipthian Crystal” by Jon Vassa. This story is a strange mix of pulp noir and fantasy. A private eye named Riley continues his search for the illusive crystal. In the final part of Vassa’s story, while continuing his quest; he runs into more trouble than he bargained for. He discovers that it’s not just his own fate that’s at stake, but the fate of humanity itself. Will he complete his quest in time?