Courage Under Fire

WW I USMC 001I came across a story not long ago that I thought worthy of recounting here.  The author is a World War I Marine by the name of Elton Mackin (1898-1974).  This is his story, contained in a book entitled, Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die, Presidio Press, 1996.

“The skipper [1] made it a practice to travel well supplied with good cigars, and when things were hot we’d see him with a strong cheroot clamped in the corner of his mouth, barking orders like the noncom [2] he had been in other days.

“Walking but a few steps away, I was with him when he first was hit.  He had just finished saying, ‘Bring a Hotchkiss [3] over here.’

“The bullet caught him in the muscles of his neck and scarcely made him stagger.  I swear he didn’t even stop puffing on that big old black cigar.  He stood there flat-footed and serene, as though it were a matter of everyday occurrence, while the rest of us sought shelter.  He reached up to unsnap the collar of his blouse, opened his shirt, and turned the collar down, thrusting an exploratory finger into the wound along the side of his neck.  After a little prodding, he flipped the blood from his fingertips and gingerly took apart his first-aid kid, then wrapped the bandage in it ‘round and round’ his throat, reminding me of a man having difficulty with his necktie.  Finishing that, he buttoned up his blouse again and went on being the skipper.

“Following men like these is what makes tradition for the fighting men.  In the Marine Corps, for the most part, we followed real soldiers.  There are a few advantages in serving with the Marines in time of trouble, most of them having to do with the type of men you soldier with and take orders from.  The vast majority of our line officers came from the ranks.  They understood the soldier kind because in their day, their time, they had worn the harness and felt the lash—the harness being the burden of the pack equipment carried, the lash being the harsh discipline meted out and the unquestioning response expected.

“We didn’t ordinarily have to soldier under the rich man’s son for whom father or some handy politician wangled a commission on account of the family, although there were and are rich men’s sons wearing the Marine Corps’ forest green.  But the man in the ranks has the advantage of knowing that, rich or poor, gentleman or otherwise, the man who leads him out to die, for the most part, has a code of his own—apart of the tradition that says he shall not send men where he dares not go himself.  The skipper and most of the officers I soldiered under were men who adhered strictly to that code.

“Later that same day a bit of shrapnel hit him where it hurt a bit, in such a way as to bother him and interfere with sitting down.  Neither of these wounds was serious, but according to all the rules of the game he should have gone immediately to the rear when first wounded.  Now, with the second wound, and remaining very much the company commander, he made himself as comfortable as possible, lying on his side beneath a tree and trusting to his noncoms and runners to keep him posed as to the goings on of the day.

“When morning came, he was still on duty and suffering—and not only from his hurts.  He had a small pad and on it, sheet by sheet, was entering the names of men gone down in action.  I watched him grow older as he wrote.

“Later than day a shell exploded near him, a fragment penetrated the muscles at the back of his shoulder, and he lost a lot of blood.  After getting bandaged he proceeded to make himself comfortable again, insofar as possible, showing no intention of going to the rear.

“A half-spent machine gun bullet got the captain’s runner through the fleshy portion of the thigh and seemed to break his nerve.  He whined and cried and didn’t take it as the other wounded lying nearby were trying to do.

“It is probable that the skipper’s nerves were worn somewhat thin by then, because in all his pain he fished around and took a bar of chocolate from his pack and tossed it over to the wounded runner, saying, ‘Here, son, suck on this.  Maybe it will stop your damn noise.’

“At about the same time, stretcher bearers showed up at the captain’s side.  These were escorted by First Lieutenant Gear, the second in command [4].  On seeing them, the skipper said, ‘I’ll not be hauled away on that damn thing, lieutenant.’

“I shall always remember Gear’s reply.  ‘I’m running this show now,’ he said.  ‘You can’t fight this whole damn war alone.  Now, climb on that stretcher or I’ll throw you on it—you’re going out!’

“Resignedly, with the grimness of the grim, the skipper crawled aboard the stretcher and the twenty-odd of us who were left of his old company felt lost and left alone.”

Although the book indicates that Macklin became “a sergeant of battalion runners,” his rank at the time of his discharge from the Marine Corps is unclear.  For his service in World War I, Macklin received the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and two awards of the Silver Star.


[1] In the Navy and Marine Corps, an officer serving in the rank of captain

[2] Noncommissioned Officer (NCO)

[3] Hotchkiss Machinegun

[4] Also known as the Executive Officer, Exec, or XO

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.