On 9 June, allied forces unleashed a massive artillery barrage inside Belleau Wood. It transformed the lush forested hunting preserve to a jungle of shattered and uprooted trees. German artillery counter-fired, and while they did, the Germans reorganized their defenses.
On 10 June, Major Hughes led an assault into the northern sector of Belleau Wood. Initially successful, machineguns stopped the Marines. Major Cole, commanding an element of the 6th Machinegun Battalion, was mortally wounded during this assault. The next senior officer, Captain Harlan Major, quickly replaced Cole. It was at this point when the Germans began using heavy concentrations of mustard gas. General Harbord next ordered Major Wise, commanding the under strength and exhausted 2/5, to attack the woods from the west; he directed Hughes to continue his advance from the south.
Early in the morning of 11 June, Major Wise led his men through a thick morning mist toward Belleau Wood. Elements of the 23rd and 77th companies of the 6th Machinegun Battalion supported him. The Germans opened up with intense automatic weapons fire; interlocking fires first isolated Marine platoons and then systematically destroyed them. Major Wise had lost his bearings; rather than moving in a northeast direction, Wise moved directly across the wood’s narrow waist. A German soldier later remarked, “These Americans are reckless.”
Mistaken direction or not, the Marine attack turned the tide but at great cost. Captain Lloyd Williams lost his life. As officers fell, NCOs assumed command and continued their attack. Fighting became a demonstration of superior Marine Corps rifle fire and tenacious hand-to-hand combat. 2/5 captured 30 German machineguns, took 400 prisoners —but it cost them 50% of their effective strength.
After a three-hour artillery barrage, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines continued their attack on 12 June. The artillery had landed 1,000 yards beyond the German positions so the Marines once more engaged in brutal rifle and bayonet fighting. The Germans made good use of rocky ledges and ravines to hide their machineguns. In helping to pacify these well-hidden positions, Private Aloysius Leitner received posthumous award of the Navy Cross.
German command launched a counter attack against 3/5 at Bouresches around 0300 on June 13th; the attack was repulsed. From within Belleau Wood, newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Wise reported, “Artillery barrage, heavy losses, morale excellent.”
The west side of the wood was finally pacified two days later. After nine days of continuous fighting, the US 7th Infantry Regiment finally relieved the bearded and exhausted Marines but they were reemployed five days later when the 7th Regiment was unable to clear the woods.
On 25 June, following a daylong artillery barrage, a determined 2/5 again advanced into the wood. Now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ralph S. Keyser, 2/5 attacked on the left side of the battle area, 3/5 attacked the center, and 3/6 attacked on the right. Against this relentless assault, the Germans fell back, relinquishing their positions to the Marines. By the next day, General Harbord was able to report to his superior, “Woods now US Marine Corps entirely.”
American Marines attacked the woods on six separate occasions before they were able to expel the Germans. Only afterward did the Marines realize they defeated elements of five divisions of German infantry. Much of this fighting was hand-to-hand. World War I brought America’s smallest combat force to the forefront of American consciousness. The American people not only learned that there were critters called Marines —they also learned that these critters were not to be trifled with.