Captain Hulbert of the Old Breed

Hulbert 001Henry Lewis Hulbert (12 Jan 1867—4 Oct 1918) was one of those Marines of the “old breed” I enjoy reading about. He was the first born of a prosperous Kingston-Hull, Yorkshire, England family, and this enabled him to attend Felsted School in Essex and later, to enter the British Colonial Service. His first appointment was in Malaya, where he married Anne Rose Hewitt, but a subsequent scandal and divorce led him to leave Malaysia for the United States.

At the age of 31, Hulbert enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps (1898) and completed boot camp at Mare Island, California. His initial line assignment placed him in the company of 200 fellow Marines in a joint British-American intervention expedition to Samoa. During the Second Samoan Civil War, then Private Hulbert distinguished himself in combat and was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor due to his gallantry and intrepidity under fire.

Hulbert 002

By the time the United States entered World War I, Hulbert was serving at the highest enlisted rank.  Sergeant Major Hulbert served on the staff of Marine Corps Commandant, Major General George Barnett. Then, just prior to America’s entry into the war, Hulbert was appointed as the first Marine Corps Gunner (warrant officer) and was reassigned to the Fifth Regiment of United States Marines on 27 March 1917.  Hulbert was five months past his 50th birthday.  As the United States began to prepare for war, senior officers realized that the Corps was significantly short of company grade offers —those who ordinarily command platoons and companies.  As a consequence, the Marine Corps promoted Gunner Hulbert (and others) to the rank of second lieutenant (temporary).

During World War I, Lieutenant Hulbert participated in the Battle of Belleau Wood, and during this battle was recognized several times for courage under fire.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and recommended for a battlefield commission to Captain.

At the Battle of Soissons, Hulbert distinguished himself further but was killed in action on 4 October 1918 at Mont Blanc Ridge.  He was posthumously promoted to the rank of captain, and awarded the Navy Cross, Purple Heart, and Croix de Guerre (France). A U. S. Navy destroyer (DD-342) was named in his honor and was commissioned from 1920 to 1945.

My friend, Henry

Years ago I had the privilege of meeting an elderly gentleman who I will call Henry. Henry lived alone in a modest Air Stream trailer in Central Florida. He needed the company, and I enjoyed hearing his stories from his younger days. He spent most of his adult life working on the railroad, although I can no longer remember which one—it was up north, though. I found his stories fascinating because when I was a youngster, I loved trains and thought that perhaps one day I would become a train engineer.

WW I USMC 002Apparently, Henry and my grandfather had something in common. Both were U. S. Army veterans of World War I. As I never knew my grandfather, Henry’s stories fascinated me. My grandfather was a regular soldier; Henry had been drafted into the Army in early 1917. In those days, not too many people volunteered for military service. Listening to Henry describe his experiences in basic training took me back to my own experience at Parris Island, South Carolina 46-years later. How many hours did we sit on buckets and clean our weapons? It seemed like thousands of hours … and it seemed like that to Henry, too.

Suddenly, basic training was over. The United States was gearing up to enter the war, but there was some confusion about how to do that. The allied powers had to come to some agreement about whose flag American troops would fight under, and under whose command. Since the battlefields were in France, the French wanted all allied forces fighting under their command. This makes perfect sense: economy of force and unity of command are important concepts, but no American politician was going to send in an American to fight under some other country’s flag. As the heavyweights dickered back and forth, the foot soldier performed close order drill, and he sat on his bucket and cleaned his piece.

Henry told me, “One day this fella approached our sergeant, who was not an altogether friendly sort, and after a few moments the sergeant ordered us to ‘listen up’ to what this fellow had to say. Well, this fellow was a major, so we all paid attention. He told us the Army was moving away from using horses in combat to those new-fangled automobiles. Called them trucks, but the way he explained it, they was automobiles that the Army was converting to vehicles that could carry cargo, including men. He was looking for soldiers who wanted to learn about these trucks.

“Well, I raised my hand because I was tired of sitting on my damn bucket. The sergeant gave me this dirty look, but the major was happy to have me and one other fella. Shortly after that, we got orders and found ourselves on the other side of the base at Fort Monmouth and we were learning about trucks. For two full weeks, we learned about how these machines worked, then we drove them for another week, and then finally we were designated motor transportation men.

Ford Runabout“Come time to leave for Europe and we all crowded on transport ships. This was no fancy cruise. They had us stacked on that ship, and as soon as one fella got seasick, so did a few more and let me tell you, it was a mess. In any case, in due time, we arrived in France and we went through several days of fooling around trying to figure out which way was which … and then finally a sergeant told me to report over to this captain who was in charge of transportation. So that’s what I did.

“I reported to the top sergeant and he said to wait to see the captain. So I waited around until the captain was ready to see me and then I reported to him. And he asked me, ‘Well son, what can you do?’

‘I know about trucks,’ I told him.


‘Yes sir, I can drive ‘em, and I can fix ‘em, if it don’t take much.’

‘Well, what in the hell is a truck?’

“So I explained that they was automobiles that could carry cargo and such. He laughed and said, ‘Well okay young man … we don’t have any of those trucks, but I’ll tell you want we do have. We have mules. You go on over to see Sergeant McKinley, and you tell him that you know how to fix trucks.’

EGA Grunt“So that’s what I did. And during the Great War, Sergeant McKinley had me shoveling mule shit. But I’ll tell you, it was a damn sight better than that hell that was the front line war.”

Of course, the amazing thing about Henry’s story is that the personnel classification and assignment policies of the modern day military in the early 1960s were not much different from what he experienced. If you’re out there Henry, I remember and relish the memory of our time together.

Semper Fi …

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