Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, November 6, 2023

Eyewitness: Capt. George W. Hamilton, USMC, on the Capture of Hill 142 During the Battle of Belleau Wood

Editor's Note:  Capt. Hamilton was the on-the-scene commander of the Marine companies of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, charged on 6 June 1918 with the capture of Hill 142 overlooking right flank of the attacking French 167th Division and the left flank of the subsequent U.S. main assault on Belleau Wood. He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The account of the action was included in a November 1919 letter to the Marine Corps commandant requesting a clarification in the citation accompanying the award.  MH

Capt. George W. Hamilton, USMC

Shortly after midnight on the night of June 5-6, 1918, General Wendell C. Neville, Marine Corps, (then a Colonel), came to the basement of the power house in Marigny, France, the Headquarters of Lieut.-Colonel (then Major) Julius S. Turrill, and gave him the orders for an attack which was to take place at 3:45 a.m. June 6, 1918 on Hill 142, in the Chateau Thierry Region. The two companies from the First Battalion selected for the attack, were the 67th, commanded by First Lieutenant Crowther, and the 49th, commanded by me. Both companies were in reserve positions near Marigny at the time, and about two miles from that portion of our front lines which we were to relieve before the attack. A French battalion was to attack on our left and the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines, on our right. We were to base on the French. Due to the great haste necessary, Lieutenant Crowther and I were the only company officers who were told of the attack plans, and were the only ones given maps. We later gave our platoon officers as much information as possible, but as we were rushed for time, could not satisfactorily do this.

I arrived in the front line with my company at 2:40 a.m. but could not find the company commander to be relieved until 3:00 a.m. After talking over the matter of relief with him, we decided that it would be impossible, in the shorter time remaining, to make a regular relief, so I had to decide what method I was to use in order to get my company into position. It was now just beginning to get light, and I had about fifteen minutes to complete all arrangements. I gave orders to the company being relieved not to fire at anything in the foreground, or at any suspicious movements, and warned them that a friendly company was occupying a position in front of the woods in which they were entrenched. I then moved my company into the open, and with a prayer that they would not be seen, arranged them for the attack. The enemy were only eighty yards away. At 3:45 a.m. we were ready to advance. I ran over to the left of my company to see if the 67th company was ready. They had just taken position. There was no sign of the French and no sign of our Third Battalion. At 3:50 a.m. I grabbed Lieutenant Ashley, commanding the right platoon of the 67th company, told him we would have to start regardless of the French, and blew my whistle for the advance. We had not gone twenty yards when a deadly machine gun fire broke out from the woods ahead and both companies dropped to their bellies.

Note Location of Hill 142 on Marine Left Flank

It is here necessary to explain that our French instructors had taught us that in an attack, when a hostile machine gun opened up, all men were to immediately lie down. The automatic rifles were then to concentrate on the nest, the rifle grenadiers were to drop grenades in its vicinity, and hand bombers were to crawl up on the flanks and destroy the nest.

I saw immediately that such tactics would not do in this case. They might work against one nest, or two, but here was a nest broader than our battalion front and containing more machine guns than we had automatics. (No heavy machine guns attacked with us, and none joined us until several hours later.)

I here credit myself with doing the only thing which made that attack possible. As quickly as possible I ran along the entire line, made every man get on his feet and rush across to the cover of the woods. It was necessary in some instances to kick men to their feet. These tactics were demoralizing. Not even the non-commissioned officers knew just what they were to do, and how far they were to advance. Although the machine guns in these first woods had been routed, most men had already lost their sense of direction and stood helpless, working their bolts in a frenzy and firing with absolutely no regard to direction or purpose. They needed noise to distract their thoughts from the horrors of the wheatfield behind them, and it was again “up to me”. I could not find an officer, but as quickly as possible gathered five or six non-commissioned officers. My instructions to them were hurried, and about as follows: “Here is our direction. We go about one mile farther. When you come to a road, just over the nose of this hill, halt and dig in. Let’s go. Give ‘em a yell.” Myself yelling at the top of my lungs, I ran along the line telling the men to follow on, assuring them that we “had ‘em on the run” and telling them only to fire when they had something to fire at.

View of Hill 142 from West

About five hundred yards farther on I came across Corporal Fred Myers, 49th Company, who was trying to make two big Germans take off their equipment. He was nervous however, and would frequently stick the larger one with the point of his bayonet. Just as I arrived, the big German found he couldn’t quite make the speed required, and decided to close with Myers. He grabbed the bayonet, and although badly cutting his hands, managed to wrench it away. The other German ran. By the use of a little fast bayonet work I saved Myers’ life and made it a perfect score by bagging the other man as he ran.

We were now getting down over the hill and I began looking for the road which was our objective. Picking up an automatic rifle crew of one corporal (?), and three men, I raced down the valley as fast as I could, my object being to locate the road and halt our men as they came up. We came to a road, but the fire from our flanks and rear, caused me to ponder. The crew set up their automatic and cleaned out an entire battery which was just limbering up about 100 yards beyond the road. While they were doing this, I studied my map and found we had advanced about half a mile too far. The fire from both sides of the ravine we had come down was now so hot that I feared that we should be killed or captured. Also, we could see large numbers of Germans forming in the streets of Bussiares, just around the nose of Hill 165, and about 350 yards to our left. I could see Hill 142 and knew we should be on it. I told the automatic crew to go back as best they could and direct any men they saw on their way back, where we were to form our line of resistance. I have since heard that two of the privates were killed on the way back, and one severely wounded. I had been under the impression that the non-commissioned officer was a corporal in the 49th Company named Davis, but have since been told that he was really Sergeant Thomas Dale. Both, I believe, are still alive.

Rare Photo of Marines Advancing on 6 June 1918

On the way back to Hill 142, I crawled through a drainage ditch which was filled with reeds and water. The enemy spotted me and machine gun nests located in the sand pits on Hill 165 made my trip back rather precarious. On the way I met Corporal Myers once more. He was wounded in several places and half dazed. I told him to go back to the dressing station and gave him the direction, but do not know whether he made it or not. When almost back on the proper objective, I met a group of men, nearly a platoon, under captain Jonas Platt, Sent him word to retire to Hill 142, but he directed an attack against several machine gun nests before returning, and broke up a well organized counter-attack.

A number of our men had halted on Hill 142, and among them several good non-commissioned officers. I learned that two of my lieutenants, Somers and Peterson, had benn killed, and that all officers of the 67th company were either killed or wounded. Lieut. Crowther had been killed. Another of my officers, Lieutenant Frasier, had been killed the night before and Swindler, a platoon commander, had just gone to the rear with a nasty leg wound. Lieutenant Garvey had lost direction and was on his way to the rear with one platoon. When Platt returned, he was dragging a badly shot leg after him, and though he was rendering valuable assistance, it was soon necessary to order him to the dressing station. This left me the only officer, - Lieutenant Kierens being the first one to come to my assistance, several hours later.

Telling my non-coms just what there was to be done, we now feverishly began to dig in and organize the very bad position. I sent two of my best sergeants out to the left to try to locate the French, and two out to the right to find the Third Battalion. I think their names were Gunnery Sergeant Finnegan and Sergeants O’Connor, Ware and Cronin. They never returned, and all have since been reported killed.

While organizing our position, the fire from the flanks was terrific. From one particular point, a fine view could be obtained of the enemy nests, but to get to it, it was necessary to cross a space about twenty yards wide which was being spattered with machine gun bullets. I sent two snipers out to try to pick off the hostile gunners. One of them, Private Samaritan was badly wounded while crossing the open space, and the other was killed before he had gotten fairly started. Two more men tried to make it and both were killed. It was not until half an hour later that Private Robert Slover, 49th company, was able to make it, and from this point of vantage his aim was so accurate that nearly all the nests were cleaned out by his deadly work alone. It was reported to me that morning, that Private Slover had sniped upwards of twenty men.

The sun by this time had come out strong and the bodies of the dead men were turning black and emitting a horrible stench. Private Samaritan had been lying in the exposed space all this time with a bullet through his lungs, begging for help. One man tried to reach him and was wounded. I didn’t have the heart to let him lie there unattended, but at the same time hated to detail men for a job for which there were no volunteers. I could stand his cries no longer however, and finally crawled down to him and gave him first aid. Private Samaritan lay the entire day in those awful surroundings without a murmur. He was carried back to the rear just before dark that night.

Our scattered elements were now beginning to join us and by 8:00 a.m. our strength was nearly one hundred men. The enemy however took every advantage of our condition and position, and during the day, launched five distinct counter attacks at us. One of them was not discovered until the attackers were within twenty yards of us. Gunnery Sergeant Charles Hoffman is the man who should be credited with breaking up this escapade. For the purpose of showing my part however, it is necessary to tell my remembrance of the entire action:

Road Intersection at Torcy (See Map) Hill 142 in Distance
Some of Hamilton's Men Probed This Far

Gunnery Sergeant Hoffman had been wounded in the arm. I was sitting talking to him in a little patch of scrub pines and much as I regretted it, had just told him that he must go back to the dressing station. Suddenly Hoffman gave a yell and with a “come on Captain”, dashed past me through the pines to the edge of the hill. I turned just in time to see a German raise his rifle and aim at Hoffman. I fired as quickly as possible and missed. Luckily, however, the German also missed, and Hoffman finished him with his bayonet. Hoffman was now tearing into a group of four or five Germans, slashing, jabbing and firing with lightning-like rapidness. I too found myself in a rather bad fix and bayoneted two men who had closed in on me. The others broke and Hoffman and I shot them as they ran. All told, I think we got some twelve raiders. We later found that they were in the act of setting up five light machine guns when discovered by Hoffman. His wound was now bothering him so much that I ordered him to the rear. Later, upon my recommendation, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Soon after this, our machine gun companies reported to me, and with their help and with the aid of a few of those wonderful soldiers – a detachment of the 2nd Division Engineers – our position was soon consolidated, and our absolute control of Hill 142 made possible, that afternoon, the initial attack on Belleau Woods.

     I think the following named men, other than those mentioned above, are still alive and will substantiate my statement:  Lieutenant Louis Cukela, Sergeants John Stahl, Arthur Lyng, William F. Nice, and Reilly, and Corporals McDonald, Hart and Greuell.

George W. Hamilton

Sources:  National Archives (Letter);  George W. Hamilton by Mark Mortenson (ORDER BIOGRAPHY); A Regiment Like No Other: The 6th Marine Regiment at Belleau Wood (Map), Bravest Deeds of Men by Col. Wm. T. Anderson (DOWNLOAD).


  1. Thanks, MH. Not only a great Marine leader. Hamilton was a talented writer. The story of GySgt Hoffman/Janson is another great story. Hoffman was awarded the MOH for this action. His real name was Ernest Janson having enlisted under the name Hoffman. Retired as SgtMaj. Those Germans in Bussiares were member of the Saxon 7th Jaeger Regiment. I am working on a paper about the German side at Les Mares Farm and Hill 142.

  2. A fantastic tale as we remember the 248th Birthday of our Corps and remember all Veterans.