The women cried when we got back from Europe. They said they missed us, but we couldn’t hear them. Our minds were still in Cantigny, Marne and Argonne. Jimmy’s mother and father held him so tightly it made me wish my folks had been there. Mom died from cancer after I left and dad drank himself to death in the old home across from the reservation. The scene at the dock reminded me of when we got to Paris and the women yelled and threw flowers. I will never forget the women in France. Mrs. Gaven was there in the crowd after we got off the boat. Her son was shot twice in the back and died in a hospital in Rouen.
The American Offensive
The soldiers hardly spoke after the fighting ended in Belleau Wood. For 25 days, they had fought off five German divisions in the thick forest. Nearly two thousand had died. The ones who made it were numb from the sound of bullets hitting the trees and the bodies of their friends who were now scattered in makeshift graves beneath the ravaged oaks.
The newspapers commended the 5th Marines for clearing the forest, and Major Mark Johnson told a few of the soldiers outside Jim Harris’s tent they should be proud of what they had done.
“You’ve earned your trip home, boys,” Johnson said. “You made your country proud here.”
Harris, who was 24 years old, stared at his boots while Johnson spoke. He had been stabbed with a bayonet in the left shoulder and was wrapped in bandages. In the forest, he had killed more Germans than anyone. He had come so close to them that when he closed his eyes he could still make out their faces.
“Look at your brothers beside you,” Johnson continued, “and know you wouldn’t be here without them.”
On the first day of battle, the Germans had broken straight through the French lines. The Marines quickly filled the gap, fighting fearlessly, as if it was their own country they were protecting. The French commanders wanted them to fall back, but Major Wise ignored them and told his soldiers to keep their lines until the German offensive was repelled.
On June 6, over a thousand Americans died in a few hours. But, the survivors turned the tide and pushed forward until the Germans were beat. In the end, more Marines died in Belleau Wood than in any other battle in the war.
When the fighting stopped, able-bodied soldiers like Harris moved fast to bury the dead. Shell cases covered the floor an inch deep in some places, and all the Americans felt sad when they found someone they knew well or who had been deformed by the bullets.
Johnson was still talking to a soldier outside Harris’s tent when Harris got up and walked out of camp into the forest. The oak trees were taller here than the ones behind his parents’ house in upstate New York, though the leaves weren’t as green. When he was a kid, Harris had played in those woods until dark. He watched the deer and chased them sometimes. He found snakes under rocks where he collected worms for fishing with his dad. In France, he guessed all the worms were gone from the bombs and the way they exploded when they hit the dirt.
Johnson approached slowly.
“Harris, you should get back to the tent and rest,” he said.
Johnson was three years older than Harris. The two of them had talked about hunting pheasant together at Johnson’s parent’s farm when they got back to the States. Neither of them felt like hunting anymore, but they never said a word about it.
“I’m thinking about home,” Harris said. “These woods remind me of the ones I played in when I was a kid. Sometimes you get so used to killing in these woods that you forget people probably played in them too when they were young.”
Johnson didn’t answer. They walked back into camp.
“You were brave out there,” said Johnson. He patted Harris on the back and paused for a moment.
“You’re going to be home soon, Harris. Then we can get on with things the way they were supposed to be.”
“When are we going home, Johnson?” Harris asked.
“Soon, Harris,” Johnson said. “I know it.”
The other soldiers in the camp had set up logs around wooden crates of ammunition and used them as chairs as they played chess or checkers. They nodded to Harris and Johnson as they passed. Harris’s shoulder wound had bled through the bandage and he sat down on the hardened ground near the tent where he had laid his rifle.
“Why don’t you try to doze off for a bit?” said Johnson, leaning against a stack of crates and looking down at Harris.
“We should’ve died,” Harris responded.“I was supposed to die.”
“Don’t say that nonsense. We’re lucky to be alive after what we’ve been through in these woods.”
Harris shook his head abruptly and stared Johnson in the eyes.
“I killed a boy, Mark” he said. “On Tuesday morning when we charged them, I killed a boy like Timmy. I watched him die.”
Harris stared at the dried blood stains on the wooden forestock of his rifle and thought about his little brother, who he hadn’t seen since he left for boot camp. Timmy had blonde hair like the Germans. Even though Harris had a son back home, he always talked to the other soldiers about Timmy and how when he was 10 years old, they would go out with their dad’s .410 and shoot squirrels from tree branches in the Adirondacks. One time in the woods Timmy tripped on a rock and fell hard against his arm. He thought he had broken it. Harris was still a kid then and he cried because he saw Timmy bleeding. “You’re gonna die, Timmy,” Harris had said, crying. “I don’t want you to die.” Every time they shot a squirrel and it bled too much it would die, so Harris thought Timmy would die, too. He picked him up and took him home and their mother called the doctor who came and wrapped Timmy’s arm and told him it wasn’t broken.
Timmy wanted to be a soldier, but he died in an accident the week after Harris was deployed to France. Harris’s parents never told him how he died, only that it was no one’s fault. Harris used to joke with Timmy that if he was a soldier the Germans would like him and not shoot him because he looked like them.
Harris killed many Germans that looked like Timmy.
“I hate looking at them, Mark,” Harris said.
“We all killed people,” Johnson said. “It’s war. You kill them or they kill you.”
In the woods, Johnson had always closed his eyes when he pulled the trigger. He never saw a soldier who reminded him of his brothers.
“I’ll let you alone now until I have more news for the boys,” Johnson said.
Harris nodded at Johnson and picked at the dirt caked onto the callouses of his hands.
The clouds hadn’t opened since the battle ended and now it began raining on the camp.
“All this damn mud everywhere,” a soldier yelled. “I’m sick of this damn mud.”
All the soldiers went into their tents to wait for the rain to pass except Harris, who shook as the cold water struck his body and ran down his uniform. No one told him to go inside his tent.
After 20 minutes, the rain stopped. But Harris didn’t lift his head.
“I’m glad you weren’t a soldier, Timmy,” he muttered. Then he got up and walked back into the woods. Johnson saw him going but didn’t follow him.
Harris kicked aside the shell cases, threw his pack against the stump of a tree, and laid down against it. Because the trees were very tall, Harris could only see part of the sky, and the way the light shone through the leaves reminded him of when his family would go to church on Christmas and Easter. He hated to say the Lord’s Prayer, but they were Catholic and his mom always made him say it.
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And deliver us from evil. Amen.”
Harris watched the leaves on the branches rustle and fell asleep thinking about the last time he and Timmy and his parents were at Christmas service before the war.
A few months later, Harris went back to New York along with Johnson and a few of the other men in their battalion. Nobody in Harris’s family ever got the chance to hear his war stories, and he and Johnson never went pheasant hunting together or saw each other at reunions. Harris remembered Belleau Wood and the dead boys underneath the oak trees until the day he died of tuberculosis at 44.