Hero of 1918 'Did Not Even Know What The Marine Corps Was' When He Joined It
A memoir of the Great War
“The only map our battalion had was a little hashered map about six inches square and very inaccurate,” Lt. Col. James McBrayer Sellers, USMC, wrote of the battle at Belleau Wood. Even this was unavailable to him. “Our company commander did not even have a map.” Like much else the Americans had to work with, the quality of the cartography that France supplied to their new ally in 1918 was often lacking.
War is chaos, and military leadership is the art of managing that chaos. Sometimes necessity overrides legality and collective fortunes are made or broken on individual initiative. When the mule pulling the battalion kitchen died, the mess sergeant “stole a beautiful French saddle horse, threw mud all over him so as not to arouse suspicion, and rigged him to the galley, so that our kitchen did arrive eventually.”
Similar anecdotes are everywhere in the Sellers memoir. Edited by his grandson William and then further edited by a Mr. George B. Clark in 1997, it is less than one hundred pages of text. (Note: there is a newer edition I have not seen, so YMMV.)
After the war, James and his brother Sandy became partners running their alma mater and family business, a private junior college called Wentworth Military Academy. This happy arrangement ended with the Great Depression, when tuition could no longer support both men, and James bought out Sandy’s share in the school. After seeing his beloved academy through the lean years, James focused on teaching until his death in 1990. He never truly retired.
Fighting from foxholes at Chateau-Thierry in 1918, then-Lieutenant Sellers was obliged to cross open ground in order to report to his commander. This is how he was wounded. Put out of action two and a half hours into supporting the first assault, he was placed up against a gas victim at the aid station and suffered respiratory symptoms from the exposure. After agonizing transport in a French ambulance, he was finally seen by a surgeon two whole days after evacuation. He was lucky. A German machine gun bullet had passed right through his groin and buttocks just under the abdominal wall, missing bones and arteries. Wound care with a rubber tube seeping “Dakin’s fluid,” basically a diluted bleach, prevented infection. By the standards of 1918, this was all state-of-the-art care.
Sellers then had the unusual distinction of commanding two Medal of Honor winners. The Marine Corps only had seven of them in this war. Returning to duty just in time for the famous action at Blanc Mont Ridge, he was leading his company as two runners both distinguished themselves. His orderly Johnny Kelly came upon ten Germans in a machine gun nest, took out the gunner with a grenade, and used his pistol to kill another; the rest surrendered to him. About an hour later John Pruitt led a charge on a machine gun nest with his pistol and shot the gunner between the eyes; he later led another successful attack on a different machine gun nest, then used his rifle to take out two more Germans. Shortly after collecting 45 German prisoners with another Marine, however, Pruitt was killed by a random artillery shell.
Decorated for his leadership in the fight, Sellers witnessed a remarkable spectrum of random events. He records a sky battle around aerial observation balloons, one that he perceives as an American defeat. A French tank unexpectedly appears out of nowhere going the wrong way and then runs out of gas under fire, the crew abandoning it as he watches.
Despite the chaos, the tide of battle was clearly going one way. The German Army began to disintegrate in October and the war of movement was restored. In these closing days, he encountered a German bunker that encapsulated the situation.
The procedure we followed in this situation was to approach the entrance and yell, “Raus mitten” (come out). If they came up, we took them prisoner, and if not, we threw a grenade down and continued on, leaving the dugout for outfits behind us to clean up. This particular dugout was right in my path, so I went through this procedure. Only 40 or 50 yards beyond that was our objective, a road, where we dug in.
As the night turned bitterly cold, Sellers’s new orderly asked if he and another Marine could check the dugout for any blankets. When they approached it, “much to their surprise, they heard this guttural German talking.”
They scrambled back up to the top and yelled “Raus mitten.” The artillery had been silent for a while, and Germans started coming up, one at a time, until, all told, 42 of them came out of the dugout. The boys lined them up and relieved each prisoner of his weapon. In addition they accumulated a whole pile of souvenirs — binoculars, pistols, pouches, and other personal gear.
Many years after the war, Sellers would learn that the captured Germans included infantry, artillerymen, and signalmen. In a sign of their army’s moral and material collapse, this motley band was an ad hoc team built from shattered units and ordered to defend the road with no hope of relief. What Sellers’s orderly probably heard was a debate about the relative safety of emerging from the hole and finding a friendly American to accept their surrender.
Only a few pages later does Sellers reveal, in passing, that the dugout was a defensive point on the much-vaunted Hindenburg Line. False starts behind them, no longer green, the USMC seemed to be hitting their stride just as Germany fell apart. Blanc Mont had been “the most skillful operation in which we participated,” Sellers says. French Gen. Charles Mangin awarded him the Croix de Guerre. The Marine Corps gave him a Silver Star.
Sellers belongs to his age. Seeing shell shock casualties, he decides that their injuries are moral. We now know that high explosive blast trauma injures the human brain causing a constellation of symptoms. Neither a weak will, nor lack of manly vigor, nor combat greenness as Sellers suggests, turn out to be the scientific explanation for shell shock, after all. Rather, this rationalization points to what America was like at the time — and suggests we are still that country today, in some ways.
The year 1916 ended with Sellers playing football for Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago. Speculation about America entering the war ran high and Sellers was eager. Offered a USMC commission when the United States entered the war, Sellers accepted right away, although he did not even know what the Marine Corps was. “I had a vague idea that it was something like the Coast Guard or the Merchant Marine,” he says, for “the Marine Corps had not been widey publicized in those days, and I was not familiar with them.”
Hard to believe? Ubiquitous advertising has solved this problem for the current generation, but there was indeed a time when even the most militant Americans could be innocent of such knowledge. A perennial afterthought, the Marine Corps itself had only recently become an essential tool to the young American empire, with its interests in Latin America and its disappointments in the Philippines. Only after the war, facing Japan in the Pacific, did the USMC finally begin to develop into the modernized amphibious force we know today.
Sellers is a keen observer of this force in transition, but he is restricted to his vantage point on the ground. American pilots had a superb close air support combat record, for example, but like many infantry memoirists of America’s part in the war, Sellers was underwhelmed by the tiny slice he could see of that campaign. His attitude was general, and a key reason why American tactical air power development languished after the Armistice. The proportion of things remembered can also be misleading: Sellers spends more pages remembering the details of his rifle training than the assault on the Hindenburg Line.
Wry honesty rescues the text though. Doctrinal disorganization in a rapidly-changing force annoys him: “In drill, my Wentworth training was valuable, even though the close and extended order drill that I was taught at the Academy was completely changed on at least three separate occasions during our training.” Contradictions and ironies abound; something about Sellers’s take anticipates the dark humor of later American war writers. Marines are disciplined for eating stolen ice cream, cowardice in the face of the enemy, and drunkenly waving a kitchen knife at strangers with loud ambitions to “kill a ni**er.”
His own judgment is light. Rather than condemn quartermaster thieves, Sellers seems to admire the best of them in the Spartan tradition. “I cannot vouch for the truth of this story,” he relates of one famous pilferer,
but …. when we landed in France at Saint Nazaire, we boarded trains fora short trip to an inland training area. By the time we arrived, all the gasoline that as to be used for the Colonel’s lamps was in Daly’s possession. Dan was supposed to have been very embarrassed when he learned of his mistake. As he went over the top at Belleau Woods, he shouted the famous rallying cry: “Come on, you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?”
Military history is rarely pretty close up. Iconic heroes like Daly turn out to be flawed humans, just like the random cooks who crack under stress and the captains who crack under fire. Sellers saw the best and worst of the United States Marine Corps as it transformed from a small expeditionary force into a potent, modernized mass organization in a matter of months. He took those lessons home to Missouri, where his father had been the very first principal of the Wentworth prep school, and fulfilled his real ambition to be a teacher. For James McBrayer Sellers, the Marine Corps was never supposed to be a job, just an adventure.