I recently had the honor of e-interviewing Col. Joseph Alexander (USMC-Ret.) co-author of Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I

What makes Through the Wheat the best history of the U.S. Marine Corps in World War I?

I’ll not stake that claim, but I believe Through the Wheat is the best comprehensive history of the U.S. Marine Corps in World War I because it covers in depth not only the 4th Marine Brigade on the Western Front, but also the pioneering combat deployment of Marine aviation to France and the Azores, the service of thousands of other Marines with the Atlantic Fleet, and the experiences of Marine expeditionary forces in Central America, the Caribbean, and the Far East-including the little known landing of Marines in Siberia during the Russian Revolution. I think the best book about the Marines in World War I is John W. Thomason’s fictional but authentic account, Fix Bayonets! (1925). Other notable books about World War I Marines include Robert B. Asprey’s At Belleau Wood (1965), George B. Clark’s Devil Dogs (2000), and Peter F. Owen’s To the Limits of Endurance (2007).

Brig. Gen. Edwin Simmons was eulogized by General Carl Mundy as a “Warrior Historian.” What was it like to be asked by him to complete his World War I book?

For all of General Simmons’ love of military history, he was a warrior first, an infantry officer who commanded every element from a platoon to a regiment. His defense of a roadblock in Seoul against a North Korean armored attack in September 1950 reflected discipline, courage, and quick thinking. He brought those qualities to the new position of Director of Marine Corps History. We had collaborated on several combat documentaries for The History Channel and had written sequential monographs for the 50th Anniversary of the Marines in the Korean War. I knew he was concerned about being able to complete his long deferred history of the Marines in WW 1 before his health deteriorated, but I was floored when he asked me to finish the project. Floored and honored.

Who are some of the Marines you profile in Through the Wheat?

John A. Lejeune casts a long shadow through these pages. He helped the Corps maintain its traditional standards of discipline and marksmanship throughout its unprecedented 5-fold expansion and commanded the U.S. 2nd Division in the critical battles of St. Mihiel, Belleau Wood, and the Meuse-Argonne. Other future commandants-Wendell Neville, Thomas Holcomb, Clifton Cates, and Lemuel Shepherd-displayed early evidence of their gritty leadership in the slaughter-pen of Belleau Wood. Some of the Corps’ most legendary NCOs stood to the fore in this desperate fighting, men like Dan Daly, Louis Cukela, Gerald Thomas, Charlie Dunbeck, and James Gallivan. Aviation pioneers Alfred Cunningham and Roy Geiger trained a new generation of flyers, including slightly built, poetry-writing Ralph Talbot, the only Marine officer to receive the Medal of Honor in the war.

Why does Belleau Wood still resonate as a touchstone battle of the Marine Corps?

Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, and the Chosin Reservoir are the three touchstone battles for the Corps. At Belleau Wood the 4th Marine Brigade sustained 55% casualties in 20 days of point-blank fighting. With considerable help from US Army and French infantry, artillery, and engineers, the Marines decisively defeated the better part of three veteran German divisions whose explicit mission was to defeat and humiliate the Americans in their first major combat. Before Belleau Wood, the Marines had served primarily as sea-going light infantry, best suited for short landing operations against bandits, pirates, or insurgents. Belleau Wood revealed that the Marines could fight and win significant battles against the most well-armed enemy the nation had yet to face.

What inspired Edwin Simmons’ interest in World War I?

Growing up in Billingsport, New Jersey, young Ed Simmons used to accompany his father on weekend visits to the local American Legion Hall, where middle-aged veterans of World War I held forth with their accounts of the great battles of Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, and Soissons. Later, a German veteran working on the Lehigh University campus provided detailed accounts of the temployment of Maxim heavy machine-guns in both the offense and defense. Simmons later put those principles to good use as commanding officer of the weapons company in the 1st Marines in the Battle for Seoul. He had also known many of the Marine veterans of the Western Front, including Lemuel Shepherd, Gerald Thomas, Logan Feland, and LeRoy Hunt. In his last years he enjoyed a memorable tour of the World War I battlefields with his son Clarke.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The book introduces a number of lesser known Marines, riflemen and aviators alike, whose story in many cases is told for the first time. Typical of these is Private James T. Hatcher, a Texan who originally tried to enlist in the US Cavalry, then chose the Marines. Hatcher’s reflections on his recruit training, deployment, and fighting at Verdun, Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Mihiel, and Blanc Mont (wounded and evacuated) provide an exceptional perspective from the ranks. It was a hell of a war, and it changed the Marine Corps irrevocably.

Posted by Jim Dolbow in Books

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  • UltimaRatioReg

    Great interview, Jim. And an absolutely superb work. BGen Simmons and Col Alexander are able to capture the temper of the Marine Brigade as they enter and endure the first great Marine fight of its existence. This is an impressive accomplishment, as the reader looks back across the decades to Officers and Marines for whom the great coming battles of the 20th Century are yet to come. A MUST for anyone who wants to understand the modern USMC, and America’s participation in the Great War. URR

  • Thanks for commenting URR!!