Port officials came on board ship just before we docked. All Americans wore overseas caps, which looked so much nicer than campaign hats, especially one that just sat on top of your head like mine.
Someone brought a newspaper on board, and the captain or the ship read an article in which it stated that U.S. Marines had checked the Germans advance at Belleau Woods. A yell went up that seemed like could have been heard all the way to Berlin. We had had no news of the war for so long, that we did not know whether the Germans were in Paris or where. I had never heard how many Marines were overseas, or as to where they were stationed. However, it seemed that they were living up to the name of being the "First to fight." The reading of that article gave the fellows something to talk about. I don't suppose that there was a one on board that had the faintest idea that we would be at Belleau Woods within twelve days. If such a word had been passed around, I do not know what would have been the effect. All of us thought that we would probably have several months training before seeing any active service. Poor deluded soldiers, how often were we to have our expectations shattered, our hopes blighted and our ideas otherwise disregarded before the war was over.
No attempt was made to land during the afternoon of the day we arrived, but early the next morning the process of going ashore began. A detail, of which I was one, was left aboard ship to help unload. All Sunday afternoon and night we unloaded the supplies of the ship. Being hard work, we were pretty tired when the job was done. All our overseas bags had been loaded down in the bottom of the ship. Though our names were stenciled on them it was a long time before we got possession of them. I had several things in mine that I valued highly. In my pack I had carried a folder containing writing paper and envelopes, which had been given me before I left home by Mrs. Little. As soon as we finished unloading the ship, which was Monday morning, we said good bye to the good old ship "Henderson" and placed our feet upon mother earth once more.
There was a light rain falling as we went ashore, and we were soaking wet when we reached camp. Great stores of supplies were piled high on the docks. One must see with their own eyes to realize and comprehend what an enormous undertaking it is to supply an army. Of course what we saw on the docks at Brest was not a beginning of the total amount.
Along a narrow, crooked, cobble stone street, we hiked through the city and out to the camp where we were to be located. The camp had the appearance of having been built by Napoleon, which fact turned out to be true. The buildings were very old, and the whole camp was enclosed with a high wall. On account of the rain, everything was very muddy. On the way through the town children, old men, and women lined the streets and gave us a welcome, someone occasionally crying "Vive la Americaine." The welcome of the children consisted of a request for cigarettes and chewing gum. I had some chewing gum and gave one a piece. The kids had picked up a little English, as demonstrated by their requests for cigarettes.
I was not greatly impressed with the appearance of the city of Brest. The houses were all very old, and were all of brick, stone, or cement, many of them being joined together with high walls. Another thing that struck me as being particular was that all buildings came right out to the street, with no side walk, or if there was one, it was very narrow. There was not much similarity to our cities or towns.
Our camp was full of American soldiers, both white and black. We had the use of the "Y" which helped to pass away what little free time we had, which was not much. The accounts of what the Marines were doing, as published in the Paris edition of the New York World, indicated to the wise that we would not spend much time around Brest. Some thought that the war would soon he over, just because the Yanks were now beginning to take a fling at the Hun. However I could not share in their optimistic view.
We did not tarry long at Brest. Hiking to the station we were loaded in what was known as third class passenger coaches. There was no resemblance between them and American passenger coaches. These had a running board along each side with doors opening from the outside into each compartment, which had seats facing each other. The seats had no cushions. We left Brest on June 12th. Riding all day and night, and till late in the afternoon or the next day, we detrained at St. Aignan, which became known to the whole A.E.F. as "St. Agony." We were billeted in a barn, and remained there until the 14th. On the morning of the 14th we loaded our packs in trucks, and, with only belts and rifles, hiked several miles to another camp called Chatillon. Here we found all the billets full, and had to go to a farm house where the officers got the house to themselves and we were packed into the barn, that is, our company was quartered at this farm house and barn.
For two days we did not get any rations, and were nearly starved. We finally bought some with our company funds. We did not get enough to eat the whole time we stayed at this place. Some stood in line for chow fully two hours before meal time, and then just as soon as the first were served, would turn right around and get in line in order to he first for seconds, if perchance there were any. As a rule seconds were a disappointment.
We remained at this place for six days, or until the 20th. During that time we received full equipment, which consisted of hobnails, helmets, spiral puttees, gas masks, and ammunition. Up until this time we had not been issued any ammunition. Some afternoons we drilled for an hour or so, also had bayonet practice. Three of us made a trip to a "Y" a few miles away, and bought something to eat. I had what little American money I had changed into French at Brest, and when I went to pay for my stuff, I just held out my hand and let the man take what he wanted. Did not know one piece from another. Our overseas bags were brought to us while at this place. I was glad to get mine. A corporal let his rifle get knocked into a well and was busted to a buck. It was not really his fault. Wrote a few letters home. I might say that my bed at this place was a "little" straw on a concrete floor. One day before we left, we hiked about three miles to a place where we had some gas drill, being told all about the proper use of gas mask. To get a touch of the real thing, we were put In a closed room, for a few moments, where there was what was called tear gas. It was named correctly, for it sure made your eyes water, caused the throat to burn somewhat. Late in the afternoon of June 19th we received orders to pack up and stand by. The question of what to take and what not to take was now becoming a matter of importance to us green troops. We were glad to get rid of our hats for caps, and canvas leggings for spiral puttees. We remained packed up all night waiting to move.
Just before dawn on the morning of June 20h, after standing by all night, with no place to sleep, we hiked several miles to a railway station, and were packed tight into coaches. We rode all day and night, but there was no sleep during the night. No one seemed to know where we were going.
We detrained at Maux on the morning of the 21st. Maux is about 20 miles northeastward from Paris. From a general knowledge of the front, we could tell that we were pretty near the actual fighting. After leaving the train, we assembled along the highway, where a train of our army trucks began to assemble also. We had a few bites of canned meet and bread, and were loaded twenty-five to a truck. There wasn't room to turn around. We had not been long on the road when we began to meet refugees straggling back from the front, with their scanty belongings with them, some tied up in bundles, and some being hauled in carts. It was a very pathetic sight. All along the road we could see trenches that had bent prepared when the Germans were nearest Paris, in 1914 and 1915. About mid-afternoon I heard my first shell. There was no longer any doubt in our minds as to where we were going. It was hard to understand why we were being rushed to the front without any training. We had seen no papers, so how could we know what had been taking place during the month of June. The sound of those shells brought a realization not to be forgotten of what we were about to enter.
About four o'clock in the afternoon our truck ride ended There was some delay in assigning us to the different units. Some here, some there, and soon we were all apportioned out. I found myself assigned to a unit stationed in the small village of Merry. It was several days before I knew my company, battalion etc. As soon as we were assigned, we were taken to the galley for supper. The food was the best I had had for many a day. The Red Cross had provided an abundance of canned peaches and I went for seconds, thirds, fourths, and until I was ashamed to ask for any more. I wanted to get one square meal before being killed.
The company to which I was assigned had as a mascot, an ant bear, which had been secured in Vera Cruz. This same animal was later to receive quite a lot of newspaper publicity in the states. He was known as "Jimmie the Ant Bear."