Readers of the old blog may remember when Jack and I rode off toward New Orleans in September 2005 to help out during Katrina. It was an interesting time, worth a couple of lengthy posts, but mostly anti-climactic. But there was a moment on the last shift we worked when I thought I was about to get my ticket punched. In a traffic accident of all things.
It was an in-progress call on the other side of the Mississippi and we were running hot across the bridge at the same time an Army convoy was crossing. The guy I was riding with was a good cop, but I had only known him for a few days and I didn’t know how much about him – like how good a driver he might be.
At about 110 MPH we topped the crest of the bridge and started picking up speed as we came down toward the T-intersection – where the convoy was blocking us as its trucks were turning left in front of us. And my partner was not slacking off on the accelerator as I tried to come to an understanding of exactly how he was going to maneuver through the clot of trucks blocking the intersection while maintaining Warp 9.
We made it, obviously, but I had a moment in which I thought “this dude is going to get us killed”. Which was followed immediately by the thought, “How is my family going to deal with this?” And, finally, “How long before they know what’s happened to me, and how are they going to get my body back home to bury it?” (I think I also asked myself, “Hey, is that the 82nd Airborne?”)
I guess it is that “been there done that” feeling that made the story of 1stSgt George H. Humphrey’s homecoming particularly poignant for me.
1stSgt Humphrey died thousands of miles from home and family, and his body lay in an unmarked battlefield grave for almost 92 years. But two days ago his family was able to lay him to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
It’s a good story.
0300 – 12 September 1918 South of Thiacourt, France:
The 6th Marines moved into old trenches as they prepared to step off after the artillery barrage. The war was years old, but it was almost over. The armistice would be signed in a matter of weeks and by 17 November the 6th Marines would be marching on the Rhine River to occupy Germany. But at 0500, as the artillery barrage rolled forward, the 6th Marines moved forward into battle once again.
This was the Old Corps, the stuff that Marine legends are made of. The 6th Marines was commanded by LtCol Albertus Catlin – on board the Maine when it sank in Havana Harbor, awarded the Medal of Honor for the expedition at Veracruz. Among the 6th Marines was Capt Clifton B. Yates, one of the few officers of any service who would command a platoon, a company, a battalion, a regiment and a division under fire, he went on to become the 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps. Yates is well remembered by Marines for his situation report during the battle of Belleau Wood two months earlier:
I have only two men out of my company and 20 out of some other company. We need support, but it is almost suicide to try and get here as we are swept by machine gun fire and a constant barrage is on us. I have no one on my left side and only a few on my right. I will hold.
Compared to the battle of Belleau Wood the previous June, where in one day in those bloody wheat fields the Marine Brigade suffered 1,056 casualties (more than the Marine Corps had lost in its 143 years of existent up to that point), the fighting at Thiacourt (Battle of St. Mihiel) was relatively light. Still, of the 2883 men of the 6th Marines who entered the battle on 12 September, there were 706 casualties (more than 100 would be KIA). Most of the casualties for the 6th came on 15 September as they held their position on the line of resistance somewhere between Thiacourt-Regnieville and St. Mihiel.
Originally reported among the dead was 29-year-old 1stSgt George H. Humphrey. Under fire from enemy machine guns, Humphrey fell from rounds that pierced his helmet. His troops were unable to evacuate the body and were forced to bury it in the field. After the war, fellow Marine Frank A. Cleland of California, wrote to George’s brother Oliver. After the battle, attempts were made to try and find where they had buried 1stSgt Humphrey, but they were not successful and his status was changed from KIA to MIA.
I know my parents would be equally as anxious as you are if the circumstances were reversed. During the day, we buried your brother on the crest of that hill about 150 yards from that trail. Whatever personal effects your brother had were buried with him as they were shelling the hill all the time and we didn’t have time to search him, and there was no one to send them in with anyway.
For more than nine decades the grave of George Humphrey was unknown. On visits to Arlington National Cemetery his family would speculate if cousin George was there, in the Tomb of the Unknowns. But 1stSgt Humphrey lay in a forest in the hills of Northern France in an unmarked grave waiting to be brought home.
He lay there until last October, when some French relic hunters with a metal detector began to dig in a forest near Rembercourt-sur-Mad. What they found was the body of 1stSgt Humphrey, still wearing his boots and bullet-riddled helmet. His uniform appears to have disintegrated, but some more durable items survived such as his canteen, razor, toothbrush, fountain pen, a pipe and a marksman badge with “GH Humphrey” engraved on its back. The Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) was able to positively identify the remains this past March using dental records.
This last Wednesday, on a sunny Summer day in Northern Virginia, 1stSgt George H. Humphrey was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery. His family was able to attend and received the American Flag from BrigGen Walter Miller.
Humphrey’s cousin, 90-year-old retired farmer John Humphrey was quoted as saying “You’d think after 92 years he’d never be found. It tells people don’t give up. There’s always hope for families.”
There are hallmarks, values and traditions that differentiate Marines from anyone else. From the first day of Boot Camp all recruits learn that every Marine is a rifleman, and throughout his/her career, whether it is as a clerk, aircraft mechanic, or computer programmer, there lives inside that Marine a trigger-pulling grunt. It is a great strength in the Marine Corps, this spirit of oneness, this brotherhood. As Army Colonel Daniel Bolger wrote in his 2009 DEATH GROUND: TODAY’S AMERICAN INFANTRY IN BATTLE:
The entire Corps, all 170,000 or so on the active rolls, plus the reserves, are all infantry. All speak the language of the rifle and bayonet, of muddy boots and long, hot marches. It’s never us and them, only us. That is the secret of the Corps. It explains why Marine commanders routinely, even casually, combine widely disparate kinds of capabilities into small units…. Marines send junior officers and NCOs out from their line rifle companies and expect results. They get them, too.
Among the traditions that make us Marines is our sacred vow to never leave our dead and wounded behind to the enemy. Gunnery Sergeant William J. Dixon, who oversees official funerals at the Marine Barracks Washington, DC., said it very well when referring to the funeral arrangements for 1stSgt Humphrey:
There is no greater honor to me than to direct this funeral in honor of such a fallen warrior who laid down his life in defense of the world. His remains were lost to time, but only for a moment to the Marines.
Colonel Bolger’s assessment of the Marine Corps and Marines does get to the heart of what makes us different. But in in his last sentence, GySgt Dixon illuminates how it is all possible. We are not just brothers while we are under arms together, we are Marines for life, and that connects us in an unbroken chain of faithful brotherhood to every Marine who ever served in nearly 235 years. And it is what will connect us to every future Marine in the years to come. In that shared sense of honor, values and purpose we are strong.
1stSgt Humphrey had to wait a while, but his brothers in arms brought him home, laid him to rest with honor, and made sure his family knew what happened to him. No future Marine can expect any less from the brotherhood.