This memoir was begun by the author almost 50 years ago as a way for him to leave to future generations an honest, candid account of his combat experiences in the First World War as a Marine on the Western Front in 1918. (The author left both a written memoir and also recorded himself on a series of cassette tapes. This memoir is an amalgation of both Paradis' written text and his own living words.)
When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, Paradis was living with his family in Detroit, where he worked for the gas company. He enlisted shortly thereafter in the U.S. Marine Corps with a buddy of his and underwent his basic training at Parris Island, SC. Paradis speaks at some length about his time in Parris Island. What made me smile and laugh were the following comments he made when he went to receive an injection. At the time, Paradis was suffering from dysentery caused by the chow he and other trainees had to eat.
"About the fifth day, when I was at my weakest, they gave us one of our inoculation shots. It was given on the second floor of our old barracks. The men lined up at the rear of the building in alphabetical order and marched up the outside rear stairs in single file and then through the front of the barracks where the doctors and medical corpsmen gave each man his shot. I was so weak, I could not climb the stairs unaided. The men helped me up the stairs where I had to stand in line waiting my turn. When the line had advanced about half way I fainted and was laid on a cot to wait my turn. When I finally was taken for my turn, a little runt of a doctor said to me, 'What's wrong, big boy, are you afraid of the needle?' I replied, 'Hell no, I am just damn sick.'[LOL] I expected a tongue lashing, but he made no more comments."
Paradis did recover and was to sent to the Marine Corps base in Quantico, VA, for additional training. By February 1918, Paradis' unit had arrived in France, where they were eventually billeted in a small village. For the next 3 months, Paradis and his fellow Marines endured training (with French assistence) that simulated real war conditions. In the meantime, the Allies were facing their greatest challenge since the war began when the Germans (beginning on March 21st) launched a series of offensives along the Western Front that brought both the British and French forces close to collapse.
Paradis had his baptism of fire on June 1, 1918, when the Fourth Marine Brigade was deployed before Belleau Wood, where the Germans were well established, having already put the French troops opposing them to flight. Defeatism was rife in the French Army at that time. Paradis mentions the air of utter dejection and resignation among many of the French soldiers he saw as his unit made its way to the front. At this part of the memoir, I could palpably feel that History was hanging in the balance. For if the Marines (representing one of the initial infusions of American forces in combat on the Western Front) failed to stop the Germans from advancing on Paris, the war was likely to be lost, and the Kaiser would be taking the salute from his soldiers as they marched down the Champs-Élysées in triumph.
Thankfully, the Marines distinguished themselves at Belleau Wood and, despite heavy losses, stopped the German advance. Paradis emerged from the battle without a scratch. He went on to fight in 4 other pivotal battles (Soissons, Château-Thierry, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne), distinguishing himself in combat. He always spoke openly in this memoir of the dread he felt before going into combat --- that is, what he called "Old Man Fear" and its paralytic effects.
After the Armistice, Paradis' unit was sent to Germany as part of the U.S. Army of Occupation, which in contrast to its later counterpart in post-Second World War Europe, was based in a small strip of Western Germany centered around the city of Coblenz. Paradis, who had signed up for the duration and had expected to be among the first troops sent back to the U.S. (having been in France for close to a year by the time the war ended), was chagrined to find that he would be on attachment much longer than expected. Indeed, Paradis would not see his family again til the late summer of 1919.
In reading this memoir, Paradis' presence was so real to me. I developed a deep respect for him, his service, and appreciated his comments about some of the people he encountered while in the Marine Corps. For example, the officers. The one who comes to mind is Major Ernest C. "Bolo" Williams, a career officer who came across as caring more for his own personal comfort, often at the expense of his own men. Williams was a dipsomaniac. (He and Paradis were like chalk and cheese.) I'll cite the following comments from Paradis, which should give the reader of this review an understanding as to how sometimes the officer class gives unnecessary grief to the rank and file.
"... I want to get a gripe off my shoulder about the methods of promotion by our old time regular Marine officers. Major Bolo Williams was still our battalion commander and as such had the last word as to promotions crossing his desk. My name was sent in twice by our company commander for a field commission. Each time a career corporal or sergeant's name was substituted for my name. Both men were company clerks and had never seen front line duty. I was told this by our top sergeant, also by Major Williams' orderly who heard the major order the change in names. There was little I could do about it had I known about it in time; besides, my only interest was in returning home."
Gunnery Sergeant Don Paradis, I salute you.