Asbury Park Sunday Press (The Shore Press), September 10, 1933
Gunner Nice of the "Devil-Dogs"
Manasquan Hero, Possessor of 11 Citations, Recalls Adventures with the Fourth Marines
By Elias S. Longstreet
The brawny chest of that hardboiled ex-Marine William F. Nice will have to be expanded and his home at 22 Parker avenue, Manasquan, will have to be enlarged if he continues to receive decorations and citations for the part he played in the World war. There are 11 of them now and it may be that in the course of events, when Uncle Sam gets thru [sic] house cleaning, budget paring and general reconstruction the old gentleman will remember a few more instances in the career of Nice of which recognition should be taken
As a warrant officer with the rank of Marine gunner, equivalent to the rating of second lientenant [sic], Nice was in charge of the first and second platoons of the 49th company, Fifth regiment, of that incomparable Second division, at first composed of seasoned Marines and service-bitten army regulars. He served over 20 months on the other side. Those were months filled with daring adventure and devastating hardships, in which the rustle of the wings of the angel of death became as commonplace to him and his mates as the chirping of sparrows.
Te [sic] latest decoration of Gunner Nice, is the beautiful silver star of the Order of the Purple Heart, originated by Gen. George Washington during the American Revolution but which later was allowed to die out, recently to be revived largely thru the efforts of U.S. Sen. W. Warren Barbour of Locust Point. It was just recently bestowed upon him and now it takes its place with the Croix de Guerre and another Croix de Guerre with palms, each of which signifies a citation for exceptional gallantry.
Some of the exploits of Gunner Nice and his comrades are told in that lively war volume with the menacing title, "Fix Bayonets," written by Capt John W. Thomason, jr., commander of the 49th company. When a motion picture was made of the book Wallace Beery played the role of Nice. It should be the task of painstaking historians to declare which of the American divisions played the greatest part in the great war, but certainly the Second will vie for the honor. Composed of seasoned service men, the Second (the Indian Head) was hastily gathered together and sent overseas with the First. Even after the lapse of years patriotic hearts beat faster at the recollection of how the "Victory drive" of the Germans in 1918 was halted at Chateau Thierry, when the Second was bundled into camions and rushed into battle across the Paris-Metz highway. There in Belleau Woods the Fifth and Sixth Marines won undying fame when they stopped the German rush and, with their buddies, fought for 11 days against repeated attacks to drive them back. And for this exploit the Second gained newspaper acclaim as the savior of Paris.
Gunner Nice was in the heart of it all, an inferno of carnage and death, he admits, with comrades falling on all sides, but "under certain conditions," he says, he wouldn't mind going back again He didn't specify what the conditions were, but after 14 years in service such thoughts are apt to crop up He stopped a bullet there with his right forearm, but it was a flesh wound and he remained with his company. He was cited for bravery in the Bois de Belleau engagement in both French and American general orders, but received no decoration
The Second played an heroic part in five pitched battles, or series of engagements, all successful, and won the right to have emblazoned upon its banners the names of its brilliant victories at Chateau Thierry, Soissons, St Mihiel salient, Blanc Mont and Argonne-Meuse Its casualties tell the grim story of the fighting. They totaled 732 officers and 23,653 men, or 24,385 in all. This was abou 10 percent of the total casualties in the entire American Expeditionary Force. It captured 12,026 prisoners, over a fourth of the total taken by the A.E.F., and took 343 cannon, about a quarter of the whole number taken by the Americans.
But the big show is all over now for Gunner Nice and like many another quiet, neat, orderly business man, he commutes to his post at the Federal Reserve bank in New York, reading his morning paper and yawning. However, the adjustment was not an easy one, for previous to the World war, Nice saw service with the Leathernecks in many far flung corners. He joined the Marines in 1905 and actually did "see the world."
Off to Port au Prince, Haiti, the command was rushed when that island republic was a wild, wicked, seething center of savage revolt Also there was service in Santo Domingo, and when the United States had its little trouble with Mexico he was with the force that went to Vera Cruz, that time when Smedley Butler, the Marine firebrand, went to Mexico City disguised as a Chinaman. When American battleships made their famous world tour at the command of President Theodore Roosevelt Nice went along on the Oregon. He also got his share of hard knocks in Nicaragua
Born in Philadelphia Nov 18, 1882, Nice could look back upon a long line of ancestors who had fought practically since the time they had landed in that region in 1673 and had been represented in every war in which America engaged. The family possessed a grant of land from William Penn that extended from the Schuykill river to the Delaware, from what is now Wayne Junction to Allegheny avenue, Philadelphia. Part of the section even now is knows as Nicetown. State coaches made the old ancestral log cabin one of their regular stops and during the battle of Germantown General Washington made his headquarters for four days at the Nice home on the Germantown road.
When the World war broke out Nice was on the high seas. A war game had been on at Guantanamo, Cuba, when Cuban insurrectos took it into their head to attack the Francisco sugar plantation, American owned, at Manzanilla. The Marines were rushed around on the battleship South Carolina and hopped a narrow-gauge railroad for the scene of action. They nearly suffocated on the journey. Pyramids of oil soaked grass had been heaped along the rails and on top of these short lighted candles had been placed. Thus when the grass had been fired the insurrectos would be several miles away. The Marines chased the natives into Manzanilla and there the rebels surrendered. They wanted to do all the damage they could but had no desire to fight Uncle Sams boys.
Then the South Carolina set sail for Philadelphia and after a short time there the lads boarded the DeKalb, an interned German liner, a thoroly [sic] disgruntled gang because they believed they were being sent back to Haiti. Actually they were embarking upon their greatest adventure, one from which many bever returned. They set sail June 14, 1917, but were almost stopped before they began. On June 22 enemy submarines attacked the group of vessels in which the DeKalb was included. One torpedo passed across the bow of the vessel and another across the stern. Guns five, seven and nine on the
[photo, caption: Gunner William F. Nice]
DeKalb, of which Nice was in charge, opened fire and were credited with a direct hit
The DeKalb arrived at St Nazaire June 26, the Fifth regiment being the first unit of what ultimately became the Second division to land in France A part of the Fourth brigade, it remained in the Bourmont training area until March 14, 1918, when it commenced movements into the sub-sectors on the Verdun front. After that it had a division sector of its own in the region of Les Eparges, where it held the line for two months. The distant roar of cannon was deadly close. The first real baptism of fire was received when the Second was sent in as support for the Frist at Cantigny.
Then the hell of Chateau Thierry broke in its awful devastation, threatening Paris as it had not been threatened since the dark days of 1914. Straddled across the Metz highway, with no artillery support the first day and with nothing but emergency rations, the Fifth and Sixth regiments stopped the onrushing Germans at Belleau Woods. Into the thick of the fight went Gunner Nice to bring back Lieutenant Somers, who had been wounded. There were few in that party who returned, but Nice did, despite a wound in the back. The bullet which struck him is still imbedded there. Lieutenant Somers, however, died soon after.
Nice was sent to the first aid station and remained there over night, running away and rejoining his command the next day for fear of being transferred. There he got his first citation and later there was pinned upon his breast by a French general the Croix de Guerre. "He kissed me on each cheek, "commented Nice. "I remember it well for he had been eating garlic." One of the exploits which figured in his decoration was the raid he made in command of 16 men upon a machine gun nest. They captured 26 Germans and two machine guns.
"The woods were alive with machine guns," saidNice "One of the worst nests was in a wooded depression and death came spurting out of there in a constant stream. Shell fire was poured into it and then the boys went into the mess and Floyd Gibbons, the newspaper correspondent, was with them. The Germans had pulled off a clever trick. They were operating their guns with lanyards stretching to the top of the depressions. Strings of ammunition containing 1,000 cartridges were operated by weights.
"There was poor Sergt. Jerry Finnegan, one of my pals, who haggled a precious can of salmon open with his bayonet and had been told by a lieutenant to 'damn well fix that bayonet and get on with the war.' Two hours later Jerry lay dead across a Maxim gun, his bayonet thru the body of the gunner. There was Hill 142 there and the Germans wanted it desperately. They sent wave after wave over and their dead were piled all about it. We ourselves, the 49th, lost 62 percent of our company. We let Red Cross workers among the Germans pick up their dead and wounded until the wind lifted the cover on one stretcher and showed the snout of a machine gun. Then we let them have it. As one German wrote, "The Americans are savages. They kill everything that moves.'
"But God, how the boys suffered in taking Bouresches. Lieutenant Robertson got there with 20 men out of some hundreds who had started. Whole platoons were shot down. The whole Bois de Blelleau was a machine gun nest. But the Americans took it and here the Germans, who had rolled up tired French divisions all the way from the Chemin des Dames, were stopped good and plenty. And later in French general orders the woods were named "Bois de la Brigade de Marines,' after us.
"Then we bumped into the Aisne-Marne offensive at Soissons next, in Foch's drive in July 1918, when he [sic] whole western front moved. But I forgot to tell you that we paraded in Paris on the Fourth of July after Belleau Woods and you never saw a wilder welcome than the French gave the boys. Well, on July 18, 1918, all the guns in the world opened up for a five-minute barrage and we charged with the Senegalese. And remember, we hadn't had food for two days and had gone three nights without sleep. That's where I lost my orderly, little Tritt. We found him dead under the branches of a fallen tree.
"While there I was sent out on patrol one night to locate the enemy. We found them all right and they found us. We had 56 men. The Germans cut us off from our battalion and there was a lively scrap in which we sustained 37 casualties. The rest of us managed to fight our way back. We were cited in both French and American orders for that scrap and the day's work in general.
"I was hit in the right forearm, but it was only a flesh wound and I stayed with the company. We had advanced over six miles, captured over 3,000 prisoners, 11 batteries of artillery, over 100 machine guns and the like. Some of those guns were turned on the retreating enemy.
"We were under the command of General Foch. As a mater [sic] of fact the Second was his command of shock troops and he sent us wherever hell was popping. That was how we came to get a crack at the fighting in the St. Mihiel offensive in September, 1918. There was one machine gun nest that bothered us like the devil there and I and four men were sent out to silence it. It was a hot crawl to get close enough to heave hand grenades, but we did it and killed eight gunners. After that we had a little relief. The French thought enough of the incident to give us citations."
Then came the Champagne offensive and its battle of Blanc Mont, the taking of which Marshal Petain hailed as "the greatest single achievement of the 1918 campaign - the Battle of Liberation." The Marines were in it, you might be sure. The old Second by now had suffered tremendous losses of the old timers who had first composed it, but sturdy replacements had taken their places and it was now held as the special reserve of Gouraud's 4th French army. Four years of shell fire had made the region a desolation. All of it was dominated by Blanc Mont ridge, apparently impregnable, held by the Germans.
The Second, with the Sixth regiment in the forefront, took Blanc Mont that day but the field of death over which they charged was muddy with the blood of comrade and foe. That was a memorable Oct. 3. The victory freed Rheims and forced the entire Germay army between that city and the Argonne forest to retreat to the Aisne, a distance of 30 kilometers. There were some units of Marines who went beyond their objective and as a result were subjected to terrific flanking fire. They fell back to the Paris-Metz highway, but with many men missing.
Nice was asked by his captain to volunteer to pick up stragglers still wandering around lost in the shell swept area, and he returned with a force of men to direct the strays to their own lines. He was wounded in doing so, but got back to his company and remained there, altho [sic] threatened with court martial if he did not go to the rear for treatment of his wound.
"Hell, I didn't want to leave; I felt well enough to stay," grinned Nice. "But I didn't want to face a military court and so I went to the hospital. There was a Captain Kelly there and the following night he said, 'To hell with a hospital discharge; let's leave anyhow and go back.' I felt the same way too and without a cent in our pockets we bummed our way to Paris. There the military police picked us up and as we had no traveling orders we were held as absent without leave. But we got out of it all right. The officer in charge of the provost guard was a prince. We told him our story and he not only gave us passes but railroad transportation back to our commands and loaned us 20 francs, for we didn't have a cent to our names."
For venturing back into that inferno and trying to save his lost comrades Nice was cited by both the American and French armies. It was in that action that Nice lost one of his closest pals, Lieut. Chuck Connor. Before they went over the top Chuck, one of the bravest Marines who ever marched beneath Uncle Sam's banner, turned to Nice and surprised him with the statement, "Nice, I gues [sic] I'm getting yellow. If the old man (Capt. Hamilton) sent me back now I'd go."
"Yellow hell," snorted Nice, "there isn't a better nor a braver soldier in the whole damned A E.F. or any other army."
"Well," persisted Connor, "I've got a hunch I'm not coming back."
"Ah snap out of it," joshed Nice. "All you got is an empty belly."
"But poor Chuck was right," said Nice. "He had command of the first platoon and I had the second, about 40 paces away. There wasn't any cover on the slope we charged. The ground shook with the thunder of the guns and the hills were lousy with Germans. And then a one-pounder got him; tore him all up. I tried to give him first aid but there was nothing that anybody could have done for him. He just smiled, patted me on the arm and died. He had seen 30 years of service and he was a prince."
Gunner Nice was second in command of the 49th that day under Captain Hamilton. Casualties had been frightful. They were in an exposed position where to remain was impossible. A swing to the left was imperative and over a death swept field they went and got in contact with other companies of the Second battlion.
And then dropping wearily into a shell hole where his