At 6:00 p.m., May 30th, 1918, Major Berton W. Sibley, Commanding Officer 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment received the following orders:
“Headquarters, Sixth Regiment, Marine Corps, A. E. F., France, 30 May 1918.
- Advance information official received that this Regiment will move at 10:00 p.m. 30 May by bus to new area. All trains shall be loaded at once and arrangements hastened. Orders will follow. Wagons when loaded will move to Serans to form train.
By Order of Colonel Catlin:
F.E. Evans, Major, U.S.M.C., Adjutant”
These orders were the culmination of the last twenty-two years of Berton Sibley’s life – twenty-two years that had led him to this moment – the beginning of what would become one of history’s most storied battles and the birth of the modern Marine Corps. These orders would take the Marines to the front to blunt the German army’s advance on Paris, only 50 short miles to the west. The coming clash would take place amongst the rocks and trees and the surrounding wheat fields of a small hunting preserve where the Germans had dug in. The name of this hunting preserve was Belleau Wood.
Berton William Sibley was born in Westford, Vermont on March 28th, 1877. In the spring of 1886, his parents made the short move to Milton, Vermont where the formative years of his youth would prepare him for college. In the fall of 1896 he entered Norwich as a Rook and began his long journey of service to his nation. Active in the Corp of Cadets, Sibley studied Civil Engineering, was a member of the Theta Chi fraternity and held the ranks of corporal, sergeant, Captain of Company A. and eventually Cadet Major (Corps of Cadets Commander). Ever mindful of the potential need to serve his country, Sibley enlisted in Company G., First Vermont Infantry in May of 1898, in anticipation of service in the Spanish-American war. Promoted to corporal during his enlistment, he served until October of the same year. His service in the First Vermont Infantry undoubtedly enhanced his overall performance as a cadet. For this excellence, Sibley was rewarded with the Shuttleworth Saber award in 1899 and the honor of speaking at commencement in 1900. Now, the opportunity for a career dedicated to service had arrived.
After graduation, Sibley was commissioned as an Officer of Marines in July of 1900. Making his way to Washington, D.C., Sibley entered the U.S. Marine School of Application (precursor of today’s Officers Candidate School) and finished his training in 1901. From there he made his way to the fleet. Sibley advanced through the company grade ranks during various assignments aboard ships like the U.S.S. Kearsarge, Hartford and Texas. During these early years of his career he also served in the Philippines and participated in the Cuban Pacification.
As America prepared to enter World War I in the early days of April 1917, Sibley had reached the rank of major and was serving as the Division Marine Officer and Aide on the staff of the Division Commander Battleship, Division 7, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Once the United States entered the war, the Marines needed to increase their numbers of trained men and form units for combat and they needed to do it fast. Sibley received new orders and was re-assigned as the Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. In the summer of 1917, the 6th Marines mustered and organized in Quantico, VA.
Quantico, having only recently been chosen as the primary training location for all Marines preparing to depart for the Western Front, literally sprung-up out of the red clay of Quantico in a matter of days and weeks. This was possible because of the efforts of another Norwich Marine, Seth Williams, NU 1903 (200 Things About Norwich #110) Here, Sibley was joined by two other Norwich Marines that would serve under him. Captain Dwight F. Smith, NU 1908, was the commanding officer of the 82nd Company (India Company) and Smith’s second platoon commander was 2nd Lt. Clinton B. Smallman, NU 1914. Once organized, 3/6 got to the business of training close order drill, skirmish drill (platoon and company), trench digging, barbed wire entanglements, signaling, rifle and machine gun practice. Once training was completed, the move to take on the Huns was on.
In the early morning hours of October 24th, 1917, the Marines of 3/6 hopped a train for Philadelphia and boarded the U.S.S Von Steuben arriving in the port of Brest, France on the 12th of November. Once in France, the Marines of the 6th Regiment along with all other Marine units that composed the 4th Brigade, began their training in earnest. Over the next few months the Marines were trained in trench and open warfare. Scheduled training included long hikes, close order drill, additional rifle, and grenade practice. They learned how to storm trench systems, attack strong-points, and defend against gas attacks. Eventually, steel helmets, trench knives, and extra clothing were issued. By mid-March, Sibley’s Marines would be heading to the front near Verdun for 30 days to participate in their first action – defense of the Toulon sector. At the end of their assignment, 3/6 was given new orders that would involve multiple movements over many weeks – each one bringing them closer to their date with destiny.
Having arrived at their destination in the early morning hours of June 1st, the battalion was able to rest for a while before they started the march to the front along the Chateau-Thierry-La-Ferte road. Completing their movement to the staging area, the Marines of 3/6 encountered a sobering sight – the French army was falling back and passing through their ranks. On the morning of June 2nd, Sibley reoriented his companies to better prepare for the fight ahead. On this day, German shelling along the Chateau Thierry front inflicted the first of many casualties the battalion would experience over the next three weeks. Over the next four days, German attacks were turned back repeatedly. But, eventually the Marines would have to go on the offensive and push the German’s out of Belleau Wood.
At 5 p.m. on the 6th of June, the first major offensive involving the Marines of 3/6 began. Belleau Wood was a tactical nightmare. Wide, open wheat fields to the west led to thick vegetation, closely packed tangles of trees, and countless rock formations perfect for interlocking defensive machine gun positions. The approach from the south was only slightly better with less open ground to cover. Dug in near the southern end of the wood, Sibley’s 3/6 was flanked on the right by Major Thomas Holcomb’s 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines in support (Holcomb would later go on to serve as the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps). At exactly 5:00 p.m., Sibley and the Marines of 3/6 stepped-off the line and moved north into the woods while the 2nd Battalion 5th Marines on his left moved east across the open wheat fields. Immediately, the German machine guns filled the air “with red-hot nails”, laying down a withering fire, giving 2/5 the worst of it as the open fields provided no cover. Buy 6:45 p.m., it was reported back to HQ that the machine gun fire in the southern wood had been virtually silenced and by 7:30 p.m. German prisoners began to come in. It was sometime during this attack into the southern tip of Belleau Wood that fellow Norwich Marine and platoon commander from the 82nd Company of 3/6 (India Co.), 2nd Lt. Clinton B. Smallman, NU 1914, was wounded and evacuated from the field of battle. By 9:00 p.m. word was received by runner that Sibley had attained his first objective, the eastern edge of the wood, having covered nearly a mile in less than four hours. The casualties on this day were the highest sustained by the Marine Corps in its history, up to this time. Approximately 31 officers and 1056 Marines became casualties.
Col Albertus W. Catlin, Commanding Officer of the 6th Marine Regiment, had a very high opinion of Sibley, summarizing his observations of Sibley’s leadership and military bearing in Chapter 9 of his book, “With the Help of God and a Few Marines”. Some of his comments follow:
“Major Burton William Sibley is one of the most picturesque characters in the Marine Corps. He is a short, swarthy man, wiry and of great endurance. He is one of those men whose looks are no indication of their age; he might be anywhere from thirty-five to fifty. I fancy that is why he is affectionately known as “the old man”.”
“Sibley is particularly thorough in everything that he does and has never been known to get rattled. His men love him and would follow him anywhere. He is as active as a boy, and it was he who, on foot and fighting as desperately as any of them, personally led those two companies of Marines into the death-haunted labyrinth of Belleau Wood. They followed him as warriors of old followed their chieftain, and he pulled through and won the first stage of the battle that was to put the strength of our brigade to the acid test. Staunch veteran of Marines that he is, he deserves all the praise that can be heaped upon him for that night’s work.”
“With Sibley at the head (of the advance into the wood on the evening of June 6th), nothing could stop them.”
The coming days and weeks would see numerous, violent actions into the Wood and surrounding areas. The 8th of June was a particularly ferocious day of bloody combat. Early on that day, another Norwich Marine, Capt. Dwight F. Smith, NU 1908, commanding officer of the 82nd Company (India Co.) and 2nd Lt. Smallman’s (NU 1914) company commander, was strafed by a German machine gun taking a round to his ankle and putting him out of action. The Battle of Belleau Wood would eventually be won on June 26th.
In the weeks and months that followed, the Marines of 3/6, along with the rest of the 4th Marine Brigade and the 2nd Army Division, would continue their effort to destroy the German army. Actions in places known as the Soissons and Marbache Sectors kept 3/6 occupied through late August until early September when the battalion prepared for offensive action in St. Mihiel. It was here, on September 16th, 1918, that now Lt. Col. Sibley was wounded by shrapnel from enemy artillery and burned by mustard gas taking him out of action for the remainder of the war.
Sibley would slowly, but never fully, recover from his wounds. He made his way back to the United States, was medically retired and entered business in La Jolla, CA. Sibley would be promoted by special order to Colonel during his retirement. Eventually, the world would find itself marching toward another world war and Sibley’s sense of duty caused him great anxiety, knowing full well he was not fit to be recalled to duty. In 1939, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, fellow battalion commander in the 6th Marines who fought beside him at the Battle of Belleau Wood some two decades prior, wrote Sibley personally assuring him that his sacrifice and service in the Great War was all his country should ask of him and that he would not be recalled to active duty.
For his actions during the Great War, Sibley was awarded the Navy Cross and four Silver Stars. His citation for his Navy Cross reads:
“Major Berton W. Sibley, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines: Commanded his battalion in its attack upon enemy machine gun positions from June 6th to 8th, personally leading the attack on June 8th at a critical time in the engagement. Confronted by the tremendous odds, his excellent judgment and personal bravery inspired his men to redouble efforts. When all the officers of Company I had been wounded he advanced with that company and displayed fine courage and dash throughout the action. He led his men superbly under most trying conditions against the most distinguished elements of the German Army, administering to those organizations their first defeat.”
Colonel Berton W. Sibley died February 22, 1944, aged 66. He is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park, San Diego, Calif.