By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
A century ago, Rawson native James Joy McClelland was awarded the Croix de Guerre military decoration and proclaimed a hero for his actions in a World War I battle at the town of Belleau Wood, France.
The U.S. Marine Corps sergeant survived a trek across an open wheat field that killed many in his platoon, led a charge on a German machine gun next, then coupled with another company and captured the French town.
For his efforts and acts of bravery at what was known as the battle at Chateau-Thierry, McClelland was promoted to lieutenant and decorated with the French war medal for distinguished service by French commander Gen. Philippe Petain.
The local chapter of the Marine Corps League was renamed in McClelland’s honor in 2007.
“The reason that McClelland is so important is that during the Battle of Belleau Wood, the Germans were only about 70 miles from Paris and were on the offensive. The ferocity of the Marines there likely saved Paris and blunted the Germans’ final momentum of the war,” said local military historian Ron Ammons.
The attack on the town of Belleau on June 6, 1918, was initiated by McClelland, who led a squad of only about 15 men against a defensive force of perhaps 200-300 enemy soldiers, Ammons said.
“McClelland’s squad attacked so swiftly and ferociously that the Germans were taken aback, and then another, larger group of Marines attacking from another direction caused the Germans to flee. This is the very battle and the very action where the Marines were nicknamed ‘Teufelhunden,’ or ‘Devil Dogs’ by the Germans,” he said. “This has been their most enduring nickname.”
Born in Rawson in 1895, McClelland was the second son of Mr. and Mrs. James M. McClelland. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines in September 1914 at the age of 19.
He sent several letters home, some in diary form, and many were printed in the Findlay Morning Republican newspaper.
“We were ordered to attack and take the town of Belleau. The zero hour was late in the afternoon,” he wrote in fall 1918 of the battle for which he won the French cross. “I will never forget the heavy shelling that we had to take before we moved forward over the dead and wounded mangled, the wounded and dying. How we did pray for orders to go forward. At last they came, we started, made a few hundred yards and hit the dirt to open fire. My platoon officer was hit. The machine gun bullets fell like hail. How anyone lived through it, I’ll never know.”
A sergeant at the time, McClelland was in charge of what was left of his platoon. Sighting a German machine gun nest, the men charged it and the Germans retreated.
With only four men and one automatic rifle, McClelland and his team found themselves behind enemy lines. Another Marine company was approaching the town from another direction. They sent word the town was taken and asked for reinforcements.
Four hours later, McClelland’s company commander arrived, greeting his troops: “Hello, McClelland. How did you get here?” (McClelland had been reported killed.) Hearing his report, the captain commented, “That’s damn fine work.”
The four men with McClelland were promoted to sergeant, and McClelland was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant. He was subsequently awarded the Croix de Guerre, five bronze stars and two silver stars. The next month he was promoted to first lieutenant. His unit participated in the military occupation of Germany, and his company crossed the Rhine River on Dec. 13, 1918.
McClelland returned to the states in July 1919 and participated in a Marine ticker-tape parade in New York City.
Upon returning to civilian life, he was employed by the Ohio Oil Co. in the oil fields of Louisiana. There he met his wife, Leah, and they resided in Shreveport and had four children: James, Jo Ann, Peggy and Margaret. The family later resided in Owensboro, Kentucky. McClelland resided in Columbus during retirement.
He died in 1983 at age 88.
According to former “Flag City” League Commandant Roger Neff, “detachments are generally named after someone who was outstanding as a Marine.” But when the local group was chartered in 2003, it didn’t know of any local individuals who would be worthy of such an honor.
Neff said Ammons later told him about McClelland. Neff, through the course of conversations with family members of McClelland and further research, suggested the league adopt the name and a formal renaming ceremony was held.
Pictures of McClelland now hang in Neff’s Marine Corps Military Museum in rural Findlay.
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