Missouri Marine among those who earned coveted title ‘Devil Dog’ during WWI battle
By Jeremy Amick
via the News Tribune newspaper (MO) web site
Roger Hager has long been a person of reflection, piecing together cross-sections of family and local history in an effort to acquire a better understanding of how military service shaped the lives of his ancestors.
Most recently, he has collected information regarding the World War I service of his late great uncle, who was among the brave Marines who earned the admired title of "Devil Dogs" in the historic Battle of Belleau Wood.
Willard Paul Gress was born in St. Thomas on Nov. 24, 1890. The 26-year-old was single and employed as a grocery clerk with L.O. Harris in Kansas City when he joined tens of thousands of young men from across the United States registering for the military draft on June 5, 1917.
"He chose to enlist in the United States Marine Corps in Kansas City on December 15, 1917," said Hager, when discussing his long-deceased great uncle. "It's interesting that he had to be re-examined because, at first, he was considered to be underweight -- a tall man who was only 143 pounds," he added.
Military records indicate the recruit was initially sent to Parris Island, South Carolina, to embark upon his training. While in camp, he received instruction in a variety of military skillsets that would be critical to his survival in the coming months.
"The course of instruction at Parris Island lasted eight weeks," noted a Marine Corps Recruit Depot History Book accessible through the U.S. Marine Corps website. "The first three weeks were devoted to instruction and practice of close order drill, physical exercise, swimming, bayonet fighting, personal combat, wall scaling and rope climbing."
During the fourth and fifth weeks of their World War I training cycle, the book said, recruits "perfected their drills, learned boxing and wrestling, and were taught interior guard duties," with the final three weeks being dedicated to refining their marksmanship skills.
Like many service members of the era, Gress took out a $10,000 insurance policy on Feb. 11, 1918, accepting the possibility that should his return to the states be inside a flag-draped coffin, his family would have the means to provide for his burial with funds remaining.
When his initial training completed on Feb 23, 1918, the new Marine was assigned to the 138th Company, 2nd Replacement Battalion in Quantico, Virginia. The following month, he boarded a troop ship bound for overseas service.
"There are records showing he was eventually assigned to the 78th Company, 2nd Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment and embarked for overseas duty on March 14, 1918 at (League Island) Philadelphia," Hager said. "After arriving in France, they began a period of intense training," he added.
The Marine's mettle was soon tested in operations against enemy forces. As Gress explained in later years, the fighting was not the greatest challenge he endured in the war, since on many occasions he recalled going for three or four days without anything available for them to eat.
Read the entire article on the News Tribune web site.
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