Exclusive–O’Donnell: On Memorial Day: Two Medals of Honor, Two Names, and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with Old Guard
Patrick K. O'Donnell

Every year on Memorial Day at the cemetery at Belleau Wood in France the United States Marine Corps honors their fallen Marines who saved Paris during World War I from the German army.

On the other side of the Atlantic, at Arlington National Cemetery, the president of the United States lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier paying homage to America’s fallen. The story of a salty gunnery sergeant links the two iconic events, a Marine who received two Medals of Honor and who had two names, including one he falsified: Ernest A. Janson.

“Fix bayonets!”
The piercing shriek of Marine whistles and guttural bellows of “Follow me!” trailed the order as the men of Janson’s 49th Company emerged from the woods. Dawn turned gray, and light bathed the flowing fields in front of the men. “Dewy poppies, red as blood” dotted the waist-deep wheat.

The Marines advanced in Civil War–style formations. As they gazed to their right and left, they viewed a panorama largely untouched by the Great War: sinuous hills of grain, clumps of trees, and a lush, verdant forest that served as a hunting preserve prior to the war. The dense kidney-shaped woods known as Bois de Belleau occupied roughly one square mile of land where in June 1918 the U.S. Marine Corps and Army’s second Division would make an epic stand that halted one of the German army’s final great offensives of the war on Paris.

Two deep ravines cut through the trees, and massive boulders, some the size of a small building, littered the ground making Belleau Wood a natural fortress. A ridge 142 meters high, and therefore dubbed Hill 142, sprawled to the west. Janson’s company had to take and hold the hill from hundreds of battle-hardened Germans. Unbeknownst to the attackers, the Marines faced a battalion from the German 460th Regiment and a battalion of the 273rd Regiment (both understrength), including several machine-gun companies. 

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Janson’s story is captured in my national bestselling book, released this week in paperback The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home.

An angry red sun emerged just above the horizon in the cloudless blue sky behind the men’s backs. Many turned their heads, some for the last time, to glimpse the blazing sunrise. At that instant, German shells and machine-gun bullets ripped through the golden farmland, striking flesh and bone.

As men began toppling like dominos, Marine officers screamed, “Battle-sight! Fire at will!” Their voices broke through the din of the battle and the anguished cries of wounded and dying men.

Although vastly outnumbered by the Germans, Janson’s company and another Marine company miraculously seized Hill 142, but platoons with an original strength of around sixty men had withered to a pitiful handful of men led by a corporal. Most of his officers were dead.

Reinforcements had not arrived. Moving from one position to another, Janson ordered his men to dig in and set up strongpoints and outposts. The Marines scoured the hill for working German machine guns and belts of ammo. Making the most of his meager force, the Marine sent out a few men as scouts to keep an eye on their flanks.

Then the heavy thud and thunder of German artillery shook the hill. Janson knew the shelling signaled one thing.

The German counterattack on Hill 142 had begun.

The deafening blasts of grenades dashed their feverish efforts to bolster the anemic defenses on Hill 142.

A bloodcurdling scream emanated from the direction of Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Janson’s fighting position. A moment earlier, out of the corner of his eye, the forty-year-old Janson had caught sight of more than a dozen Stahlhelm helmets weaving through the underbrush in front of his foxhole. Janson leapt into the infiltrating column of Germans, who had positioned five machine guns to annihilate the 49th Company. He impaled the belly of the first soldier and twisted the bayonet’s keen blade, eviscerating him. Withdrawing his bayonet, the gunny lunged again, penetrating the torso of the next field-gray-clad soldier.

Janson’s commanding officer Captain George W. Hamilton described the furious fight: “Shooting to beat the devil. Not more than twenty feet from us was a line of [about] fifteen German helmets and five light machine guns just coming into action.” All alone, Janson sprang at the Germans.

His war cry alerted the rest of his company who, adding their efforts to Janson’s heroics and baleful bayonet, killed or scattered the column, forcing them to flee and abandon their weapons. Severely wounded, the Marine veteran, with his daring charge, saved the 49th and the hill. Had the Germans been able to set up their guns, they would have obliterated the 49th and retaken the hill.

For his bravery and disregard for his own safety, Body Bearer Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Janson would become the first recipient of the Medal of Honor for the American Expeditionary Force, receiving both the Navy Medal of Honor and the Army Medal of Honor.

Since Janson served as a Marine in the Army’s 2nd Division with the unit’s 4th Brigade (consisting of two Marine regiments) both the Army and Navy could recommend him, a practice the services did away with shortly after WWI. The two medals were awarded to Charles Hoffman—Janson’s alias he used to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.

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Born August 17, 1878, in New York City, Janson was nearing his fortieth birthday in the summer of 1918; this made him an old man in the eyes of the men he led. He had originally enlisted in the US Army under his real name, Ernest Janson, and served for ten years before going absent without leave, a criminal offense. He later had a change of heart and reenlisted in the Marine Corps. To avoid detection, he altered his name to Charles Hoffman before joining the Marines. His ruse worked, and Janson was a model Marine. His service records state that he was an expert rifleman and a sharpshooter. He had received a promotion to sergeant in 1914 and served aboard US Navy ships during the lead-up to America’s involvement in the Great War. In the first weeks of May 1917, Janson and many of his fellow Marines, who had served as members of the Marine Guard on board the USS New Hampshire, formed the 49th Company, 250 men strong, at Norfolk, Virginia.

In 1921 General John J. Pershing the former commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France selected Janson and seven other men to bring home the remains of the Unknown Soldier. Pershing’s Body Bearers, as they would be known, were some of the most daring heavily decorated enlisted men to fight in World War I. Their histories uniquely span America’s service branches and specialties uncovering an untold story within a forgotten story of Army, Navy, Marines, Infantry, Cavalry, Field Artillery, Coast Artillery (Heavy Artillery), and Combat Engineers.

Their ranks include a cowboy who relived the charge of the light brigade, an American Indian who heroically led the way by breaching mountains of barbed wire and captured scores of German prisoners, a salty New Englander who dueled a U-boat for hours in a fierce gunfight, a tough Bostonian who sacrificed his body to save his ship, artillerists who bombed and shelled their way to victory, and an indomitable hero blinded by gas who still managed to destroy five machine-gun nests and kill one German soldier with a mighty swing from his pickaxe.

The Unknowns tells their extraordinary stories. It weaves the larger narrative of America’s involvement in the Great War through the previously untold history of the Body Bearers culminating in the story of the Unknown Soldier who we honor every Memorial Day along with America’s fallen from all of our conflicts.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of 12 books including The Unknowns: The Untold Story of American’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home which is currently available on the new release table at Barnes & Noble and Washington’s Immortals which has been named one of the 100 Best American Revolution Books of All Time by the Journal of the American Revolution. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian

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