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A Tradition of Service Logo 75Maj. Gen. Walter G. Farrell, USMC

Submitted by: Dana Tibbitts

Capt. WGFarrell 1919Maj. Gen. Walter G. Farrell served in World War 1 with the United States Marine Corps. The dates of service are: Known 1916-1946.

 

My grandfather, Major General Walter Greatsinger Farrell, best known as “Great,” joined the Marine Corps in 1917 after a brief stint in the Army. A consummate storyteller, Great fought in WWI and WWII, earning a Silver Star for “exceptional heroism against the Japanese.” Between wars he served in Haiti, Nicaragua, and later China, where he commanded the 3rd Marine Air Wing. In 1945, Farrell reported for duty at El Toro as deputy commander, 11th Naval District Air Bases.

‘Banana Wars’ author Ivan Musicant referred to Great as “the most fascinating man person I’ve ever met.” He was a resident of San Diego for more than 60 years. At the time of his death in 1990, Great was the oldest living naval aviator in the United States, and held two of the few pilot’s licenses signed by Orville Wright.

 

Walter Greatsinger Farrell in WWI

Parris Island & Quantico, 1917-18

The fledgling four-square-mile training base in balmy South Carolina was enjoying a construction boom, garnering its reputation as the “Hot Bed of the Marine Corps.” But the explosive growth on the base at the outset of WWI had its downside. New recruits arrived to discover that the depot was plumb out of uniforms. Instead, each man was issued two pairs of pajamas while they awaited the arrival of the next shipment of regulation shirts and trousers. For a week or so, they were stuck in their skivvies, listening to lectures on military discipline and esprit de corps.

Pajamas notwithstanding, no recruits had it harder than the guys going through Parris Island during the Great War. The 46,202 men who matriculated through the “cradle of the corps” between 1917 and 1919, endured more grueling training, drills and discipline than any other recruits in the history of the Marines.

There were drills on the sandy flats of Niver’s Beach and daily marches – sometimes barefoot—carrying buckets of oyster shells, gathered with their bare hands, across the loose sand to build new roads. They made long marches from the west end of the island to the rifle range on the far side, wearing heavy packs and gas masks in 95-degree heat and 92-percent humidity. There were drill instructors, or DIs, who knew precisely what to do with a swagger stick to make an impression on a slacker’s ass, without leaving a shred of evidence. And the profanity of these DIs—well, it “sometimes turned the air blue.”

A busy Marine is a happy Marine, as the saying goes.

Future generals—including a certain Maj. Gen. Walter Greatsinger Farrell—corroborated that Parris Island was a tough proving ground, alright. Pretty grim, one said. A deadly place, remembered another. Oh, my God, yes, it was really terrible, exclaimed yet another. Great had to admit, the DIs at Parris Island made his Army boot camp instructors seem like a couple of mother hens. “But they also had my welfare at heart,” he added, “and, by the time they were finished with me, I knew the meaning of instant obedience.” In the final analysis, however, these graduates agreed: they were “glad to get off the hell hole called Parris Island.”

Word finally came from Marine Corps Headquarters that Great had passed his examination and been offered a prized commission as 2nd Lieutenant. After his swearing in, he was off to Marine Officer’s Candidates School at Quantico.

Quantico

Great learned that the top ten percent of the officer training class graduates would have their choice of assignments. Determined to join the first unit sent over into combat in Europe, Great kept his nose to the grindstone, skipping liberty with the rest of the guys in favor of long practice and study hours.

Marines on Rifle Range Quantico 1918“I worked particularly hard on the bayonet and hand-to-hand combat—especially with knives. When it came to the bayonet competition, I did better than hold my own against the rest of the class. They finally brought a few Marine Corps graduates of the bayonet instructor’s school at Fort Sill to try them out against us.”

Fighting with only bare rawhide scabbards on the bayonets, Great was put up against a young sergeant who stood No. 1 among the Marines at the instructors’ academy. “We were going at it hammer and tongs, and going good, when the opportunity came for me to put home a thrust to his nose. Smart as the man was—he’d judged my reach pretty good—he didn’t realize I’d been holding back just a little more extension than he’d reckoned with. He saw me coming and leaned back, but miscalculated my reach. In a split second, I saw he had nowhere to go and veered right, barely grazing his temple.” Great paused to contemplate the terrible moment. “I came awfully close to killing the man.”

At graduation, Great managed to squeeze into the top ten percent, and requested assignment to the 6th Regiment. But when his orders came through, they were for the Officer Candidates School as a bayonet and trench warfare instructor. He’d competed himself into a job that he didn’t want and been denied the orders he’d worked so hard to earn.

Great tried to persuade the colonel in charge. “You’ve had your crack at combat, sir, and if I’m going to make a career out of this Marine Corps—and that’s exactly what I intend to do—I’ve got to have combat experience too. Frankly, sir, if you can’t fix this, I might as well go sell books. If I can’t join some outfit going into combat, I’ll just have to resign. Maybe enlist in the Army instead.”

“Well, you won’t have much luck resigning in wartime,” the Colonel drawled.

“Very well, sir, if I’m forced to, I’ll have to make you kick me out.”

“Oh, you’re not serious. You wouldn’t get yourself kicked out! Think about your family.”

“I am, sir!” Great replied. “I know just how my father’s going to feel if I spend the war teaching school.”

USS Henderson AP1Troop ship USS Henderson (AP1) that took Walter Greatsinger Farrell to France in 1918In the end, Great stayed on for one session as an instructor, honing his reputation as a singular knife and bayonet fighter, before receiving orders to take command of Company D of the 4th Separate Battalion. On August 13, 1918, he boarded the USS Henderson along with two battalions of some 2,000 troops. They spent twelve hot days on the high seas, stacked on the decks, seasick, and hanging from hammocks, the ship constantly canted to one side or the other. Arriving in Brest, France, on August 25, they traded their hammocks for pup tents in the muddy fields of Brittany.

Great was right where he wanted to be. Almost.

A 2nd Lieutenant in World War 1, 1918

Visibility: Poor. Heavy driving wind and rain during parts of day and night. Roads: Very muddy.

The weather forecast for the first major offensive of WWI by the American Expeditionary Force in early September 1918 was no picnic. Newly arrived Marine units were ordered to move forward and prepare to attack enemy fortifications near Saint-Mihiel, where German forces had effectively blocked all transportation between Paris and the Eastern front.

When troop trains had carried them as far as they could go, 21-year-old 2nd Lt. Farrell unloaded the men of Company D and marched them up the dirt road with the rest of the replacement troops to meet the 5th and 6th Marine Regiment at Saint-Mihiel. As they slogged into position, tanks and infantry found themselves knee deep in mud after five days of downpour. They hadn’t gone far before a German shell exploded in a nearby field, sending dirt and shell fragments in all directions, but leaving Company D largely unscathed. Marching long after dark across boggy tracks, deep in the French countryside, a major disturbance erupted ahead and brought the column to a standstill. The commander of Company D walked forward to assess the problem.

Apparently, company officers had vanished, leaving several hundred mutinous men milling around in the muddy road, angry and anxious about walking into a trap and getting shot in the dead of the night. They were ready to turn back. Great managed to reassemble the broken column and lead the men to safety. At daybreak, he rounded up the troops and delivered them to the 6th Regiment, which was preparing to launch an attack on the German stronghold. This was Great’s first opportunity for active combat.

To his dismay, the 6th had no need of another second lieutenant at the time, and Great was directed to return to Regimental Headquarters to train a batch of new replacements.

On his way back, Great stopped to collect his gear from a friend in another company near the front lines, rumored to be in need of a second lieutenant. It was nearing dark, so he asked if he might stick around, get some shut-eye, and see about joining up for their next sortie, rather than heading back to train another bunch of new recruits.

How much better would it be, he explained to anyone who would listen, if I could get some real combat experience to help train these guys in active combat warfare. But the next morning, a military police sergeant waited outside his tent with three men to take him back to the recruit training station, where he received the tongue lashing of his life—and a fresh batch of replacements to prepare for combat!

With 10,000 troops arriving daily, there seemed to be no end of replacements. Great followed orders down to Tours to pick up more men ready to be run through combat training. An attack by German bombers that night narrowly missed their quarters in the embattled city. He delivered his men up to the 4th Brigade just as it was just pulling out of the battlefront at Mt. Blanc-Argonne. Still on a quest for a frontline battle position, Great stuck around the 4th a while longer than necessary, until he found a commander willing to let him join his outfit.

3rd Bat 6th Marines Leutersdorf 1918Back at regimental headquarters, the chief of staff was missing, but Great discovered a sympathetic ear in Brigadier General Neville, who happened to be walking through and found 2nd Lt. Greatsinger Farrell waiting hopefully. “What are you doing here? Is there something I can do for you, Lieutenant?”

“Well yes, sir, I just took up a company of replacements, and I met Captain Jacobson up there on the front who’d like to have me join his company. He’ll send another lieutenant back in my place to train the next group. I haven’t had any combat experience yet, sir, and I’d very much like to get it. Think how much better a job I would do training new recruits if they could be sure that I knew first-hand what I was talking about.”

The general listened thoughtfully, poised to okay Great’s proposition, when the chief of staff arrived. “Hold on there a minute, General,” the chief of staff jumped in. “You don’t want to do that. It’s in the best interests of the Marine Corps that we keep him right here, training replacements.” Once again, Great’s hopes were dashed.

He wanted nothing more than to get into active combat, to learn the ropes, to fight in the trenches with the rest of the men. Seeing that no trainees were due in for a few more weeks, he went up to talk to Captain Jacobsen. “They won’t let me make the trade, Captain. Do you mind if I just spend the night, get a little rest? Looks like you’ll be out of here soon.” The Captain offered him a place to stay on his billet while the company awaited orders to move out to the front. By the morning of third day, they were still waiting. And 2nd Lt. Walter G. Farrell was still camped out in the captain’s quarters.

“I was in the billet when the telephone rang,” Great remembered. “The voice on the other end of the line was loud and clear. ‘This is Major Born, Battalion Commander.’”

“Yes sir.”

“Captain Jacobsen there?”

“No, sir.”

“Take this message for him, will you—tell him that a squad of MPs is about to leave my headquarters. They’re headed down towards his billet, looking for some second lieutenant that’s supposed to be on his way back to the training quarters.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll deliver the message, sir.”

The MPs are coming after me. Great left the scribbled message on Captain Jacobson’s bunk before hopping onto an outbound line of trucks driven by Indochinese soldiers, headed for the nearby railway depot. Along the way they passed a small contingent of military police headed the opposite direction.

Finding his way to the station, he presented his orders, got them stamped, and asked for directions to the Recruit Training Office. “Why don’t you take that train across the track over there,” the man suggested. “It goes to Paris and from there you can go anywhere in France.”

This sounded like a good idea. So Great took the train to Paris, checked in, and was given 72 hours leave to see some sights, look up old friends, go to a show, and then catch a train back to regimental headquarters.

Colonel Gulick was waiting for him, steely eyed. “Where have you been, Lieutenant?”

“I told him quite frankly what I’d been up to. He scowled slightly. But as I was going out the door he stopped me. ‘Don’t repeat this, Lieutenant. But I rather wish I’d been with you.’”

Brigadier General Wendell C. Neville commanding general of the Fourth Brigade of MarinesBrigadier General Wendell C. Neville commanding general of the Fourth Brigade of Marines in 1918. (Photo of Neville as Commandant in 1929.)On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, of the year 1918, the Armistice was declared. Brigadier General Wendell C. Neville, commanding general of the Fourth Brigade of Marines—the man who had nearly given Great his golden ticket to the front lines—sent the following message to the officers and men of the 4th brigade.

Upon this, the most momentous hour in the history of the World War, the undersigned wishes to express to his command his sincere appreciation of their unfailing devotion to duty and their heroic and courageous action during the recent operations.

Your display of fortitude, determination, courage and your ability to fight has upon more than one occasion been a determining factor in making history, and your work has had a direct bearing upon the remarkable chain of events, which have this day culminated in such a satisfactory manner. Along the fronts of Verdun, the Marne, the Aisne, Lorraine, Champagne, and the Argonne, the unity of the Fourth Brigade Marines have fought valiantly, bravely, and decisively. They have nobly sustained the sacred traditions and have added glorious pages to the already illustrious history of the United States Marine Corps. It is a record of which you may all be proud.

The war was over.

As news of the Armistice began to circulate, Great was dispatched to help deliver 1,200 troops to the 5th and 6th Regiments of the 4th Marine Brigade, but their train could go no further than Verdun. The Germans were believed to have mined the roads ahead on their way out. It took several days of hard marching through Belgium to catch up and distribute the newly trained men to the 5th and 6th. Then Great was looking for his next billet.

“There I was with a set of orders in my hand, a bed roll under my arm, and my pack on my back—and absolutely no place to go. Nobody thought anything about where second lieutenants went.”

Great found himself an assignment with the 51st company of the 2nd battalion of the 5th regiment. On November 17, they moved out with the Second Division, commencing their advance to the Rhine. They passed through Belgium and Luxembourg, making a record setting march of 33 miles in a single day to finally reach the German frontier on November 25. On December 1, they crossed the Rhine to begin their occupation duty in Germany.

Great was promoted to captain. But his active combat aspirations would have to wait for another war.

“I don’t consider that I served in combat,” Great said of his time in the Great War. “I heard a couple of shots fired and got bombed one night in Tours. When the bombers were done, drinks were on the house because the house was never hit.”

Major General Walter Greatsinger Farrell

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