After 99 years, Syracuse WWI Marine awarded his Purple Heart
By JOHNATHAN CROYLE | Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. | Published: August 1, 2018
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood in France.
The battle blunted Germany's drive toward Paris and forever established the reputation of the United States Marine Corps.
A Marine from Syracuse was at the battle and would receive a Purple Heart for the wound suffered there, although it would be 99 years before it was awarded.
On June 1, 1918 the Germans were on the offensive, driving towards Paris. They entered Belleau Wood, a quiet, wooded area, about 30 miles northeast of city.
General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, ordered his troops into the battle to stop the German momentum.
The General was unsure of the Marines and skeptical that they could hold up against the powerful German army.
Marching with the Marines was Pvt. Mark P. McCarthy Jr., of South State Street, Syracuse.
Born on June 25, 1895, he was the son of the owner of McCarthy's Restaurant on Salina Street, a restaurant that had been open since 1873.
He enlisted with the Marines in July 1917 and departed Syracuse for Buffalo.
He joined his brother Frank, a member of the Reserve Signal Corps, in the service. His father told The Post-Standard that he regretted that "he had no more sons to give to the service."
He was sent to Parris Island, South Carolina for training before being transferred to the Sixth Regiment.
His parents were worried that he might have been killed aboard the S.S. Tuscania after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat on Feb 5, 1918 off the coast of the United Kingdom while transporting American troops overseas. Roughly 230 people were killed, many were American soldiers.
"I have arrived safely in Europe," he cabled his relieved parents.
He was quickly thrown into the fighting. He was engaged with the enemy in the Toulon Sector in France from March 15 to May 13, 1918.
A Post-Standard article said he had seen action for 70 days in the trenches without "suffering a scratch."
As he and thousands of other U.S. Marines were rushed to Belleau Wood, his good luck was about to change.
June 14 was a bad day for McCarthy's 78th Company.
His unit was ordered to move toward the fighting to relieve the 5th Marines.
The Germans began a massive bombardment in the early morning hours. In just over four hours, the enemy would rain 7,000 projectiles down on McCarthy and the rest of his company.
The crushing barrage of shrapnel and mustard gas would cost the company 16 men killed and 191 wounded.
McCarthy was one of them. He had been gassed.
Nothing was more terrifying for a World War I soldier than the prospect of being gassed.
Mustard gas was the most widely used chemical weapon used during the war. It killed by blistering the lungs and throat if it was inhaled in large enough quantities. Gas masks provided to the troops were often defective.
Even if the masks worked, mustard gas could produce blisters all over the body if it could soak into a soldier's wool uniforms. Contaminated clothing had to be removed and washed immediately, not an easy thing to do when in the middle of a battle.
McCarthy was removed from the battlefield and his condition was listed as "very serious" in the August 26, 1918 Post-Standard.
While he began his convalescence, the Marines pushed the Germans out of the woods.
Paris was safe, and the German momentum had been halted at a cost of almost 10,000 American casualties.
The battle cemented the Marine Corps' reputation for tenacity and firmly established them as an elite fighting force.
The Marines' toughness could be heard in a letter Mark McCarthy sent home to his parents in Syracuse just four days after he was wounded:
"Yes, the Huns got me with gas, but I'll be back in the game in five or six weeks. Believe me, while they got a few of us, we certainly gave them hell. And they have more than that coming."
He was back after just three months away and served through the end of the war.
He returned to Syracuse and ran the family restaurant until his death in 1962. He was married and had three children including a son, Mark, who also served in the Marines.
At the time of his discharge in 1919, McCarthy was given a "Good Conduct Medal," but his son often wondered why he was not given a Purple Heart, for being wounded in battle.
His father, like most of his generation, said little about his wartime service.
"He was stoic and never gave any details," his son said.
For close to 20 years he had been working to get his father awarded a Purple Heart posthumously.
He believes that an old attitude regarding gas wounds may have been a reason for his father being overlooked. The military needed to "see blood" to award a Purple Heart.
His grandson Patrick, a Marine officer from 1985 to 1989, has another idea.
"Among the Marine Corps' charms is a strict adherence to rules and precedents which can lead to a habit of stinginess in giving out medals," he said.
Despite the support of former Congressman James Walsh, and later John Katko, the family's request was turned down several times.
Finally, last year, Mark McCarthy was awarded his Purple Heart, 99 years after being gassed.
Brigadier General Christopher Mahoney USMC, a friend of Patrick's, wrote of Mark McCarthy:
"Heroes like him brought the fighting spirit of a tiny Marine Brigade into the national consciousness and we have been there ever since. Every Marine who has worn the cloth since owes him a salute, eternal brotherhood and a deep debt of gratitude."
©2018 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.
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