By Karen Zautyk
Earlier this month, historian/writer Timothy Daudelin, a former Belleville resident who is a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Medal of Honor Historical Society, visited this town’s veterans’ memorials on Union Avenue.
And there he noticed a significant omission.
While there is a special Medal of Honor monument honoring Henry Svehla, killed in Korea in 1952, Daudelin knew it should also have listed the name of a second Belleville man, awarded the U.S. military’s highest honor for heroism decades before — in World War I.
Daudelin contacted the Belleville Historical Society, which has confirmed that yes, indeed, a name was missing: That of U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockham, who gave his life to save his comrades during the Battle of Belleau Wood in France in June 1918.
Belleau Wood (also known as Bois-de-Belleau) has gone down in history as one of the fiercest battles of the Great War — a conflict defined by savagery and incomprehensible casualty figures. At Belleau, near the Marne River, American, French and British forces faced off against troops from five German divisions.
The Allies confronted not only rifle fire and artillery, but also one of the enemy’s favorite weapons — mustard gas. It would blind you and scar the body and burn out your lungs — and kill.
As described in an article on the U.S. Navy’s Sealift Command website:
“Under intense enemy bombardment, Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockham noticed that a wounded comrade’s gas mask had been shredded by shrapnel. Without hesitation, he removed his own mask and placed it on the young man’s face, fully knowing it would cost him his own life.
“Stockham directed and assisted in the evacuation of the wounded without a gas mask until he collapsed from the horrific effects of the chemical weapon. He died in agony a few days later.”
The article also quoted Stockham’s company commander 2nd Lt. Clifton B. Cates, USMC, who said of the gunnery sergeant: “No man has ever displayed greater heroism or courage and showed more utter contempt of personal danger.”
Years later Cates — who went on to become Commandant of the Marine Corps — reportedly authored a magazine article about Stockham, titled “The Bravest Man I Ever Knew.”
Cates also formally recommended Stockham for the Medal of Honor. Somehow — one of life’s mysteries — the recommendation never went through. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Cates became aware of this and wrote another citation, including testimony from the men who had served with Stockham.
Finally, in December 1939, by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hero was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest military decoration.
The Medal Citation reads:
“Fred W. Stockham, Gunnery Sergeant, 96th Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Regiment, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy in Bois-de-Belleau, France, on the night of June 13-14, 1918.
“During an intense enemy bombardment with high explosive and gas shells which wounded or killed many members of the company, Sergeant Stockham, upon noticing that the gas mask of a wounded comrade was shot away, without hesitation, removed his own mask and insisted upon giving it to the wounded man, well knowing that the effects of the gas would be fatal to himself.
“Despite the fact that he was without protection of a gas mask, he continued with undaunted courage and valor to direct and assist in the evacuation of the wounded in an area saturated with gas and swept by heavy artillery fire, until he himself collapsed from the effects of the gas, dying as a result thereof a few days later. His courageous conduct undoubtedly saved the lives of many of his wounded comrades and his conspicuous gallantry and spirit of self-sacrifice were a source of great inspiration to all who served with him.”
(Oddly enough, it also took decades for Belleville’s other Medal of Honor recipient, Henry Svehla, to be recognized for his heroism. On June 12, 1952, U.S. Army Pvt. First Class Svehla, just 19, was patrolling in Korea when his platoon came under heavy enemy attack. Although seriously wounded by a mortar, he refused medical treatment and continued to lead his men. When an enemy grenade landed among the Americans, Svehla, “without hesitation,” threw himself on the explosive and was killed. His remains have never been found.
He was finally posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in May 2011 by President Barack Obama.)
Stockham’s remains had not been lost, and though he was originally buried in France, his body was eventually returned to the U.S. for interment in Hollywood Cemetery in Union. While his final resting place is known, much about his early life is not.
He reportedly was born in Detroit in 1881, but was orphaned as a toddler and raised by a foster family. In 1903, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in the Philippines and China. He was honorably discharged in 1907, but reenlisted several years later, saw combat in Nicaragua and rose to the rank of sergeant.
Honorably discharged in 1916, he again reenlisted — this time just a week later. When he wasn’t serving as a Leatherneck, Stockham was still facing danger, as a firefighter — first in Detroit and later with the Newark Fire Department, from 1907 to 1912. How many years the hero lived in Belleville is not known, but Belleville Historical Society President Michael Perrone, “with the assistance of the archivist at the N.J. Division of the Newark Public Library,” confirmed that “when he reenlisted in the Marines in 1912, Belleville was his last home.”
His address, for at least five years, was 96 Dow St., and he was a parishioner at nearby St. Peter’s Church.
Aside from the Medal of Honor, and numerous military citations (including France’s Croix de Guerre), the U.S. continues to honor the Marine. In 1943, the destroyer USS Stockham was launched and served in World War II (earning eight battle stars) and during the Korean War. She was decommissioned in 1957.
In 2001, though, another U.S. Navy vessel, the USNS GySgt Fred W. Stockham was put into service as a container ship with the Military Sealift Command.
As the Sealift website notes: “Though decades have passed and other wars have been fought, Stockham’s story has been preserved. The men Stockham served with are no longer alive, but generations of Marines later, the Corps has not forgotten one of its own.
“ … Stockham the orphan is now Stockham the ship — part of a unique family of ships named for heroes.”