BELLEAU, France -- In June 1918, on a small stretch of land that was the scene of one of the most savage and deadly battles the United States fought during the First World War, a pivotal chapter in Marine Corps history was written in blood.
Eighty-eight years later, on May 28, 2006, the Battle of Belleau Wood was commemorated in Belleau, France, by the United States Marine Corps Battle Color Detachment from Marine Barracks, Washington, comprised of the United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon, and the United States Marine Corps Color Guard. The event was attended by the Commandant of the Marine Corps General Michael W. Hagee and more than 2,000 spectators, including soldiers, statesmen, and dignitaries, from both France and the United States.
The proceedings opened with a ceremony at France’s Aisne-Marne Cemetery, located near the scene of the battle. The memorial service addresses were presented by General Hagee, and Chief of Staff of the French Army, Général Armée Bernard Thorette, who also conducted a wreath-laying ceremony with other American and French dignitaries.
In honor of the fallen, both American and French colors were raised to half-mast as French soldiers, a marching band, and the Marine Corps Battle Color Detachment marched to the parade deck, centered in front of the 80-foot Memorial Chapel. A detachment of U.S. Air Force jets flew over the ceremony as the French Band played their national anthem, “The Marseilliaise” and the Drum & Bugle Corps followed with, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Flanking the parade deck were 2,289 tombstones, one for each U.S. service member who fell in defense of liberty at Belleau Wood.
“Being here makes you realize how tremendously important this battle was, to the Marine Corps of the time, and to America as well,” said Staff Sgt. Bryan Duprey, Silent Drill Platoon, Platoon Sergeant. “It was a turning point for both the war and the Corps.”
Continuing the program, French soldiers and Marines fired their rifles into the air, followed by Battle Color Detachment Bugler Sgt. Clint Owens’ rendition of Taps. Owens donned a World War I Marine uniform and played while perched atop the towering Memorial Chapel as many in the audience bowed their heads in respectful silence.
Belleau Wood was a turning point in WWI as well is a landmark in the history of the Marine Corps. In mid-1918, with the German army just 50 miles outside Paris, the Allied Second and Third Divisions mounted a counter-attack to halt the Germans dead and retake Belleau Wood -- but the only way into the woods was through an adjoining wheat field and this field was heavily protected by massive German firepower.
As American forces arrived on the scene, Captain Lloyd Williams of 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment was told by the retreating French army that turning back was the best course of action. He declined, giving the now-famous reply, "Retreat, hell! We just got here!"
With little to no cover, Marines maneuvered through an 800-yard wide-open wheat field, trying to reach the heavily entrenched German soldiers. The Marines began their advance with unwavering courage and the use of precision long-distance marksmanship. According to Gilles Lagin, a Belleau Wood historian, the Germans were familiar with British snipers, but the Marines’ ability to hit a target from more than 500 yards away stunned them so badly they believed there was an entire regiment of Marine snipers attacking.
“I had read about that 800-yard advance,” said General Hagee, in a speech delivered at the ceremony, “but I never fully appreciated how difficult it must have been until I walked it myself. The enemy had every square inch of that field covered with interlocking machine gun and artillery fire. The Marines paid dearly with every step they took. The enemy couldn't believe that the Marines would advance in the face of such devastation. But they did. When officers fell, sergeants led the way. When sergeants fell, corporals took the lead. And when corporals fell, the privates fought on.”
In the end, the Marines of the 4th Marine Brigade’s 5th and 6th Regiments took the blood-soaked grounds of Belleau Wood. The battle that had begun June 1 ended June 26 when Maj. Maurice Sheaerer, Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, could finally report with pride, “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps -- entirely.”
More than 1,800 Marines lost their lives at Belleau Wood. This was the greatest loss the Corps had sustained in a single battle at the time, and it was tragically high -- but it is estimated that a staggering 8,000 German troops were killed during the battle with another 1,600 taken prisoner. This was a huge victory for the Allies, especially as a morale booster to weary troops who had started to believe the Germans were invincible. The Marines had decisively proven otherwise.
Out-numbered, out-gunned, out-manned, and warned to retreat immediately, the United States Marine Corps defied the odds and managed to smash the superior German forces to pieces. For every fallen American, no less than five enemy troops paid the ultimate price.
Little wonder that from the time of this fierce battle to the present day, Marines are still known by the nickname given them by the awed Germans they vanquished at Belleau Wood: “Teufelhunden,” which means “Hounds from Hell,” or “Devil Dogs.” In honor of the fallen, the area was rechristened “The Wood of the Marine Brigade.”
The 2006 ceremonies commemorating the 88th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood ended with a stellar performance by “The Commandant’s Own” Drum and Bugle Corps, the French Marching Band, and an amazing display of precision marching and rifle maneuvering from the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon.
This concluded the remembrance of Belleau Wood, a battle that will live forever as an unforgettable chapter in the history of the United States Marine Corps.