Marines Visit Belleau Wood

25 May 2008 | Cpl. John J. Parry

The Battle of Belleau Wood was a turning point in "The Great War," as well as a defining moment in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1918, Marines halted and pushed back what many thought was an unstoppable German offensive in Belleau Wood, France.

In a last ditch effort to halt a German offensive in early June 1918, the Allied high command thrust the 4th Marine Brigade, consisting of the 5th and 6th regiments, into battle.

The Marines, unproven and new on the scene, met the French, who were retreating after yielding the woods to the Germans.  The French warned the new arrivals to do the same, inspiring Capt. Lloyd Williams, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine regiment, to respond: "Retreat, hell! We just got here!"

          On May 25, The Battle of Belleau Wood's 90th anniversary was observed by a ceremony attended by the Marine Corps Battle Color Detachment, Marine Forces Europe, Marine Security Guard Detachment Paris and a detachment of French soldiers. The ceremony was held at the Aisne-Marne American cemetery, where 2,289 American service members who fell in WWI are buried.

         The ceremony began with Gen. James T. Conway, 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Maj. Gen. Elrick Irastorza, major general of De l'armee de Terre, placing wreaths at the "Iron Mike" U.S. Marine Corps memorial. "Iron Mike," nestled under a sunny canopy in the middle of the woods, was the first memorial built at the site, in 1955. The statue has an inscription recalling the events of the battle. It says, "May the gallant Marines who gave their lives for Corps and Country, rest in peace."

Next, the Marines of the BCD and their French brothers-in-arms marched out, resplendent under the shadow of the cemetery's 80-foot-tall Memorial Chapel, which served as an impressive backdrop for a flyover by the U.S. Air Force.

The French band, Musique Principale de l'Armee de Terre Francaise, played their national anthem, "Les Marseillaise," followed by the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps' rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."

          Both Gen. Conway and Maj. Gen. Irastorza spoke of the significance of the battle to the more than 5,000 French, American and British guests at the event.

          "The sacrifice of these men ninety years ago sealed in blood the unshakeable ties that bind our two countries," said Irastorza in French.

"It showed the willingness of the United States to unite its sons with those of France for the defense of freedom, reviving the ties that Yorktown had woven - thereby setting the stage for the battles to free our countries 26 years later, during the second global conflict."

          The battle was the first real major ground offensive ever fought by

the Marines, Conway added. They proved themselves more than capable, evidencing a fighting spirit that has achieved legendary status in the Marine Corps. The Marines honored their fallen brothers of Belleau Wood

with a 21-gun salute and a stirring rendition of "Taps."

          After a crowd-pleasing musical performance by the French, the U.S.

Marine Drum and Bugle Corps took the field to perform various numbers, concluding with "Ode to Joy."  The audience responded with loud and long standing ovation.

Next, the fabled Silent Drill Platoon marched onto the field, thrilling the crowd with their amazing precision and intricate drill movements.

          "It was pretty amazing to march on the hallowed ground where so many Marines gave their lives," said Lance Cpl. Nicholas Meekins, part of SDP's "Marching 24." "I'm proud to have been a part of the ceremony. I think the Marines who died here embodied honor, courage and commitment. I feel we also have brought those values here today."

"These Marines were thrust into a situation without adequate supplies or the proper means to fight," Meekins added proudly. "They adapted and overcame the situation, using innovation to outfox the Germans." 

          The Germans were unaware of the Marines' precision at long distance marksmanship. They were stunned as, from distances of more than 500 yards, the Marines' shot their advance dead in its tracks. The American barrage took a decisive toll on the unsuspecting Axis troops, who had never seen such accurate fire from infantry units at such great distances. 

Then, on June 6, the Marines charged north and east across the open wheat fields, gaining entry to the woods at a high price -- some units incurred casualty rates as high as 90 percent.  Despite the staggering numbers of Marines killed and wounded, they pushed on crawling like dogs, making their way through barbed wire and suffering through mustard gas attacks. Ultimately, they were able to enter the woods. 

A grueling battle raged on for several weeks, climaxing in a brutal four-day showdown.  The Marines relentlessly assaulted the German positions until they forced them out of the woods for good. The final battle report, sent, June 26, stated, "Woods now U.S. Marine Corps - entirely."

Official German reports referred to the Belleau Wood Marines as "Teufel Hunden," or "Devil Dogs," a nickname that has followed them ever since. More than 1,000 "Devil Dogs" were killed in the fighting along with more than 7,000 Germans. These losses were the highest the Corps had ever incurred, surpassing the grand total of men lost in all previous conflicts.

In honor of honor the Marines heroism during the battle, the French renamed the woods "Bois de la Brigade de Marine," which means "Woods of the Marine brigade."

"We sent LaFayette and our Navy during the American Revolution," said Adjutant Francois Gavin, a historian of the French Republican Guard.

"And France will never forget that Americans helped save France --  twice."