Marines’ First Crucible: Belleau Wood
Written By Linda D. Kozaryn
BELLEAU, France, June 18, 1998 – For military historians and battlefield buffs, the wheat fields and farm villages here are rich in the details of heroic attacks, untold sacrifices and ultimate victory. For others, especially the U.S. Marine Corps, this is hallowed ground, a sacred place of pilgrimage.
American, French and German military men and women come here to honor fallen brethren. They also come so that those who fought and died live on in the hearts and minds of those who follow.
Silently, they visit the American cemetery, where white crosses and Stars of David mark 2,289 graves, 250 for unknown service members, and the names of 1,060 missing men adorn the wall of a memorial chapel. They also visit a nearby German cemetery where 8,625 men are buried; 4,321 of them — 3,847 unknown — rest in a common grave. In death, friend and foe are honored alike for their courage.
Little has changed in the 80 years since 8,000 U.S. Marines, hundreds of Army soldiers and a handful of Navy medical corpsmen fought a prolonged battle to halt the Germans’ advance toward Paris, a mere 30 miles away. It was here, in a former hunting preserve named Belleau Wood, that they faced what Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak considers the Marines’ first crucible.
“The flower of America’s youth fought and bled to wrest this wood from the Germans,” Krulak said at a May 31 memorial service marking the battle’s 80th anniversary. The commandant and French dignitaries addressed 250 active duty U.S. Marines stationed in Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, and several hundred French visitors at the cemetery at the edge of Belleau Wood.
Today, nestled among rolling fields, the 200-acre, 1.5- mile-long wood remains untouched. Sunlight filters through thick greenery, barely reaching the dark forest floor. Visitors pay homage to “Iron Mike,” a faceless bronze statue in the heart of the wood.
Outside the forest, crops flourish under warm summer sun. Villages stand as they did then, stone monuments to an unchanging agrarian life. Spent brass rifle shells and a lone artillery round rest on a shelf behind the bar in a rustic cafe.
War shattered this peaceful countryside in June 1918. Artillery rounds sheared tree trunks, rending the still forest with the cracking thunder of war. Americans fought desperately using artillery, machine guns, rifles, bayonets, grenades, pistols and trench knives. Nearly 700 Americans died. Another 7,300 were wounded.
France, with the help of the United States, had formed a last line of defense along the Marne River near Chateau Thierry. The U.S. 4th Marine Brigade, made up of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, was in the center with the French 167th Division on its left and U.S. Army 3rd Brigade to the right. The advancing German spearhead struck the Marine brigade near Belleau Wood on June 4.
New to Europe and the First World War, the combat-ready Marines encountered retreating, battle-worn veteran French troops, who predicted only doom. Turn back, the French advised.
“Retreat, hell. We just got here,” responded Marine Capt. Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. Untried, but soon to prove their mettle, the Marines surged through a hail of machine gun fire to take Hill 142 on June 6.
During a series of attacks and counterattacks on the way to the wood and in nearby villages, the Americans prevailed despite confusion and poor communications. Expert marksmen surprised German foes, hitting their targets from hundreds of yards away. Individual Marines charged German machine gun nests. When officers fell, sergeants took the lead. When sergeants fell, corporals led the way. When corporals fell, privates fought on.
The Marine Corps lost more men on June 6 than it had in all the rest of its history. The 4th Brigade suffered 31 officer casualties and 1,056 enlisted — of those numbers, six officers and 222 enlisted men were killed or later died of wounds.
Only by walking the battlefield can one truly appreciate what happened at Belleau Wood, Krulak said. Walk among the rows of crosses and stars, among the wheat fields and trees of Belleau Wood. Krulak said he took his first walk a year ago, starting near the town of Lucy-le-Bocage, where the World War I Marines launched their attack June 6.
“I walked toward the tree line through waist-high wheat, just as they did 80 years ago,” the commandant said. “History books describe that 800-yard advance, but I never fully appreciated it until I walked it myself. The Germans had every square inch of that field covered by machine gun and artillery fire. The Marines paid dearly with every step they took.”
Within Belleau Wood, Krulak said, he saw the grossly distorted, misshapen trees that today bear testament to the carnage. “It took them 20 days to go through that forest — 20 days of little sleep, little food, poison gas, machine gun fire, artillery, loneliness and death,” Krulak said. “In those 20 days they beat back five German counterattacks, fighting off more than four divisions of crack German troops. They did it with their rifles, their bayonets and sometimes with their fists.”
What remained of the 4th Marine Brigade emerged victorious from Belleau Wood on June 26. The battle marked a turning point in the war: The American victory rekindled hope among war-weary Europeans and destroyed German confidence.
Belleau Wood was dedicated as an American battle monument in July 1923. Army Gen. James. G. Harbord, the 4th Marine Brigade commander during the battle, was made an honorary Marine. In his address, he predicted the attraction future military men and women would feel for the site.
“Now and then, a veteran … will come here to live again the brave days of that distant June,” Harbord said. “Here will be raised the altars of patriotism; here will be renewed the vows of sacrifice and consecration to country. Hither will come our countrymen in hours of depression, and even of failure, and take new courage from this shrine of great deeds.”
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