Marine raises flag at revered WWI battle site at Belleau Wood
The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Buzz Whitaker served in the Marines for just three years in the early 1950s, nearly 60 years ago, but he took the motto "semper fidelis" to heart.
The Williamsburg man, 79, remains "always faithful" to the corps — whether he organizes raffles for children of wounded Marines or recruits the next generation of leathernecks.
His love for the service took Whitaker to Europe in May to tour some of the famed battle sites of World War I, including Belleau Wood near Paris, where he raised three flags in honor of those who served. It was at that battle that Marines earned the nickname "Devil Dogs."
"Belleau Wood is the famous battle site in World War I where Marines were actually instrumental in stopping the Germans from getting into Paris," Whitaker said. "Belleau Wood and Iwo Jima are probably the two most honored battles in Marine Corps history."
One of the flags he raised eventually will hang on the wall of Staff Sgt. Jason Sperry's home. Sperry joined Whitaker for the trip, a culmination of a decade-long relationship that inextricably altered the young Marine's life.
"He's been like a father in the time I've known him," Sperry said.
Sperry was a Montana teenager when Whitaker first asked him if he ever considered joining the Marines. Sperry hadn't, so Whitaker flew with the 16-year-old to San Diego to introduce him to the corps, and the experience changed his outlook on military service. Sperry enlisted for the corps' delayed-entry program when they returned and was back in San Diego for boot camp just two weeks after graduating high school.
Sperry served four tours overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he's stationed in Hawaii as a Marine recruiter.
Ten years after that fateful trip to San Diego, Sperry joined his mentor for the European tour.
"In the Marine Corps, we're taught so much about Belleau Wood ... just to be able to go and see the monument and the reason we're called Devil Dogs — it's pretty amazing," he said.
Whitaker and Sperry were at the site for a Memorial Day service that included several Marine units. Both were surprised at the number of French people who turned out to commemorate the battle; they realize few Americans know of the battle by name.
Whitaker worries it demonstrates a trend in which important events and sacrifices are being lost to history.
"My cousin was a prisoner of war in Japan in World War II. Before he died, he mentioned several times to me, 'I'm afraid this history is just going away,'" Whitaker said. "I said it may be, but it's not going away for my kids."
He tried hard to instill a sense of history and sacrifice in his own children and grandchildren; he even wallpapered his twin grandsons' walls with Marine Corps posters when they were young.
The recent trip to Europe was a continuation of the effort to remember the past.
"I don't think Americans in general really understand the scale of the war," Sperry said. "Yes, we've lost a lot of Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in World War I and World War II, we lost 5,000 in one battle vs. 5,000 over the total war. It's important to understand where we came from."
The history is important, but Sperry said the time the pair spent together was as memorable as the battle site visits.
"It was probably one of the best trips I've ever had. We did so much together," he said. "It was just two Marines, almost like there was no age difference at all. We were both on same page."