Belleau Wood: Holding a special place in Marine Corps history
French WWI battle site was where service’s reputation was forged
By CHARLIE COON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 28, 2006
BELLEAU, France — Artillery blasts in the thick woods shredded the trees until they were bare. Machine-gun fire mowed down the wheat fields and left them smoldering. Dead and wounded bodies lay on the ground.
“If I was in that fight,” wondered Lance Cpl. Chris Moritt, “could I do the same thing?”
June 6, 1944, is famous as the day the Allies invaded Normandy in World War II. But to Marines, June 6, 26 years earlier is also a hallowed day, for that is when they began to make their name.
Belleau Wood, where the trees are now lush and the wheat is tall, is where the Marines turned back the advancing Germans when the French couldn’t, dying by the hundreds, but possibly saving nearby Paris and, ultimately, winning World War I.
“It was pretty crazy,” said Moritt, who on Saturday was among about 100 Marines from Europe and the States touring the battle site. “I still think we’re as strong and tough. We just fight differently now.”
Belleau Wood aficionado Gilles Lagin showed the Marines where their predecessors lined up in 1918 as they joined the fight.
He showed them the ridge from which the Germans took aim with their shelling. He showed them a helmet, bayonet and mess-kit frying pan the Marines — many of whom were teenagers — used to dig shallow foxholes and hunker down.
And Lagin, a 42-year-old local whose personal mission is to preserve the Belleau Wood story, also told them that those from the 2nd Marine Division might have died by the hundreds but saved France in the process.
“The war [appeared] lost at this time,” Lagin said.
The Germans had pierced through the allied defenses and advanced 70 kilometers toward Paris in three days, Lagin said. They weren’t going to give up that ground without a fight.
But multiple onslaughts by the Marines eventually took the hill, known as Belleau Wood because it was a wooded area outside the village of Belleau.
The Marines then repelled numerous attempts by the Germans to retake the hill before being relieved by fresh troops a few weeks later.
“It was crazy how they were able to beat the Germans like that,” said Pfc. Justin Mascolo who, like Moritt, is with Marine Corps Security Forces Company Europe of Rota, Spain.
“The standards they set are so high,” he said. “You’re not sure you can step into their shoes. I’m in shock at how the Marines back then didn’t have anything, but were able to go in and accomplish the impossible.”
On Sunday, the Marines, who also came from Marine Forces Europe in Stuttgart, Germany, the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va., and other bases, were to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the nearby cemetery, where many of the 1,811 Marines who died at Belleau Wood are buried. The ceremony is one of several being held this weekend at U.S. cemeteries in Europe as part of Memorial Day events.
“If you join the Marine Corps, you have to know what’s behind the Marine Corps,” said Mascolo, of Middle Island, N.Y. “This makes me proud of who I am and what I am.”