French honor Americans who died during World War I siege
May 29, 2006
BELLEAU, France — Something about those rows of white crosses and the men buried beneath humbles those who are still above ground.
“Before, this was just a story, something they told us in boot camp to put pride in us,” said Marine Cpl. Matthew Bowden, 22, of Oakland, Calif. “Now it’s a place that puts names and faces to that story.”
At Belleau Wood, France, where young Marines fought the enemy with rifles, bayonets and fists during World War I, and where they died by the hundreds, Memorial Day lives up to its name. The French know; it was 88 years ago when the Marines came riding to their rescue, possibly saving their country.
“Let us be worthy of their legacy,” said Gen. Bernard Thorette, the French army chief of staff, as he spoke to a large crowd Sunday at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.
Even four-star generals sound a little awestruck by the story of how the French, after nearly four years of fighting, were down to their last licks until the Marines arrived for three weeks of slaughter that ended in victory on June 25, 1918.
“Walking across the rows of crosses with all the names, I felt the greatest sense of comradeship,” said Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant. “Our thanks today pales in the light of their sacrifice.”
Hagee noted how the Marines fought with little food or sleep, and how they died from artillery fire, machine-gun fire and poison gas.
Yet after taking the hill on which the forested Belleau Wood sits, the remaining Marines withstood five counterattacks to break the last major, and deepest penetrating, German offensive of World War I.
Several thousand people came to the cemetery on the cool, damp day. Prayers and speeches were made in both English and French before the nearly 100-foot-tall monument that honors the war dead. On either side of the monument, U.S. and French flags waved in the wind halfway up tall flagpoles.
U.S. and French troops and bands provided additional pageantry.
If any Germans were present, they were keeping a low profile.
Bowden, of the Marine Cryptologic Support Battlion, who’s currently stationed in Darmstadt, Germany, and his unit mate, Cpl. Theodore Vrehas, 27, of Chicago, were among those walking through the long, curved rows of three-foot-tall crosses, under which were buried guys such as Sgt. Charley Davis, Pvt. William Dube and Pvt. Saxton C. Foss.
“Being as it’s my first time overseas, it’s an honor to see how the French people honor us, and honor what we did for them,” Vrehas said. “To see all the privates and corporals buried here, they pretty much set the standard.”
Among the cameras in the crowd was a video recorder held by Lance Cpl. Jeremy Holster of Mount Enterprise, Texas, and the Washington-based USMC Silent Drill Platoon.
“Tomorrow we’re going to tour the battlefield. I’m really excited about that,” Holster said