When the Marines saved Paris
Soon the world will commemorate D-Day plus 60. On June 6, 1944, American, British and Canadian troops assaulted the beaches of Normandy, France, and established a beachhead in Europe. Less than a year later, the Allies fought their way east to victory over Germany in World War II.
But June 6 is remembered for another reason and another world war, 26 years earlier. On that day in 1918, during World War I, the 4th Marine Brigade with two Marine Regiments, the 5th and the 6th, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, counterattacked against five German army divisions at Belleau Wood, France, 60 miles east of Paris.
The Marines drove back the Germans and effectively saved Paris. The victory marked a turning point in World War I by rekindling hope among the war-weary Europeans and destroying German confidence.
The Battle of Belleau Wood is as important in Marine lore as Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir, Guadalcanal, even Chapultepec (“the Halls of Montezuma”), and North Africa (“the Shores of Tripoli”).
Each year the Marines and the French army commemorate the battle at the beautiful Aisne-Marne Cemetery between tiny Belleau, population 125, and Bois de Belleau, the forested battleground. The ceremony is on the Sunday of the U.S. Memorial Day weekend — May 30 this year — and Marines serving across Europe gather in Paris to participate.
Many of these Marines serve as security guards at U.S. embassies, and often only one can be spared for the ceremony. Sometimes Marines at a distant embassy will save funds throughout the year for the event and choose and finance one of their own to make the trip. It is a great honor to be selected and enough Marines usually attend in their dress blue uniforms to form three platoons.
The ceremony begins at 9:45 a.m. after the Marines, a French platoon and bands march through the forest to the cemetery and form up by the chapel. As the bugler, in a World War I Marine uniform, finishes playing taps, the American Memorial Day Association invites everyone down to the village, a short walk away, for refreshments. The gathering is a warm Franco-American affair. The townspeople enjoy hosting their visitors.
It’s a tradition for every Marine present to drink out of Belleau’s “Bull Dog Fountain.” As water from a natural spring spills out of a hillside, it passes through the ceramic head of a bull mastiff dog.
Many also pause at the U.S. Army’s 26th Infantry Division Church. Because the original church’s steeple was the highest object in the village, the 26th artillery destroyed it. After the war, the 26th’s veterans association collected funds to rebuild it and dedicate it as a memorial to those in the division who gave their lives. The lovely and peaceful church is decorated with the insignia of the division’s units.
Little has changed in the forest, where Marines and Germans fought in hand-to- hand combat for 20 days that June. The grossly distorted and misshapen trees still bear the scars of combat 86 years ago.
In the center, surrounded by artillery pieces, is the “Iron Mike” statue sculpted by Felix de Weldon, who also carved the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, Va.
In May 1918, the German army was making a big push down the Marne toward Paris. The French army was in retreat as the Marines were moving to the front. The French general ordered the Marines to retreat but one of the Marine officers is said to have replied: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”
The Germans were regrouping in the forest after the Marines had stopped their forward progress. The Marines were in an open wheat field. On June 6, they attacked across 800 open yards against German machine guns and artillery, taking huge casualties but gaining a toehold in the wood.
When officers fell, sergeants took the lead. When sergeants fell, corporals led the way. When corporals fell, privates fought on. Once in the 200-acre forest, the Marines battled with pistols, bayonets and fists in hand-to-hand combat.
On that one day, 1,087 Marines were either killed or wounded. Not until Tarawa was invaded in 1943 did the Marines suffer more casualties on a single day. In fact, the Marine fought so fiercely that the Germans dubbed them “Teufelshunde,” or “Devil Dogs,” a proud nickname the Marines adopted.
After the war, the Germans were asked how a few Marines managed to defeat such a large, otherwise unstoppable German force. They replied, “The Marines shoot straight.”
By the end of the fighting, 700 Americans had died. Four Medals of Honor — the highest U.S. award for combat — were awarded, two to Marines and one each to a Navy doctor and a Navy dentist. Three of the Marine officers later were appointed commandant of the Marine Corps.
France awarded the Marines the French Fourragere, an award instituted by Napoleon. It’s a braided green cord worn around the left shoulder. To this day, Marines serving in the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments wear it with pride.
The French have not forgotten the Marines’ sacrifice. In 1988, a local farmer and his son discovered the remains of a Marine. He was laid to rest with 250 other unknowns after a service in the chapel attended not only by Marines but also a large group of French who braved a cold rain.
— Dennis R. Cavagnaro, a retired Marine major, is a freelance writer living in the United States.
If you go
Belleau Wood is about 60 miles from Paris and six from Château-Thierry, which is on the Marne River and the site of another great World War I battle remembered with a huge memorial.
From Paris, drive east on the Autoroute A-4, toward Metz-Nancy. Then, follow the signs “American Cemetery.” Exit at “Montreuil aux Lions” rather than “Château-Thierry” to avoid a highway toll.
The ceremony is popular with both Americans and the French. Plan to arrive early in case you get lost, and to get a good parking place. There will be volunteers to try to keep you from getting lost and to direct the parking.
This year, the Marines will be led by Gunnery Sgt. Terry Weiser, commander of the Marine Security Guard at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The Marine Corps will be represented by the assistant commandant, Gen. William “Spider” Nyland, and the French by a four-star general. The 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Band from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., will be joined by the French military band, La Musique Prinicipale de l’Armee de Terre Francaise.
The Aisne-Marne Cemetery has 2,289 American graves and the names of 1, 060 missing engraved on its chapel walls. Nearby is a German cemetery where 8,625 men are buried, 3,847 unknown.
For more information on the ceremony or cemetery, call (+33) (0) 3-23-70-70-90; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Dennis R. Cavagnaro