Back in 1983 I was a young Drill Instructor Sgt. Whiteman, freshly minted product of DI School at Parris Island, SC, I can say with all honesty that one of the highlights of my Marine Corps career was seeing a visiting group of survivors of the Battle of Belleau Wood.
The youngest of the group was no younger than 80. You see, it was somewhat common back then for boys as young as 15 and 16 to join the Corps.
And every single one of these true American heroes I saw that day trained at the same sweltering, godforsaken, sand flea-infested sandbar that I now called my duty station. It was truly a humbling experience.
I kept in mind that 9,000 of my fellow Marines (and their buddies) never returned or if they did survive the battle, came home shot to pieces. Some blinded, some missing one or more limbs, some suffered the loss of their very minds. When it was finally over, there were 7,000 wounded Marines, almost 2,000 dead.
Averaging out at 346 dead or wounded Marines every singe day during the course of the battle, it took almost the entire month of June (1-26 June, 1918) for a singular Marine Brigade to stop the final Imperial German army’s offensive of The Great War.
Sadly, most Americans have no idea what their Marine Corps achieved a century ago in the Bois de Belleau (“Belleau Forest” or “Belleau Wood”). Namely, that relatively small Marine Brigade changed the course of world history.
To commemorate this year’s 100th anniversary of the American victory, President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, along with First Ladies Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron, planted on White House grounds an oak sapling that first sprouted in the hallowed battlefield.
As reported by Richard Sisk Military.com (despite its name, is civilian owned);
French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday that he is bringing a living tribute to “Devil Dog” Marines who fell in the World War I battle of Belleau Wood to the White House this week as a symbol of the two nations’ enduring ties.
The battle of Bois de Belleau, or Belleau Wood, about 60 miles north of Paris near the Marne River in the Champagne region, has entered Marine Corps lore. It’s best known among Marines as the place where they were first called “Devil Dogs” for their fierce defense in June 1918 that blunted the German spring offensive.
A dispatch from the German front lines to higher headquarters described the Americans blocking their way and mounting counter-offensives as fighting like “Teufel Hunden,” or “Hounds of Hell.”
Once they consolidated their positions, the Marines would attack six times through mustard gas and withering machine-gun fire before the Germans were driven from the wood. An estimated 2,000 Marines were killed.
An official German report later described the Marines as “vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen.”
Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, marveled at the tenacity of the “Devil Dogs” of Belleau Wood in a quote that has also become part of the Marine legend.
“The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle,” Pershing said.
The oak sapling Macron will give to Trump was taken from a site near the so-called “Devil Dog Fountain,” where U.S. troops gathered after the battle of Belleau Wood. The fountain’s spout is in the shape of the head of a bull mastiff.
Prior to the battle itself, the German forces launched their final major offensive on the Western Front.
The Allied armies were all in full retreat, the road to Paris lay wide open. If the French capital fell, the war would have doubtlessly dragged on for years and uncounted thousands of more dead and wounded.
As a French unit in retreat urged the Marines to join them, Capt. Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, responded with the now-famous;
“Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”
As they say, the rest is history.
Just days after the battle, the French Army renamed re-named Bois de Belleau to be known forever on all French maps as the Bois de la Brigade de Marine (Forest of the Marine Brigade).