BELLEAU, France --
As the sun rose over a French hillside Thursday morning, June 6, 1918, thousands of Marines received the order to attack the wood line, embarking on the most honorable day of many of their lives.
During World War I, the Marines of the 4th Marine Brigade prevented the Germans from advancing into Paris during the Battle of Belleau Wood. Marines pushed the Germans back across the Marne River to Jaulgonne. The defeated Germans defined the Marines as Devil Dogs, or Teufel Hunden, for their battle prowess, and the U.S. and its allies celebrated one of Corps’ most storied triumphs.
On that day, the Marine Corps suffered more casualties than it had in all of its years combined since 1775.
Most modern Marines are familiar with the history of Belleau Wood, but few have seen the slew of gravestones that now cover the hallowed battlegrounds. Recently, 43 sergeants from across the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the battlegrounds at Belleau Wood.
The sergeants were pulled from Marine Corps Air Stations Cherry Point, New River and Beaufort and Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Three sergeants major from the wing and Lt. Col. Kirk Nothelfer, 2nd MAW assistant chief of staff, plans officer, compiled the group of top sergeants for the trip. It was the first time the wing put together a group like this, and the 2nd MAW commanding general, Maj. Gen. Jon M. Davis, said he wants this to become an annual event.
“Hopefully this will motivate all sergeants to work hard to be the top sergeant in their squadron,” said Davis.
The trip was a week-long professional military education, or PME. The sergeants were broken down into fire teams and tasked to brief certain battles to the group.
Sgt. Michael Harris, an avionics technician with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 31 from MCAS Beaufort, S.C., said this trip will not be lost on him, and he plans to reflect all that he’s learned to the Marines in his unit.
“I think they can learn a lot from experiencing this and if they don’t get the opportunity then I’ll do my best to impart my knowledge to them,” said Harris. “It was an honor to have the opportunity to go to that site where a lot of Marines died. It is a special place for Marine Corps history.”
Before the Marines’ Belleau Wood visit, they all read the book, “The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood” by retired Col. Dick Camp, a 26-year career Marine who fought in Vietnam. Camp, now the vice president of museum operations at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., travelled to Cherry Point to talk to the Marines two days before they departed to Europe.
“In 1918, Marines straight out of intense training at Quantico came to fight in WWI with gusto and a somewhat naïve sense of trench warfare,” Camp explained to the Marines. “Gusto was just what the tired French needed to motivate them to continue the fight against the Germans.”
His book brought out the vibrancy of the battles and told the personalities of the heroes who fought at Belleau Wood, said Nothelfer.
“Looking across that wheat field at those forbidding woods in the darken shadows of that terrible undergrowth that was in those woods, you have no idea what’s out there,” Camp added. “All you know is that you have to go across that open area to get to that wood line. None of the Marines really knew what they were facing until they got there.”
Camp’s stories became reality when the Marines toured the important battlegrounds throughout France in cities such as, Lucy le-Bocage, Chateau Theirry and Belleau.
Retired Lt. Col. Michael “Kiwi” Kelly accompanied them as their official tour guide, and he pointed out the wheat fields where the Marines fought, and the farms, such as Mares Farm, where they staged before attacking the wood line full of Germans.
“I was able to learn our history, our roots, what put us on the map as United States Marines and what keeps us going as Marines,” said Sgt. Lashawn Jasper, the embarkations and logistics noncommissioned officer in charge with Marine Air Control Group 28 from MCAS Cherry Point.
When the 2nd MAW sergeants stepped foot on the battleground, they drank from the Devil Dog Fountain, stood in the remains of fighting trenches, and then camped out on the historic land, making their mark on Belleau Wood 93 years later. T
he campsite stood on a hill, overlooking the 42-acre Aisne-Marne Cemetery and Memorial. The official U.S. military cemetery was lined with pink roses that lead down to where an American flag flew in front of the memorial chapel. The entrance to the chapel was through two large oak doors with the following inscription carved above them, “The names recorded on these walls are those of American soldiers who fought in this region and who sleep in unknown graves.” The 1,060 names of service members cover the walls from the ground to the ceiling, around an alter surrounded by stained glass windows bearing the insignias of the multiple American military divisions that fought in 1918.
Outside to the left and right of the memorial chapel are the rows of crosses, marking 2,289 graves, with 250 unknowns.
The 2nd MAW Marines had the privilege to be a part of a very special tradition. Each year, sand from the beaches of Normandy is sent to American WWI cemeteries to be spread across the gravestone inscriptions to bring the past and present together. Three Marines had the privilege to rub the “sands of the past” onto grave stones of Marines who fought and died in those first few days of June in 1918.
Sgt. Anthony Fortunato Jr., a crew chief with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 from MCAS New River, described his time at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, and his eyes wandered off in the distance as he recalled standing between the rows of white crosses.
“Your heart just kind of drops,” Fortunato said. “Just being there is enough, and then they bring the sand from Normandy. I don’t know the words to describe the feeling – It’s just a once in a lifetime experience and to be a part of it is unbelievable.”
The Battle of Belleau Wood was not just about history for the 43 sergeants – it’s now a memory they will cherish forever. The Marines were reminded of the Esprit de Corps in 1918, and will hopefully bring that spirit back to their Marines of today.