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Belleau Wood: Marines' Mecca

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

BELLEAU, France, June 18, 1998 – Today's Marines are drawn to Belleau Wood as to a holy shrine. Lessons they learn in training are reinforced by the real-life deeds of their late brethren. The 250 Marines present walked the wheat fields and woods May 30 during a battlefield study tour dubbed Operation Devil Dogs.

Marine Reserve Col. William T. Anderson, a Belleau Wood expert who serves as the deputy legal adviser at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium, coordinated the day-long tour. He gathered Marine volunteers from throughout Europe to serve as guides and prepared read-ahead packets for the volunteers and other visitors. According to Anderson, the battle at Belleau Wood was "the defining moment for the Marine Corps in the 20th century."

"It set the stage for the Marine Corps evolving from a small professional organization to a more modern, combined arms fighting force," Anderson said. "Many of the young officers at Belleau Wood were the senior leaders during World War II, and they applied the lessons they learned there to enable the Marine Corps to be a successful fighting force in the Pacific campaign."

Marine Lt. Col. Mike C. O'Neal, joint operations officer at SHAPE, is another Belleau Wood specialist who served as a guest guide. He said visitors can still see trenches and other remnants of the past on the relatively unchanged battlefield.

"As you look around at the fields of fire and you review the number of casualties that occurred here, it teaches all of us who wear the uniform of the tremendous sacrifice, and you can't help but respect and honor the fighting that went on here on both sides," O'Neal said.

Another volunteer provided a different perspective. Retired German army Col. Nikolaus Schmeja gave the German perspective of the historic battle. He told the American visitors of the Germans' low morale and lack of food, fuel and transport. In 1917, he said, Germany lost 1.2 million soldiers. It lost more men each year than it could replace, he said.

Other Marine officers and NCOs described the action and related tales of individual heroism. They told of the young lieutenant who chewed out a crusty old sergeant for eating a can of tuna just prior to battle. The sergeant was later found dead, his bayonet thrust into the chest of a German machine gunner. They told of the gunnery sergeant who received the Medal of Honor for shedding his own gas mask to give it to a fellow Marine during a poison gas attack. And they told of a sergeant who successfully charged his squad directly into a German machine gun nest that was blanketing a hillside with heavy fire.

"We try to instill in each individual Marine that his or her action can make the difference," said Brig. Gen. Mike Hagee, deputy operations officer at U.S. European Command. "We not only give them the authority to take action, we make them responsible for doing so."

The Marine Corps promotes a camaraderie that ultimately reveals itself on the battlefield, Hagee said. "A Marine gets up and does these unbelievably heroic things, not necessarily for himself, but for the Marine who is on his right and the Marine who is on his left. That's who he's really thinking of -- the Marines."

Along with engendering unity, this esprit also forms the basis for a Marine's greatest fear, said Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commander U.S. Marines Corps Forces Europe.

"Marines know fear," he said. "People think Marines don't fear combat. Their greatest fear is not living up to the heritage of the Marines at Belleau Wood, the Marines at Iwo Jima. This heritage is what leads troops forward. It's this heritage that keeps them going as they fight for each other."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarines salute "Iron Mike," a bronze statue commemorating the World War I battle at Belleau Wood. About 250 Marines visited the battlefield in France May 31 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Marines' victory. Linda D. Kozaryn  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarines salute as a bugler decked in a World War I uniform plays Taps at Belleau Wood cemetery in France. Linda D. Kozaryn  
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