“We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.”
German Private, Belleau Wood, June 11, 1918
Prior to World War I most Americans were barely aware of the existence of the Marine Corps. The Navy’s army made the papers only when landed in incursions on foreign soil, usually, although not always, brief, and America has always been a nation that usually pays only and brief and passing attention to most foreign events, unless some great disaster occurs like Pearl Harbor or 9-11, before returning to a concentration on domestic concerns. The Marine Corps, a minuscule force of some 17,000 prior to US entry into World War I, had survived various attempts to abolish it throughout its history, most recently by Theodore Roosevelt, but bare survival on the periphery of American society seemed to be all that it was ever fated to accomplish, until the battle of Belleau Wood was fought.
With the US entry into World War I, the Corps expanded to 70,000 men. Remaining a volunteer force, the Marines chose the cream of the 239,000 men who volunteered to be Marines, emphasizing youth, athletic prowess and intelligence. They received the traditional Marine Corps training with a strong emphasis on physical fitness, discipline and marksmanship.
Along with their traditional duties, the Marines were going to have a piece of the war in France. Earmarked for this assignment was the newly created 4th Marine Brigade, consisting of the Fifth Regiment, made up of hard case veterans of the Marine engagements in the Caribbean, and the Sixth Regiment, made up of newly recruited Marines, leavened with 50 veteran NCOs and commanded by career officers of the Corps for all ranks of Captain and above. Sixty percent of the men in the Sixth Regiment were college graduates or had attended college, which was exceptional considering that only four to eight percent of the college age population at the time attended college.
The beginning of June 1918 saw the Marine brigade attached to the Army 2nd Division, rushed to the front to stem the German offensive, Operation Blucher, that had brought the enemy troops within thirty-nine miles of Paris and caused a sense of panic among the civilian population of the City of Lights. The Americans held twenty kilometers of the front to the east of the town of Lucy Le Bocage and opposite the German occupied Belleau Wood, a 200 acre forest which the Germans were using as a jumping off point for new attacks. Countermanding French orders that the 2nd Division retire and dig trenches to the rear, General James Harbord, commander of the 2nd Division, who would later be made an honorary Marine by the Corps, ordered his men to hold in place.
The Germans attacked on June 3, and were repulsed by heavy Marine fire power. Retreating French units urged the Marines to retire. The response of the Marines was uttered by Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 5th Marines: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”. (Captain Williams would die in Belleau Wood on June 18, 1918.) Over the next two days the Marines repulsed numerous German assaults.
On June 6, the 5th Marines attacked Hill 142, preempting German preparations for an attack. After a hard fight the Marines took Hill 142, suffering over 325 casualties. The Marines made the mistake initially of advancing as the French had taught them, in long lines, bayonets fixed, perfect targets for the German machine gunners. The Marines quickly abandoned this lethal approach and began to attack in squad rushes supported by fire, which proved much more effective and safer. The 6th Marines to the south, under heavy fire, battled their way into Belleau Wood. First Sergeant Dan Daly, an 18 year veteran of the Marine Corps, who had earned Medals of Honor in China and Haiti, and turned down promotions to Lieutenant twice, roared to his men, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” (Daley later recalled his statement as being, “For Christ’s sake, men, come on! Do you want to live forever?” For his actions on June 6, Daly was put in for his third Medal of Honor, but someone in the chain of command thought no man should have three Medals of Honor and instead Daly was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross and French Médaille Militaire.)
US correspondents flocked to the story of the fight the Marines were raging and the story made headlines throughout the US. French correspondents also celebrated the courage of the Marines, and for the remainder of the War any Marine visiting Paris was sure to have his face kissed by Frenchwomen and his hand shaken by Frenchmen.
Now began a long and grim struggle for Belleau Wood for the next 20 days. The Marines, supported by Army units, would battle with elements of five German divisions. The fighting often involved hand to hand combat, fists, knives and entrenching tools often being of more use at close quarters in the forest, smashed into a tangled labyrinth by artillery, than rifles. On June 26, the Marines were able to announce that “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely”.
The ground was purchased at a high cost: almost 2000 Americans killed and almost 8,000 Americans wounded. The Marines sustained more casualties at Belleau Wood than they had in their entire history before Belleau Wood. At Belleau Wood the Marines earned their claim to be among the elite combat troops of the world, and that if the US needed to seize an objective, sending the Marines was always a good option.
The French renamed Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine”.