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93 years in the waiting: 5th and 6th Marines return to Belleau Wood

By Sgt. Rocco DeFilippis | | June 2, 2010

In the summer of 1918 two regiments of Marines arrived in the Picardy region of north-central France as part of the American Expeditionary Force. With combat experience limited to ship-born detachments and small land engagements, the Marines of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments would soon find themselves making history in the wheat fields and forests around a small village called Belleau.  

For the first time in the 93 years since one of the Corps’ most iconic battles, the Marines of 5th and 6th returned their battle colors to the hallowed grounds at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial to pay tribute to the men who fought and died in the battle that stopped the last major German offensive of World War I.

In observance of the ceremony, Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, the Honorable Charles H. Rivkin, U.S. ambassador to France, French dignitaries and representatives from the Ministry of Defense, and the United States Marine Corps Battle Colors Detachment joined Marines from the 5th and 6th Regiment; the Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team Company out of Rota, Spain;  Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa and thousands of French citizens  to pay tribute to those who paid the ultimate price in defense of liberty.

During his remarks, Gen. Conway paid tribute to the Marines who earned their famous nickname “Devil Dog”, spoke to the common bonds shared between the French and Americans, and highlighted how the Marines ‘ sacrifice at Belleau Wood was, in part, a small repayment to the French for their unwavering support to the Americans during the War for Independence.

In addition to the ceremony, the Marines who attended were also given the chance to tour the battlefield, learn the history, and walk in the footsteps of their predecessors.

“As a member of [2nd Battalion, 5th Marines], this experience has been amazing,” said Sgt. Thomas Stafford, platoon sergeant with Weapons Company, 2/5 and a Estcada, Ore. native.  “As we learned during the tour, this is the birthplace of most of our infantry training and tactics, not to mention the legacy that the Marines made here. So, it’s pretty awesome to be here.”

Known for its bloody wheat fields where on the 6th of June, 1918, the Marines sustained more casualties in one day than it had in its previous 143 years of existence, the battlefield tour had a profound impact on the participants.

“It’s an inspiring moment, looking across those fields and walking through the wheat,” said Gunnery Sgt. Jeremy Marks, supply officer for 1st and 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines and a Caldwell, Texas native.  “All Marines hear the story and know about Belleau Wood, but for the Marines here today; they will be able to go back and share with their Marines at the regiment and it will give it that extra bit of significance.”

Although the Marines took heavy losses on the 6th, in the remaining 20 days of the battle, the Marines not only proved that they were a determined and ferocious fighting force, but birthed the “Devil Dog” legacy that has inspired generation after generation of Marines .

“The Marines today carry with them that same warrior’s spirit as the Marines who took this wood 93 years ago,” said Sgt. Maj. Kent. “It’s only right to pay tribute to those who have gone before us and gave us the proud legacy to live up to. It’s something we take very seriously as Marines, and it’s something that we are doing now and will continue to do in the future.”

The Memorial Day service concluded with an informal gathering at the famous Bulldog Fountain,  an important pilgrimage site located on a small estate in the village of Belleau, where Marines, family members, and French citizens gathered to celebrate and continue the Franco-American friendship that has endured throughout the history of the United States.

“Today, as we do each year, we come to this place to remember where it all happened,” said Lt. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, deputy chairman for the military committee at NATO headquarters and Savannah, Ga. native. “This event symbolizes not only our respect and appreciation for the warriors who died here, but also gives us a chance to remember the common bonds we share as nations and our devotion to the defense of liberty.”

More than 1,800 Marines from the 5th and 6th Regiment and several U.S. soldiers were killed during the Battle for Belleau Wood.  In addition to their heroic feats at Belleau Wood, the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments went on to fight in other battles such as Aisne, Saint-Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Soissons, and Blanc Mont. For their gallantry in combat, the French government awarded the regiments the fourragère, a unit award given to units who distinguishing themselves more than once in combat. The Marines of 5th and 6th proudly wear the award today.