June 6 is not only the anniversary of the Normandy Invasion of WWII. It is also the anniversary of the Marine attack on Belleau Wood.
At the beginning of June 1918, the spearhead of the German Army’s offensive had captured Belleau Wood on the Paris-Metz road, only 50 miles from Paris. The American Expeditionary Force launched a counter-attack to stop the German advance.
The Marine 4th Brigade, comprising the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, was ordered to take the woods. The Brigade began its advance across an open field of wheat, swept by murderous fire from German machine guns and artillery. Urged to turn back by retreating French forces, Marine Captain Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines uttered the now-famous retort: “Retreat, hell. We just got here.”
His platoon wavered momentarily under heavy fire at the entrance to the wood, but Sergeant Major Dan Daly charged forward, shouting “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” for which, among other actions, Daly received the Navy Cross. (He had, previous to WWI, been twice awarded the Medal of Honor.)
The woods were taken, and retaken six times, by the Marine Brigade against the resistance of more than four German Divisions, including the crack 5th German Guards Divison.
Josephus Daniels, US Secretary of the Navy, wrote:
The marines fought strictly according to American methods – a rush, a halt, a rush again, in four-wave formation, the rear waves taking over the work of those who had fallen before them, passing over the bodies of their dead comrades and plunging ahead, until they, too, should be torn to bits. But behind those waves were more waves, and the attack went on.
“Men fell like flies,” the expression is that of an officer writing from the field. Companies that had entered the battle 250 strong dwindled to 50 and 60, with a Sergeant in command; but the attack did not falter. At 9.45 o’clock that night Bouresches was taken by Lieutenant James F. Robertson and twenty-odd men of his platoon; these soon were joined by two reinforcing platoons.
Then came the enemy counter-attacks, but the marines held…
Belleau Wood was a jungle, its every rocky formation containing a German machine-gun nest, almost impossible to reach by artillery or grenade fire. There was only one way to wipe out these nests – by the bayonet. And by this method were they wiped out, for United States marines, bare-chested, shouting their battle cry of “E-e-e-e-e y-a-a-hh-h yip!” charged straight into the murderous fire from those guns, and won!
Out of the number that charged, in more than one instance, only one would reach the stronghold. There, with his bayonet as his only weapon, he would either kill or capture the defenders of the nest, and then swinging the gun about in its position, turn it against the remaining German positions in the forest.
After the battle, the French renamed the wood “Le Bois de la Brigade de Marine” (“The Wood of the Marine Brigade”) in honor of the Marines’ tenacity. The French government also later awarded the 4th Brigade the Croix de Guerre, entitling members of those Marine regiments to wear the fouragere.
Belleau Wood is also where the Marines got their German nickname of “Teufelshunde” or “Devil Dogs” because of the ferocity of their attack on the German lines. An official German report described the American Marines as “vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen.”
General John J. Pershing, Commander of the AEF, at the time, said, “The Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy.”
One of our commenters asked about US press coverage back then. There is an account from the New York Times, June 20, 1918 on the web, which gets the date of the attack wrong, but has some good comments from the Germans:
The prisoners said they were glad of the chance to surrender and get out of the woods, because the American artillery fire for three days had cut off their food and other supplies and they had lived in a hell on earth. The Germans seemed deeply impressed by the fury of the American attack. One of the captured officers, when asked what he thought of the Americans as fighters, answered that the artillery was crazy and the infantry drunk. A little German private, taking up his master’s thought, pointed to three tousled but smiling marines, and said: “Vin rouge, vin blanc, beaucoup vin.” He meant he thought the Americans must be intoxicated, to fight as they did for that wood.
Thanks for remembering. My son is currently deployed with the 2/5 and Belleau Woods has a special place in their hearts. It would be interesting to read the press clippings of that day and see what the American people were hearing back home about their young men.
I appease my frustration with the knowledge that he did not sign up for the press clippings but because “it is what men do.” To those that are currently serving and the ones that have gone on before — Thank You. You truly reflect what is best about this country and it has never yet melted!
Thanks for the kind words. Even my wife was impressed.
I am using this web site and others sites to re-enact The Battle Of Belleau Wood for my Middle School kids at Johnson Middle School in Melbourne Florida.
Freedom is not free . It was not in the at the start of our country and it will stay that way to the end of time.
Peace and Semper Fi,
Thanks so much — this is excellent stuff and a real breath of fresh air in the miasma of political correctness. My father was on Iwo Jima, my brother in Viet Nam, my son in Iraq. Bless you for standing up for the men and women who keep us free.
As I was driving to work today I saw a sign for a housing development called “Belleau Woods” and felt that it was a less-than-appropriate tribute to the men who fought and died in this historic battle. I am wondering how those who have read or posted on this page feel about this and other such uses of historic names for marketing goods or services. Thanks!
my grandfather was in the invasion of bella woods and never talked alot about it he retired a major in the corp back in the 40 his name hary edward leland i would love to find out more information to tell my grandchildren
I have been looking for the names of the marines who paticipated in the action. His name was Roland Brown. Can someone sugested a place to go to learn more about him? Thanks
My grandfather, Claude Irving Brown, lost his leg at Belleau Wood. When I was five he had me knock on the wooden prosthetic, and said “War is hell. Don’t ever go. This is what they will give you.” Otherwise, he never talked about that experience except that he got shot when he and a group of men were walking through a field at Belleau Wood when a machine gun opened fire from some trees on the side.
Bert L. Gordon
My dad, Harry Gordon- 1931-2003, told me when I was a little boy that I was named after my great uncle,”Uncle Bert”..who died at Bella Woods…Next month I’ll be 57 yoa..This is the first time I’v read of the battle of Bella Woods.I had no idea what-so-ever of this great battle..I’m proud to have been named after such a brave MARINE as my Uncle Bert……..
Bert L. Gordon
Corporal Christopher E. Stroud
To some of those who have posted above,
Would it have been too much to ask for that you spell the name of our Wood correctly? It’s Belleau Wood, not ‘Bella’. In addition to that, ‘Marine(s)’ is capitalized and the word, Carol, is ‘Corps’, not ‘corp’, which is an abbreviation for corporation.
Evidently we’ve fought and died at the bequest of an American populace that can’t be bothered to learn to write it’s own native tongue, or at the very least use a spell-checker. Carol, you even misspelled your grandfather’s NAME.
We die so you can continue blithely on putting out just enough effort to get by in the daily world.
this was imformative
SSgt Frank Thomas USMC(Ret)
Well said, Corporal Stroud, and on an appropriate day. Commendable.
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