The furor has died down over the President’s failure to attend a ceremony at Belleau Wood on November 10 to honor Americans who fought for us in World War One. But we should know about and never forget those brave souls. The President reportedly blamed his staff for failing to tell him that skipping the ceremony would be a public relations disaster. That’s probably because, like most of us, he did not know the significance of the desperate battle at Belleau Wood.
When the Russians surrendered in March of 1918, the Germans shifted almost 50 divisions to the Western Front in hopes of scoring a knock-out blow against allied forces before American troops were fully deployed. On June 1, the Germans attacked in the vicinity of Belleau Wood, which is about 50 miles northeast of Paris, with the objective of breaking through to the French capital city and winning the war.
A brigade of U.S. Marines stood in their way and after 26 days of savage fighting the Marines expelled the German forces from Belleau Wood, stopping their advance. At the start of the engagement, the Marines were repeatedly urged to withdraw. In refusing to pull back, a Marine commander responded, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”
The Germans deployed massive artillery and machine gun fire against the Marines, as well as plenty of poison gas. The Marines attacked 6 times and held off a number of counter attacks. When it was over there were 9,777 American casualties, including 1,811 dead. Heroism was on common display throughout the battle.
Lieutenant Orlando Petty, a Navy surgeon, earned the Medal of Honor for continuing to care for the wounded even when his dressing station came under heavy fire. When the station was destroyed, he carried a wounded officer to safety.
Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Janson earned two Medals of Honor–one from the Army and another from the Navy–for single-handedly attacking and dispatching 12 enemy soldiers who were trying to set up machine gun emplacements.
Gunnery Sergeant Fred Stockham earned the Medal of Honor for giving his gas mask to a wounded comrade whose mask had been shot away during a poison gas attack. Sergeant Stockham was fully exposed to the poison gas and died of its horrendous effects several days later.
Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Weedon Osborne, a Navy dentist, earned the Medal of Honor for his bravery early in the fight. He died while trying to rescue a wounded officer.
Sergeant Major Dan Daly was recommended for the Medal of Honor and would likely have received it if he had not already earned the medal twice before–first for his bravery in China in 1901 and second for heroism in Haiti in 1915. Instead he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. During bitter fighting on June 6, he was widely quoted for urging his troops on with the words, “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”
The Battle of Belleau Wood was a big deal. It helped to stop the German advance and bring about an eventual end to the war. It caused our military to rethink battlefield tactics in the face of modern weaponry. It demonstrated the willingness of America’s service personnel to give their last full measure on behalf of their country.
The heroic actions at Belleau Wood were emblematic of the bravery of American forces across the Western Front. A total of 121 Medals of Honor were awarded during WW1—92 for the Army, 21 for the Navy and 8 for the Marines. And, a total of 116,516 U.S. troops died for their fellow citizens in that ghastly war.
As we gather with family and friends on Thanksgiving to celebrate the wonderful blessings bestowed on us by this remarkable country, let’s think of the American service personnel who have made it possible. Use the opportunity to thank and honor America’s finest, including the 2,289 fallen members of the Army and Marines interred in Aisne-Marne Cemetery at Belleau Wood and the many other WW1 veterans who honorably fought to protect our freedoms.