Marine Corps History: Remarks at the Unveiling of Belleau Wood Memorial Plaque
Carl | May 13, 2013
Remarks at the Unveiling of Belleau Wood Memorial Plaque
Gen Lemuel C. Sheperd, Jr., USMC
18 November 1955
Dedication of a Memorial Plaque at Belleau Wood
Mr. Ambassador, Your Honor The Mayor, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is with mixed emotion that I return today to this historic landmark, to join with all of you in paying tribute to the Marines who fought so successfully in the crucial battle that made the name Belleau Wood famous the world over.
I am deeply saddened by the memory of those brave Marines with whom I served, and who made the supreme sacrifice here in this very Wood for the cause of freedom.
Names and faces of many of my friends remain clear in my mind. I would like to feel that they are with us in spirit today as we dedicate this Memorial which will stand as a lasting reminder to their sacred memory.
It is a source of gratification, however, that the Memorial we are about to dedicate — standing on French soil so near to the heart of a great nation — will constitute one more symbol of the close and friendly relationship which the people of the United States and France have always shared and cherished.
On 14 June 1917, when the first elements of the 4th Marine Brigade set sail for France to assist the heroic French Armies in stemming the tide against an enemy threatening to overrun this nation, the American people felt we were repaying part of a long standing debt we owed to France.
We were extremely proud to come to the assistance of the French people who had made so magnificent a contribution during our own nation’s struggle for independence. I refer, of course, to the gallant achievements of Admiral De Grasse, General Rochambeau and General Lafayette during the American Revolution.
It was my privilege to have been a member of this first contingent of American troops to land at St. Nazaire and I recall the warm reception given us by our French Allies. I also vividly recall almost a year later the desperate situation that existed immediately prior to the commitment of the 4th Marine Brigade into this sector on the 1st of June 1918.
On May 26th, the third great German offensive of that year broke through the defenses of the Chemin Des Dames and caused a general withdrawal of Allied troops along the entire Aisne Front.
Within a few days Soissons and Chateau Thierry had fallen and the Germans were about to cross the Marne and march on toward Paris. The foremost elements of the enemy had advanced to the line Chateau Thierry – Vaux – Bouresches and Bois de Belleau. The advance of the German Armies was marked by the bodies of fallen French soldiers. There was no lack of courage among them – but courage alone could not hold the on-rushing battalions of the enemy.
The time had come when the vacancies in the French ranks could no longer be replaced. The seriousness of the situation was sensed by every Frenchman and fully recognized by the Allied High Command. It is recorded that at a meeting with Marshal Foch, General Pershing volunteered the employment under French command of all his available American troops.
All eyes turned to the untried Americans as the 2d Infantry Division which included the 4th Marine Brigade was rushed by camions to fill this breach in the allied lines.
Such was the situation on the morning of the 1st of June, when the Marine Brigade moved into a position with its right flank at Le Thiolet and its left in the vicinity of Lucy-Le-Bocage with orders to hold the line at all hazards.
For the next few days all units of the 2d Division successfully defended their ground and repulsed several major German attacks. The enemy drive on Paris was stopped in the wheatfields just west of this Wood.
But the enemy still held Belleau Wood. It was a position of great advantage since it offered concealment for infantry, and the irregular terrain afforded ideal shelter for machine gun nests. In addition, the Wood stood at the extreme southwest angle of the enemy salient and was its closest point to Paris.
Bois de Belleau had to be taken — for occupied by our forces, it would bar the further advance of the Germans on the Paris-Metz Highway.
It was five o’clock on the afternoon of 6 June 1918, that the Battle of the Bois de Belleau began. Our main objectives were the eastern edge of the Wood and the town of Bouresches.
The Marines went over the top and drove into the German lines. Scorning death they charged into firing machine guns, determined to dislodge the Germans from their trenches. As the Marines moved steadily forward across the open wheatfields the enemy poured a murderous machine gun fire from the edge of Belleau Wood.
Many Marines fell, but those that survived pushed on bayoneting and firing as they charged. So sweeping was the advance that in some places small units of men found themselves with Germans both before and behind them. The enemy stubbornly resisted on the left, and it was late in the evening when this part of the line reached the northeast edge of the Wood.
This was the first of a series of attacks and counterattacks which continued throughout that critical month of June when the fate of France remained in the balance. Throughout these attacks, the Germans showed their mastery for infiltration and machine gun manipulation. Many enemy guns were located on rocky ridges from which they could cover all avenues of approach. The Marines worked with reckless courage against tremendous odds, and the well-entrenched enemy exacted a heavy toll for every position that was captured.
But in spite of losses the Marine advance continued. Never has there been demonstrated a finer aggressive spirit. Fighting for every inch of ground they threw back counterattack after counterattack. In such a fashion did the 4th Marine Brigade carry the attack through the Bois De Belleau. Finally, on June 26th, the 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment captured the last segment of this Wood, where the old Hunting Lodge still stands.
Belleau Wood was ours and the last German either killed or taken prisoner. Regardless of the toll, the Marines had successfully accomplished their mission.
Before the Brigade had completely cleared Bois De Belleau, and the famous message “Wood now U.S. Marine Corps entirely” — was sent to the rear, they had met and defeated elements of four of the enemy’s best Divisions. Our casualties totaled 4,000. During the battle over 6,000 enemy fell mortally wounded and some 1,700 were taken prisoner.
The immediate results of the victory were felt throughout France and the rest of the world. Paris was saved. The mighty German Army had suffered a major reverse from which it never recovered.
The French High Command was given a confidence in American troops which resulted in a great boost of morale among all the Allies. The world was given tangible evidence of the fighting strength of America. The far reaching effects of the victory mark one of the great crises of modern history.
Never again, throughout the war were the Germans to gain the offensive. The July 18th offensive launched by the revitalized French and Allied Armies was to carry through until the surrender of all enemy forces was achieved.
The accomplishments of the Marine Brigade were fully recognized by the French government. Prime Minister Clemenceau paid a hurried visit to the 2d Division Headquarters to personally extend his congratulations. The people of this vicinity sent their thanks through the Mayor of Meaux. And a beautiful tribute, spontaneously made, was the order published on 30 June 1918, by General Degoutte, changing the name of this Wood from Bois De Belleau to Bois De La Brigade De Marine. The Croix de Guerre, with Palm, was awarded the Colors of the 5th and 6th Regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion of the 4th Marine Brigade.
The bravery and courageous action of the officers and men of the Marine Corps who participated in this battle forms one of the brightest pages of our history. It is these Marines and especially those whose life’s blood rests on this hallowed soil that we honor today.
Two years ago, when I visited Belleau Wood, I was distressed to note that no marker existed to tell to future generations of French and American visitors the story of this battle.
The plaque we are about to unveil was designed and cast by that distinguished sculptor Mr. Felix de Weldon, whose famous Portrait in Bronze of the Marine Flag Raising at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, in World War II, is recognized as one of the world’s greatest statues. We are fortunate in having Mr. de Weldon with us today and he has kindly consented to make a few remarks on this occasion.
In closing, may I again reaffirm the friendship we Americans have for France. I know I speak for all Americans when I say the United States believes in a strong and vital France – a France which will be in the future as in the past – the military, geographical and spiritual keystone of Western Europe.
May this Monument which honors the memory of the brave Marines who gave their lives on this piece of French soil in the cause of freedom for our two countries remain forever a symbol of our lasting friendship.
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