At Belleau Wood, just outside Paris, the scars of war are everywhere: shell holes so large they could hold a car, the remains of trenches, pockmarked stone walls and trees that still contain pockets of mustard gas trapped deep in their trunks.
Here, 95 years ago, the U.S. Marines stopped the German army’s last great offensive of World War I.
This week, as an unpaid volunteer historian, I accompanied 20 men and women of the U.S. Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment as they carefully tramped back to the front where their Marine forebears fought nearly a century ago. Later in the week, I will give them a guided tour of Pointe du Hoc and the other crucial beaches and airborne-drop zones of Normandy.
All the Marines on this trip received severe wounds in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Three were wounded in both conflicts. For some veterans, intense firefights and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) took their arms and legs. Many carry scars that vividly arc across their bodies.
As we rode to the battlefield, they shared memories of fighting as intense as any that I had heard from the thousands of World War II soldiers and Marines I have interviewed over the years. Several of the Marines showed me pictures of their spines and legs that resembled erector sets.
Yet their spirit is unbroken and inspiring. Stoic and filled with pride, these veterans doubtlessly endured pain as they maneuvered through the battlefield on replacement limbs or stood for long periods of time. Yet I didn’t hear a single Marine complain.
“I doubt most Americans have ever heard of Belleau,” remarked one young Marine while standing at a bronze plate memorializing the Marines the Germans dubbed “Teufelhunden,” or “devil dogs,” for their intrepid battlefield prowess.
He then went on to ask the group, “Do you think they will ever have any monuments in Iraq or Afghanistan?”
“No,” the group universally responded, as some leaned forward on their canes.
At Lucy-le-Bocage, one of the villages at the epicenter of the fighting at Belleau Wood, an elderly French woman came up to the Marines and said, “We do not forget what you have done for us in World War I and World War II. Vive les Américains.”
The Wounded Warriors’ trip to France was paid for by private donors. Colonel Willy Buhl, commanding officer of the 700-plus active-duty regiment, explained, “In time of sequestration, the American people refuse to diminish the care for the wounded and injured.” He added, “Every Marine knows the lore of the Corps. This trip is spiritual healing for this group, as they make a deep connection to their forebears and their war and the brothers they lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In fact, many of the Marines bore names of their fallen brothers in arms tattooed across their bodies. Several brought plaques to honor the fallen.
On Sunday, the 20 men and women of the regiment celebrated Memorial Day at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery located on the grounds of the Belleau Wood battlefield. There, the cost of war is very visible, as thousands of white crosses on manicured green plots mark the sacrifices of the generation of men who fought in the Great War. Since 1919, Americans and their French allies have made it one of Europe’s oldest and most hallowed grounds for the celebration of Memorial Day.
At the end of the ceremony, hundreds of people from the town and all over France and Europe went to the nearby chateau used by the German army as their headquarters during the battle. The natural spring that was their water source during the war now has a fountain topped by the head of a bulldog. In a longstanding tradition, the Marines drank from the Devil Dog Fountain. Around the fountain, men and women continued to shake the hands of the wounded Marines and to thank them.
“It felt good being here,” remarked Corporal Kevin Hoffman, who had names of some of his fallen comrades tattooed across his ribs along with his favorite motto, “Strength and Honor.”
As the Marines rode toward the Normandy beaches for the second part of the tour, Colonel Buhl summed up the experience in a single sentence: “These Marines are the living embodiment of the fallen and their sacrifices.”
— Patrick K. O’Donnell is a historian and the bestselling author of eight books. His most recent bestseller is Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc – the Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day’s Toughest Mission and Led the Way Across Europe.