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Cpl. Richard Swafford, Battalion Landing Team, Headquarters and Support Battalion confidential materials clerk with the 24th MEU stares out over the thousands of memorial headstones at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial located at Belleau Wood, France, on June 22. Approximately 48 Marines made the journey to Belleau Wood during a liberty period while deployed.

Photo by Cpl. Jeffrey A. Cosola

24th MEU completes pilgrimage to Belleau Wood

22 Jun 2006 | Cpl. Jeffrey A. Cosola 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit

The Marines held themselves low to the wheat, row on row, a thousand steel-grey eyes waiting in the hollows.  From the edge of the dark wood before them, machine gun rounds spun into the sunlight, slipping their metal fingers between the stalks like the icy hands of Death reaching for the Marines across the small, deadly space.  They would charge into the maelstrom -- some to their end, all to immortality.  Many of those who died now lie silent in the wheat, row on row -- young, nameless and known but to God.

They remain there to this day, six and a half miles northwest of Chateau-Thierry, France, in the small village of Belleau, Aisne.  They lie interred in their wheat field, below soft rolling hills and a thick forest known as Belleau Wood.  It was there, with thrusting bayonet and hard hearts, that Marines buried thousands of German invaders pushing their way to Paris.  The ferocity of the counterattack elicited such fear and awe that the Germans began calling the Marines “teufelhunden” or devil dogs. 

Those Marines rest now beneath blinding white crosses, row on row, waiting to tell their story. 

It is in this wheat field that 48 Marines attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) made a pilgrimage to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, located at the Belleau Wood battlefield site.  They came to hear their forefathers’ stories, to witness their final resting place and to gain inspiration for the remainder of their combat tour as they re-enter the front lines of the Global War on Terrorism, said Maj. Devin Young, the 24th MEU staff judge advocate and tour coordinator.

“Visiting Belleau Wood is the chance of a lifetime for these Marines,” explained Young.  “No matter what MOS (military occupational specialty), no matter what your background is, we all have a common background.  We are all here.”

The June 22 trip came during a scheduled liberty period in the city of Marseille, France, in the midst of an expected six-month deployment – the MEU’s first assignment abroad since completing a seven-month tour in Iraq in February 2005. 

The Marines were able to spend the morning exploring Belleau Wood, crouching in preserved trenches, walking up hills once charged, and staring across the wheat fields where Marines like Medal of Honor recipient Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly once turned to his men with wild eyes and shouted, “Come on ya’ sons-of-bitches, ya’ want to live forever?,” before crossing into a deadly hail of bullets.

“You can only describe it by being here,” said Cpl. Richard Swafford, confidential materials clerk, Headquarters and Service Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 8th Marines, 24th MEU.  “To be somewhere where you know Marines as young or younger than you fought and died so far from home - you can’t help but be moved.”

“I can’t put it into words,” added Cpl. Augusto Garcia, a flightline mechanic with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced), the Aviation Combat Element of the 24th MEU.  “I’m more proud now because it’s helped me to realize what the Marine Corps is all about and how we made a name for ourselves.”

In addition to visiting Belleau Wood, the Marines were able to drink from Devil Dog Fountain whose iconographic bulldog predates the arrival of the Marines in 1918.  Because of its relative closeness to the battlefield and the fact that the water streaming from the bulldog’s mouth is the belle eau or good water for which the village itself is named, the fountain has been elevated to a mythical strata where the water holds restorative powers for those Marines who participate in the ritual drinking.

Marines would later receive a special mass in the cemetery’s memorial chapel, given by Navy Cmdr. Gary W. Carr, the 24th MEU chaplain, who used the time to pray for Marines past and present - blessing them on sacred ground.  

“You need to remind yourself why you’re here and what you’re doing,” concluded Young.  “This is someplace that I’d never thought that I’d be.  This reminds you of the honor you have to maintain everyday.”

The battle for Belleau Wood was a grim gallery that showcased the horrors of war - lung-searing gas attacks, non-stop artillery shelling and fierce hand-to-hand combat - all taking place within the backdrop of boulders, ravines, and “underbrush so thick in it that men could pass a few feet from each other, unseen.”  But it was in that murderous cauldron that Marines earned their place as the elite few and became a band of immortals.  From the 26th of June, 1918, when Maj. Maurice Shearer sent a signal reading, “Woods now entirely United States Marine Corps,” until the present day, Belleau Wood will always belong to the Marines - those who rest there, row on row, and those still fighting their fight.