from Marine Corps News
Story by Master Sgt. Phil Mehringer
BELLEAU WOOD, France (May 13, 2005) -- The European continent has been ravaged by wars, skirmishes and battles for thousands of years. Most recent examples include the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. In Central and Western Europe, locations of battles that transpired long ago are still visible.
History and time for many battles stopped when the last battle-ax, shield or sword fell to the ground. The location of The Teutoburg Massacre, where Arminius led Germanic tribes who destroyed three Roman Legions more than a thousand years ago, hosts a welcome center and a museum.
There are also many other famous battle sites that are of heightened interest to Americans. Several companies provide tours for the battle of Waterloo, located near Brussels, Belgium, which resulted in a definitive end to Napoleon's reign. More recent sites might include Omaha Beach, made famous during the Allied invasion of Normandy during WW II or the Reichstag in Berlin where the last remnants of the Nazi empire were toppled.
Battlefields in Europe in many ways are similar to battlefields spread throughout the United States. Monuments, parks, signs, and flagpoles designate most areas of significant tourist value. Urban sprawl holds many locations hostage however; select areas have survived with little change.
For U.S. amateur historians and battle enthusiasts, these select moments in history must be visited and explored.
For Marines visiting European battlefields, the top priority is an area approximately 80 kilometers north of Paris. Like the area near where the U.S. Civil War battle of Antietem or Sharpsburg was fought, named by what side of the war you were on, the area hasn't changed much since the fierce battle that claimed thousands of Marines' lives so long ago.
A cemetery containing the graves of 2,289 U.S. service members, most of whom died during the battle, is located on the northern edge of the woods that is now called "Bois de la Brigade de Marine" or "Woods of the Marine Brigade." However, during the battle and still today, the area is most commonly referred to as "Belleau Wood."
During the month of June, 1918, this patch of 100 acres of heavily wooded hunting preserve became the focus of the German army and the American Expeditionary Force sent to stop the German advance on Paris.
Since the last radio call went out June 26, 1918, announcing, "Belleau Woods, now U.S. Marine Corps - entirely," was sent by Maj. Maurice Shearer, commanding officer 3d Bn., 5th Marine Regiment, Marines have returned to the location were their predecessor's earned them the nickname "Teufelhunden" or Devil Dog.
Springtime in the heart of France means tractors are in the field, turning over the soil and planting the seed that will generate the summer crops. It was shortly after a pass from one of these mighty tractors, in a hard turn next to a wood line, that a grisly discovery was recently made.
Gilles Lagin has been walking in Belleau Wood ever since he was ten years old. On a day in mid February, 2005 he was leading a small group of American military enthusiasts in Belleau Wood when they sighted what looked like bones unearthed by the fresh pass of a farmer's tractor.
"We were walking on the eastern edge of Belleau Wood, looking out towards the town of Boureches," said Lagin. "We were very surprised to find the bodies like this lying in the field."
On this day of research, the group was following the footsteps of William Eugene Lee and actions of the 2d Bn, 5th Marines. Lee, who passed away in the summer of 2004 at the age of 105 years old, was the oldest Marine who fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood.
Although not complete, remains from at least three soldiers were discovered in all. Two sets of remains were obviously of German soldiers. However, the third set left some doubt for Lagin.
After two sets of remains were discovered "We continued to dig and we found another skull with a Marine Corps belt buckle nearby," said Lagin. "So, maybe it was a Marine buried with two Germans or three Germans buried with a Marine Corps belt buckle -- we will never know."
Shortly after the discovery, German and U.S. authorities as well as the Gendarmerie were notified. A cooperative effort between the governments will be made to identify the remains. If they can not be identified, it is most likely that the remains will be buried in a mass grave in Berlin, said Lagin.
Although the remains and equipment were in the field for nearly 87 years, many of the items were easily identifiable.
Equipment and miscellaneous items found with the remains:
- Gas masks
- German regimental ring
- Parts of iron cross ribbon
- Maps showing trench line
- Parts of tunics
- Leather from boots
- German cartridges
- Marine Corps belt buckle
"I think it was like a mass grave that was buried very, very, quickly," said Lagin. "The bodies might have been placed in a shell hole and they were forgotten forever in this place. After an artillery barrage, assault or heavy battle the dead were quickly buried. There was not time to sort out bodies or parts of bodies, everything was buried together, as fast as possible."
Due to the existence of these hasty burials, many men were missing, both German and Marines, added Lagin.
The forty-year-old Lagin is an amateur historian and resident expert about the history of the American Expeditionary Force that came to aid his country's efforts to rid itself of the German invaders during the Great War. Lagin leads American visitors on the battlefields, often times walking in the footsteps of relatives or explaining actions and events that led to a units success or failure.
Lagin's knowledge concerning the actions of the AEF credits him providing historical advice to Hollywood during the filming of "The Lost Battalion." However, Lagin's passion lies with a particular battle involving U.S. Marines in June of 1918 when they stopped the German army as it advanced towards Paris.
During his 31 years of study, Lagin has collected enough artifacts to create his own Belleau Wood museum, in the town of Marigny en Orxois, located approximately 8 kilometers from the Belleau Wood.
From this same town, 87 years ago, Marines gathered to march forward to meet and stop the German front lines as they closed in on Paris.
Gilles Lagin (center) describes how he found the remains of several WW I participants to Sgt. Maj. Frank Beilmann (left), sergeant major, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Europe and Master Gunnery Sgt. Dave Bumgardner, MFE G3 operations chief. Lagin was conducting a battlefield study for several Americans when they discovered the remains. Photo by: Master Sgt. Phil Mehringer
Local resident and historian Gilles Lagin, who has studied the battle of Belleau Wood for more than 30 years, shows Master Gunnery Sgt. Dave Bumgardner a German gas mask found next to the remains he discovered on a recent battlefield study. Photo by: Master Sgt. Phil Mehringer