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100 years ago, Belleau Wood forged Marines

On June 6, 1918, Marines of the 6th Marine Regiment attacked across a field of wheat toward a treeline bordering Belleau Wood, France, into the teeth of withering German machine gun fire. Taking heavy casualties, the Marines were forced to “hug the deck.” Progress seemed impossible. Sergeant Major Dan Daly was one of those Marines.

Forty-four-year-old Sgt. Maj. Daly had already received two Medals of Honor for heroic action during China’s Boxer Rebellion and later in Haiti. Now his frustration level reached its zenith in that wheat field. He stood to his feet in the midst of the shower of German lead and shouted, “Come on, you (Marines). Do you want to live forever?” The Marines rose to their feet and followed him into the woods, where hand-to-hand fighting ensued against a well-entrenched enemy. The battle lasted several days, and in the end the Americans were victorious. Because of their tenacious fighting, the Germans labeled the Marines Teufel Hunden – Devil Dogs – an unofficial moniker we carry proudly to this day.

That salient event is generally seen as the catalyst that changed the United States Marine Corps from a small, ship-bound service into a serious force capable of being used for major land operations.

Between World War I and World War II the concept of “amphibious warfare” was developed, whereby Fleet Marine Forces could forcibly secure a beachhead and expand it to accommodate and sustain a fighting force for 30 to 90 days. So, by the time the Battle of Guadalcanal emerged as a necessity early in WWII, the Marines had a doctrine in place to meet the need. After WWII the Marines continued as a formidable land force in Korea and Vietnam. Changing from “amphibious” to “expeditionary” in the 1980s, the Corps now utilizes the latest in movement and rapid build-up capabilities. During my 37 years in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserve I have seen many of these changes take place.

As the Corps’ project manager for the creation of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va., it was my privilege to work with our team in taking careful pains to ensure every detail is explained accurately, including an immersion experience of Belleau Wood and the display of both of Dan Daly’s Medals of Honor. I even took our designers to Belleau Wood, where so much started for the Marine Corps 100 years ago this week.