President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron and their wives planted a sapling from Belleau Wood — the World War I battlefield where more than 9,000 American troops were killed or hurt — at the White House on Monday. The Battle of Belleau Wood is part of Marine Corps legend.
William Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is writing a battlefield guide of Belleau Wood, joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about the meaning behind the gesture.
On the combat American troops faced at Belleau Wood
"They stepped out of the woods, they took terrible casualties because the Germans had plenty of time to dig into the area at Belleau Wood. The 6th of June was the most catastrophic day in Marine Corps history in terms of casualties, up to that date. It wouldn't be until Tarawa in 1943 that the Marine Corps would experience the same level of terrible casualties.
"We would call it '3-meter war' — one particular Marine would just know what was going on around them about 3 meters, wasn't sure who was in front of them, wasn't sure who was behind them and especially wouldn't know who was on his flanks."
"For them to think of something as significant as an oak tree from Belleau Wood, to me, is just remarkable. And it supports ... how much they remember, and cherish that memory."Retired Marine Col. William Anderson
On the battle being as much a part of Marine Corps history as the flag raising at Iwo Jima
"Prior to about 1916, the Marine Corps was a very small organization, and limited to ships detachments with the Navy, and hadn't really involved in a major land campaign."
"One of the legends is the origin of the nickname 'Devil Dogs,' is said to have had its roots in Belleau Wood. Not only did it blunt the German offensive and restore hope to exhausted allies that the Marines were a part of the American army that had come to France, and there they were gonna fight. The allies weren't really sure how the Americans were gonna fare against these experienced German soldiers."
On returning to the battlefield today
"It's quite an experience. I mean, the area hasn't changed very much: the rolling countryside of the Champagne region, the wood is still there, much like it was a hundred years ago. The tree lines of the forest are the same, the roads are the same. If the weather is nice, it's just a great experience to go to those places, where you know people have distinguished themselves on the battlefield."
On the gift of a sapling from Belleau Wood
"I think that's just a startling tribute to Marines, and a great credit on the French for coming up with that idea. I mean some guy said, 'We gotta bring something, a gift on this state visit,' and for them to think of something as significant as an oak tree from Belleau Wood, to me, is just remarkable. And it supports what I said earlier, about how much they remember, and cherish that memory. Of course, you know, people who were there at the time are long gone now. But you have now children in the local schools coming out and supporting the ceremonies. It's just fascinating to me."
This article was originally published on April 24, 2018.
This segment aired on April 24, 2018.