Major General John Archer Lejeune was born in 1867 on a sugar plantation in Pointe Coupee, Louisiana. After studying for three years at Louisiana State University, Lejeune was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy where he trained from 1884 to 1888. He gained the rank Second Lieutenant of the Marine Corps in 1890. He continued to climb the ranks, earning Captain during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and Lieutenant Colonel in 1908. He earned the rank of Colonel while occupying Vera Cruz in a skirmish between Mexico and the U.S. in 1913. When the Great War broke out, the Marines prepared for potential overseas service. Lejeune was promoted to Brigadier General in 1916, only a year before the U.S. entered the war in 1917. During the Battle of Belleau Woods on 25 June, 1918, he took command of the 4th Brigade of Marines fueling their resolve to take the woods. Just three days later, Lejeune took command of the entire 2nd Division. He led the division through successful campaigns to eliminate the German salient at St. Mihiel, to take the Mont Blanc ridge, and to defend the Meuse-Argonne against the Hindenburg Line. For his service and actions during the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Honor, and the Croix de Guerre. His military career did not end at the Armistice of 1919, and continued to serve in various capacities until his death on 20 November, 1942. He was a leading advocate for professional military education, became the commandant of the Marines in 1920, and served as superintendent at the Virginia Military Institute until he retired in 1937. His legacy lives on through his advocacy for the Marine Corps Birthday on 10 November 1775, his namesake Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and a bronze statue on the grounds of the Pointe Coupee Courthouse.
According to military records at least three Acadiana men fell at Belleau Woods. Four Corpsmen: Thomas A. Gragard, Richard H. Heinrich, Laurence B. Miller (Plaquemine), and Charles E. Suiter (Melville); and an infantryman: Arthur Kennedy (Plaquemine).
Nearly five miles west of Chateau-Thierry, within walking distance from the Aisne-Marne American cemetery resides an American flagpole accompanied by a simple black marble monument at the end of a road. It is surrounded by memorialized heavy artillery, including a German gun damaged by an explosion. Created by artist Felix de Weldon in 1955, the monument is officially named “The Marine Memorial” and features a bronze relief of an American Marine, lovingly named “Iron Mike”, with a bayoneted rifle. Bellow is a plaque which reads in both French and English:
“BOIS DE BELLEAU
BOIS DE LA BRIGADE DE MARINE
FRENCH SIXTH ARMY
ON 30 JUNE 1918
IN RECOGNITION OF THE COURAGEOUS ACTION OF THE 4TH UNITED STATES MARINE BRIGADE IN THE SEIZURE OF THIS WOOD IN THE FACE OF DETERMINED GERMAN RESISTANCE. ON 27 MAY, 1918, THE GERMANS LAUNCHED A MAJOR SURPRISE OFFENSIVE WHICH CROSSED THE CHEMIN DES DAMES AND CAPTURED SOISSINS. BY 31 MAY, THEIR ARMIES WERE ADVANCING RAPIDLY DOWN THE MARNE VALLEY TOWARDS PARIS. THE 2ND UNITED STATES ARMY DIVISION, OF WHICH THE 4TH MARINE BRIGADE FORMED A PART, WAS RUSHED INTO THE DEEPEST POINT OF PENETRATION TO ASSIST THE FRENCH FORCES IN STOPPING THE ADVANCE OF THE ENEMY. RAPIDLY OCCUPYING DEFENSIVE POSITIONS SOUTH AND WEST OF BELLEAU WOOD. THE 4TH MARINE BRIGADE, COMPRISED OF THE 5TH AND 6TH MARINE REGIMENTS AND 6TH MACHINE GUN BATTALION, STOOD FIRM UNDER UNREMITTING ENEMY ATTACKS FROM 1 TO 5 JUNE. ON 6 JUNE THE MARINES BEGAN A SERIES OF ATTACKS WHICH CULMINATED ON 25 JUNE WITH THE CAPTURE OF THE ENTIRE BELLEAU WOOD AREA, AND THE DEFEAT OF THE GERMAN OFFENSIVE IN THIS SECTOR. MAY THE GALLANT MARINES WHO HERE GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR CORPS AND COUNTRY REST IN PEACE.”
In 1923 Belleau Wood itself was dedicated as an American Battle Monument, and the memorial was dedicated thirty-seven years after the battle on the 18th of November, 1955 by the United States Marines in a ceremony which included surviving members of the 4th Brigade. The monument also includes the names of 1,060 men who went missing in action during the battle, and the surrounding cemetery is the final resting place to over 2,000 soldiers, 250 of whom are unknown. It is the only monument in Europe dedicated solely to the U.S. Marines.
In the first days of June 1918, the Marines of the 2nd Division dug defensive lines south of Belleau Wood in an effort to curb the attacks of the German Spring offensive that aimed to surround Paris. French soldiers in retreat warned the Americans of the coming attacks, to which Captain Lloyd Williams famously replied “Retreat, hell we just got here!” From their shallow dugouts, the marines waited until the Germans were within 100 yards of their lines and opened deadly fire, successfully forcing the surviving Germans to retreat to the woods. The German lines dug in at the base of Hill 142, where on June 6th the Marines attacked and despite suffering heavy losses captured the Hill by the afternoon. That same evening the 6th Brigade advanced into machine gun fire in Belleau Wood. Though the first wave was cut down, the second wave of marines were able to break through the firing line to engage in hand to hand combat with German infantrymen. The battle became deadlocked on the 7th and 8th, with neither side gaining any advance. By the 11th however, it was discovered that the marines had not advanced towards the northeast as the operation was planned, but rather to the south. Instead of changing direction, the Americans persisted and still broke through German lines. Fighting lasted for three weeks, and finally on 26 June and after six major attacks on the woods that the Marines announced “Belleau Woods now U.S. Marines entirely.” They had finally expelled the Germans once and for all from Belleau Woods. The United States lost 9,777 men in Belleau Woods with a 55% casualty rate, and it became one of the bloodiest battles that the U.S. fought during the Great War.