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Retired Services and Pay (MMSR-6)

Marines relive Battle of Belleau Wood

By Lance Cpl. Bryan G. Carfrey | | June 12, 2009

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In the blazing heat and muggy humidity of a Virginia summer, 40 Marines and eight actors dressed in WWI era uniforms bolted out of a tree line, through wheat fields and smoke, with old rifles and bayonets to reenact the Battle of Belleau Wood June 9. 

Since the National Museum of the Marine Corps opened almost two years ago, it has been their intention to add an interactive display dedicated to the Battle of Belleau Wood.

“Since we opened, the one question all the Marines asked [when visiting] was ‘where’s Belleau Wood?’” said Chuck Girbovan, NMMC exhibits branch head.

A NMMC research team actually went to Belleau Wood last June and filmed the tree lines and wheat fields in order to recreate the battle at the most realistic location.

“It looked like Pennsylvania and the Midwest of the United States,” Girbovan said.

As far as accuracy, Girbovan said the highest praise they could receive is if nobody questions the location of where the film was shot when watching the reenactment.

When looking for a similar field to that of Belleau Wood, they settled on an isolated part of land in Bealeton, Va., only about 30 miles from Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

On site, various historians, uniform experts and weapon experts were on high alert when it came to attention to detail and accuracy. The crew even spent a day teaching the Marines how to properly hold and fire the WWI-era rifles and machine guns.

“We can’t short change the history of the Marine Corps,” Girbovan said.

The 40 Marines used came from MCB Quantico, but they had to look like a battle-hardened WWI Marine.  Casting calls were held for about 60 Marines where their pictures were taken and some lines from the script were rehearsed.  After five weeks of auditioning, the field was narrowed to the 40 selected.

“Over the last week or so they told us not to shave or get a haircut,” said Lance Cpl. Alex Maze, 21, a comptroller at MCB Quantico. “There were no high and tights then and they wanted us to look rugged like we’ve been fighting for a few weeks.”

Maze, a Toledo, Ohio, native also noticed a difference in the uniforms.

“The gear they had is uncomfortable, hot and not good for mobility,” Maze said. “These pants are so tight I’m crouching for five seconds and my legs go numb. It’s amazing how they did it with this gear and no water.”

Running through the tree lines and the wheat fields portraying a historic Marine Corps battle caused some Marines to think about the Marines who fought the real battle.

“As I’ am taking part in the charges I’m actually picturing running toward machine gun fire and artillery,” said Cpl. Harrison Mealey, 19, a data network specialist from MCB Quantico. “Those Marines were pretty brave. It’s nice we can portray the Marines of Belleau Wood and give them the credit they deserve.”

The actual finished product will be between a 90-second and three minute film that will appear inside the new wing of the museum, which is scheduled to open in April 2010. The film will be showed on an eight foot tall and 15 feet wide screen with 12 speakers surrounding the visitor. The sides to the room will be painted to resemble the French woods.

“The exhibit will be one of the centerpieces in the new phase of the museum,” said Gwenn Adams, public affairs chief for the museum. “We have been planning it since we opened, and spared no expense.”

When visitors watch the film at the NMMC it will be seen from the Germans perspective, with the Marines charging at them. It will also feature multiple endings.

“The great things about the complexity of this shoot are the realism, accuracy and the multiple endings,” said Lin Ezell, the NMMC director.

Before the spectators watch the film there will be a sequence of teasers to catch the viewer up on the situation prior to the Battle of Belleau Wood. There will be a news boy spouting off facts surrounding the war and be followed by a map of France marking the locations of the different forces.

“Belleau Wood was the biggest fight Marines had ever had up to that point,” said retired Marine Col. Joseph Alexander, historical advisor and Marine historian. “Marines had fought nothing like the German army; the Germans had the best machine gunners in the world.”

It didn’t take long for the German machine gunners to show their ability.

“The Marines started with 500 men and within 30 minutes were down to 200,” said Alexander who has helped produce 25 military documentaries for networks such as PBS, the History Channel and A&E.  

The Marines did overcome what seemed to be impossible odds and take Belleau Wood from the Germans and keep them out of Paris.

Alexander said, if the Marines would have lost the Battle of Belleau Wood the French would have likely dropped out of the war, which could have easily led to the Germans winning the war.

This is also the battle where the Marines adopted a new nickname given to them by the Germans, “teufel hunden,” or “devil dogs,” because the Marines fought and attacked like they were “dogs from hell.”

“The Marines were crazy and the Germans hadn’t seen that before,” Alexander said. 

Marines were excited about taking part in something so rich in Marine Corps history and that will be seen in the NMMC.

“It’s pretty cool to be out here and be a part of this,” Maze said. “No one knew what to expect, but it’s been a lot of fun.”


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