November 11th is Veteran’s Day— a momentous day in American history and we have a special program to mark it. One hundred years ago today, the First World War ended. The U.S. joined the fight toward the end of the war but played a crucial role. For our cover story this week, we revisit a decisive moment that took place in the countryside of northern France —where they still remember great American heroism and sacrifice.
This isn’t a history lesson. It’s the story of an unbreakable bond between France and the United States....told through letters written by heroes.
Letter Excerpt: January 7, 1918. Dear Mary, we arrived, as you know safely in France, and the night of my arrival we spent unloading our stores.
The 100 year old stories extend from a French cemetery an hour outside of Paris where U.S. soldiers are buriedto Boston, Massachusetts 3000 miles away.
Letter Excerpt: We traveled in freight cars with no heat and there were three nights and two days on the way. We all stood the journey nicely and are now billeted in two little French towns. It has been very cold for the last few days but today it is raining hard.
Sisters Carolyn and Diana are the granddaughters of U.S. Marine Major Edward Cole — who wrote from the battlefield in France to his wife back home in Boston. The letters— preserved by their mother.
Carolyn: My mother being an excellent archivist, decided she would put them together in a book. It was about his life interspersed with the letters. She wove them together in a beautiful combination. So she made a very moving statement about him and about his life and through his letters.
Major Cole ended up fighting in a defining engagement for the Americans in World War One — the legendary Battle of Belleau Wood.
Letter Excerpt: April 6, 1918. Dear Mary, Since I last wrote you Fritz got a little lively, so we have moved our camp a bit. He got to strafing us with nine-inch shells which are uncomfortable bedfellows if one slips in through the roof.
The Battle of Belleau Wood unfolded over 3 bloody weeks in the summer of 1918 with the relatively untested US Marines facing German troops with years of battle experience.
Jason Wede: This is basically where the Marines crossed into the actual Wood of Belleau on June 6th, 1918.
We met two recently retired marines at Belleau Wood— Sergeant Major William Frye and Gunnery Sergeant Jason Wede.
Sharyl: The French were having no luck in driving back the Germans. Is that true?
Jason Wede: That's correct.
Sharyl: The Germans were on their way to Paris?
Jason Wede: Right.
The Marines were assigned to stop a breakout by the Germans, who were dug into the woods with a new form of weapon — machine guns.
Jason Wede: The Marines actually walked across, basically walked across in formation across the wheat fields in open daylight, as you see right now. It wasn't until probably about 500 meters out, the machine guns opened up and started just going back and forth, just taking them down, just mowing down the wheat fields.
Sharyl: The Germans waited until they got close?
Jason Wede: Correct. They waited. For a while, the Marines thought there was nothing in there, that it was going to be a pretty easy day. Then the Germans waited for them to come right across that crest right there and opened up fire.
It took the Marines multiple bloody advances over several weeks before they were able to drive out the Germans— preventing a direct attack on Paris. The U.S. lost more than 1,800 men.
William Frye: Marines in Belleau Wood, it definitely defined us as who we are today. The warrior ethic, the warrior spirit. Definitely there's not a marine that's dead or alive or today, from 1918 till now, that doesn't know the price and the significance of what our brothers that fought here have done.
We found that sacrifice still remembered today by French locals around Belleau Wood, which remains scarred with trenches and littered with artillery and ammunition. Jean Scohy still finds bullets and shells on his property without the Americans, he says, he'd be speaking a different language.
Jean: Because we would be speaking German fluently now, I think. I think.
A measure of just how enduring the US-French connection has grown since the battle, when French president Emmanuel Macron recently visited Washington, he gave President Trump a tree to plant on the White House lawn. The sapling is from Belleau Wood.
Back in France, a short distance from the battlefield, is a well-kept cemetery that’s the last resting place for some of the German enemy who fought here. They too are remembered through letters and battlefield reports recounting the aggression and bravery of the U-S Marines.
Letter Excerpt: Only a few of the men are genuine Americans by ancestry. The majority is German, Dutch or Italian parentage, but these half Americans, who with a few exceptions were born in America and who never before had been in France, consider themselves unhesitatingly genuine sons of America.
More than two thousand American soldiers are buried here— at a cemetery at the foot of Belleau Wood overseen by Navy veteran Jim Bertelson.
Sharyl: These grounds are beautifully manicured, flowers, trees, birds, wildlife, it's gorgeous.
Sharyl: It's easy to forget that there was so much horror going on here.
Bertelson: And I agree with you, this is a beautiful setting, and it takes a great deal of work to keep it beautiful. But if I had had my choice, I would have had you guys march all night, a good 30 miles in the rain, get here tired, and then do the interview, because that's what these men did. But most of them were killed or injured afterwards. So that's the problem with a site that's so beautiful. It doesn't convey the context and the enormity of their sacrifice.
Also buried here—Carolyn and Diana’s grandfather: Major Cole. On June 10th, during the Battle of Belleau Wood, he was mortally wounded as he tried to throw back a German grenade. He died 8 days later on June 18th, 1918. He was 38 years old.
Diana: You can tell by his letters that he really cared much about his family so that he dedicated himself to the values that were important, and that he would go to fight for the values that are important, knowing that he was risking and he knew it.
Letter Excerpt: May 6, 1918, Dear Mary. I have been in danger many times in the past month, dear, and I am going shortly where it is very likely that I shall not return. If I should not, my dear wife, remember that I go from this world with nothing in my heart for you but love.
Four million American men served during World War One. Of two million who went to France, 126-thousand died, 234-thousand were wounded.