Beginning in 1920, even before the permanent cemeteries were constructed, every Memorial Day in Europe has been marked by ceremonies at the 20 American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemeteries (8 are WW1 and 12 are WW2), at other selected locations in Europe including the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial and the Arc de Triomphe and at the ABMC cemeteries in Tunisia and the Philippines. In France and Belgium the organizer of these events is the American Overseas Memorial Day Association (http://www.AOMDA.com) , a public charity organized in the US and France, which receives no public funds (visit the website to support). Every ceremony includes placing flags on all of the graves, wreath laying, speeches by local politicians and US military personnel, performances by school children and a color guard, sometimes US military, sometimes local, occasionally both. US Air Force (USAF) aircraft fly-over some locations. It is necessary to start the schedule of these ceremonies the weekend before Memorial Day and continue to the weekend after in order to cover all of the sites.
Year in and year out, the most impressive of these events will be held at Aisne-Marne ABMC cemetery, a WW1 facility with 2,288 burials. Why does this one stand out? The cemetery is located on a portion of the battlefield of Belleau Wood, the 26 day long fight in June 1918 for a German strongpoint that the US Marine Corps (USMC or the Corps) considers the crucible from which the modern Corps was forged. This is the site of the famous “Field of Wheat” across which the 3/5th Marines advanced on the sixth day of the battle, and where GySgt Dan Daly exhorted his men with the immortal (at least to Marines) words: “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”. Indeed, the connection between Aisne-Marne and the USMC is so strong that it is more familiarly known as the Belleau Wood Cemetery.
Although the ABMC is the host and the AOMDA is the official organizer, this ceremony is really the USMC’s show. In addition to the local contingents and other activities mentioned above, there is much more horsepower here. The Commandant of the Corps, or the Deputy, will attend. There are usually a few retired Commandants there, too. The US Ambassador to France shows up along with a senior French politician from the national government. There are two honor guards, one from the USMC and the other of French Troupes de Marine. The Corps sends its Silent Drill Team and a field-size band; I’m sure that they would send the whole 130 piece President’s Own if the site were big enough. Not to be outdone, the French send a band too (they don’t want the USMC to have to play le Marseillaise). The Corps gets the USAF to send a flyover from bases in Germany or the UK. In all likelihood the Corps would rather use Marine aircraft but they haven’t got any based in Europe. The attendance is in the thousands, including hundreds of Marines in their dress blues who have paid their own way to be there. Nearby is the famed ‘Devil Dog Spring’ where Marines eagerly queue up to get a drink. Although I was in the army, I’ve done this twice, in 2010 and 2012. The photos are from 2012.