- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

CHATEAU-THIERRY, France — Except for the howitzer, ripped and punctured by shrapnel and quietly rusting beneath the trees, the path through Belleau Wood might have been a peaceful hilltop lane almost anywhere in the Marne Valley.

It was anything but peaceful during June 1918, when for three weeks one of World War I’s most important and vicious battles raged and the difference between victory and defeat in the “war to end all wars” was determined.

Overlooking the Marne River, on this day dappled by the sunlight of a late afternoon, the ground is still scarred by World War I trenches. It was here that the German army opened a final offensive for Paris, just an hour’s drive to the west. The Germans were driven back, however, by American Marines who came to the rescue as the French abandoned the field, turning the tide of the war. It was this battle that earned those U.S. Marines the name Devil Dogs, a backhanded compliment bestowed upon them by the defeated Germans, who honored their ferocity.

“This is sacred ground,” said Terry Kenny, a Brooklyn-born New York Yankees fan and manager at the nearby Champagne Pannier. He says he likes to bring visitors to this memorial park and the adjacent American cemetery.

“I believe when the history of the war is written, the Americans’ capture of the Bois de Belleau will be ranked among the neatest pieces of military work of the conflict,” begins a New York Times article published June 20, 1918.

The 20-acre wood has been left to return to nature, and visitors can walk the ground, feel the ghosts and imagine the chaos, sounds and horror of the decisive battle 86 years ago. Next door, the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, with 2,289 American war dead, is green, open and manicured by French caretakers still grateful for the U.S. sacrifice.

When the Americans arrived, the French army was in retreat. The U.S. commander was advised to retreat as well, but he replied: “Retreat, hell. We just got here.” His men eventually got the upper hand, but not before nearly 2,000 Americans died. The names of 1,060 missing Americans are inscribed on the chapel’s stained-glass windows.

My trip to Belleau Wood was particularly poignant, coming just a few days after the second anniversary of September 11. On this late summer day, in the vineyards below, most of the region was finishing the first day of the grape harvest, picking the pinot noir, pinot meuniere and chardonnay grapes that eventually would be turned into fine champagne for celebrating births, weddings and business deals around the world.

Back at Champagne Pannier, Mr. Kenny and I strolled through the underground caves, dug 800 years ago, when chalk blocks were quarried to build the town and later the Renaissance castle that stands above the town. For almost a century, the cool and moist caves have been used to age the wine that eventually becomes Pannier’s fine champagne, noted for its straw color, fine bubbles and crisp notes of peach and brioche.

Though anti-American sentiment because of the war in Iraq was ever-present in French newspapers, magazines and television, it was never expressed to me personally. In fact, when I checked into La Briqueterie, in Vinay, later that night, the young woman at the counter apologized upon seeing my American passport. When I asked for what, she said: “September 11. We are all so sad to remember your loss.”

That night at dinner, Mr. Kenny served his champagne, produced from vines grown on Champagne’s world-renowned terroir, made more special — even sacred, as Mr. Kenny said — by the Americans who fought, bled and died here that summer.

We ate and drank, and he told stories of American heroes in the Marne Valley. The most famous is Quentin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s son, who was shot down in the area. The remains of his airplane are chained to a wall in Chateau-Thierry.

A lesser-known story is of William Muir Russel, who fought and died in Champagne. “William Muir Russel, an American aviator, was the last, or one of the last, Americans to be shot down over Champagne,” Mr. Kenny said. “He is buried in my village, Courville.”

He was killed in action Aug. 11, 1918, and the Muir family constructed a memorial fountain to honor him, with the American eagle and “E Pluribus Unum” on top, Mr. Kenny said.

“The Muirs wanted the memorial to be a fountain, and the village people replied, ‘We have no running water in our village, so we can’t make a fountain.’ The Muir family replied, ‘Install a water system for the village, and hook it up to the statue.’

“They gave $10,000 [in 1920] to do this. And because of the aviator, the village of Courville got running water … a la memoire de William Muir Russel,” Mr. Kenny said, raising a glass. We drank to the memory of Russel — and all the other Americans who gave their lives in this foreign land for freedom.

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