Frenchman keeps memories of Belleau Wood alive
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    Cool Frenchman keeps memories of Belleau Wood alive

    Frenchman keeps memories of Belleau Wood alive
    Submitted by: Marine Forces Europe
    Story Identification Number: 2003122225037
    Story by MSgt. Phil Mehringer

    BELLEAU WOOD, France(December 22, 2003) -- Driving up a farm road in his faded yellow four-wheel-drive and voicing a few more interesting facts about the battle fought in this area is local resident, collector and amateur historian Gilles Lagin. It is difficult to hear his voice over the engine noise and squeals his 1980 Mercedez Benz SUV emits as it navigates the rough terrain.

    Lagin keeps his eyes on the trail and continues to describe the battlefield conditions as we struggle to hear him. Eventually, at the end of a freshly plowed field, Lagin brings his vehicle to a stop near a tree line. We get out and move toward the woods on the edge of the field.

    "It is here," he says as he points to the opposite tree line some 300 meters away, "that on the morning of June 6, 1918, U.S. Marines attacked the German lines."

    Standing in a trench once occupied by Marines and peering through the tree line, one can only imagine what went through the minds of the Marines occupying this position more than 85 years ago. Their orders received, the objective given, and action is near. This would be no ordinary battle as the fresh, green Marines were about to fight a seasoned German army that had just punched a 70 kilometer hole in the Allied lines and were on their way to Paris.

    There was not a definitive Allied defensive line when the Marines, the last of the reserve forces, made their way to the enemy while navigating through exhausted allied forces retreating from the front. Answering the plea from a French officer for the Marines to join the retreat, Capt. Lloyd Williams shouted, "Retreat, hell! We just got here!"

    Although U.S. Marines in the area stopped the German offensive, it was now time to push them back and out of Belleau Wood.

    The waist-high wheat field the Marines had to cross starting their offensive was covered with interlocking sectors of German machine guns. "It was bad, real bad," said Lagin. He continued to say that while attacking Hill 142 the Marines would take 333 casualties - dead, wounded or missing. By the end of the day the Marines suffered 1,087 casualties, exceeding the total of all previous casualties in the Corps' history.

    The battle for Belleau Wood raged on, back and forth until June 24, when the Germans were pushed out of the northern edge of the woods and Marine Maj. Maurice Shearer telegraphed the American Expeditionary Force headquarters, "Woods now U.S. Marine Corps' entirely."

    Lagin explained that it was during the battle for Belleau Wood that the famous quote, 'Come on you-sons-of-*****es, do you want to live forever' was screamed by Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daily. "He had to motivate the Marines," Lagin added.


    The fascination Lagin has with the Battle of Belleau Wood started when he was about 9 years old. On display near the north end of battlefield are German artillery pieces that Lagin and other schoolmates came to visit. It was this experience combined with stories from his grandfather, a WW II veteran stationed near the Maginot Line and later captured by the Germans, told him that perked an early interest in military history.

    Lagin has a difficult time explaining what he felt, but said that during this time, "Something started for me."

    Most of all, though, Lagin explains that the combined events of a community project and a school experience at about the same time ensured his interest in the Marine Corps and Belleau Wood forever.

    The community project educated Lagin on the proper archeological techniques to locate, unearth and care for ancient artifacts. He worked for several years volunteering and honing his new skills near the old castle in Chateau-Thierry, his hometown, until professionals were hired full time.

    The final event that destined Lagin to become infatuated with Marines and Belleau Wood was simply an oversight. The fact that World War I history, according to his teacher and textbook, mentioned little about American participation in the war unsettled the young man because he knew better.

    It was several years later when Lagin's grandmother gave him a metal detector for his 12th birthday that his two passions came together. The simple metal detector had a single bulb that would light up when placed over a dense object such as metal. Lagin took the metal detector to Belleau Wood and on the very first day he discovered equipment belonging to a German soldier, including a belt buckle and cartridges.


    Now, 39-year-old Lagin has only strengthened his interest in the American participation in World War I. A fork-lift mechanic, he said his family has lived in and around Chateau-Thierry as farmers for five generations and that the "ground was saved by the Americans that came to this battle."

    In his broken English Lagin said, "The first help to my family came from Americans. They built a primitive wooden house and (were) given horses for working in the field."

    Lagin has met many Marines who visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery that lies at the northern edge of Belleau Wood where 2,289 American service members who fought in the vicinity are buried. He has photos with several Commandants of the Marine Corps including Generals Mundy, Krulak and Jones.

    Educating U.S. Marines about the battle of Belleau Wood motivates Gilles Lagin.
    He has met individual Marines and groups of Marines, and he has even spent the night in Belleau Wood with Marines. His time spent camping with Marines from 2d Bn 6th Marines a few years ago is still fresh in his memory.

    "We found an old .45 that night," he said. "Spending time with Marines, it is a part of my life," he added. "I am very proud to tell the story of the U.S. Marines."

    Lagin estimates that before 9/11 he visited with approximately 1,000 Marines a year to conduct battlefield studies with. Since then, he says, there have not been as many visitors to the battlefield, although he hopes that will change soon.


    Lagin's fascination with the battle of Belleau Wood has helped many American families bring closure to coping with the loss of a loved one. Lagin has a website that provides assistance to families that would like to know more about how their Marine may have died or where he fought in the battle. He added that most families only received a message from the U.S. government that their loved one had died and received little additional facts.

    With as little as a last name and a unit, Lagin can cross-reference his library of books to find field reports from the day, time and location of a Marine's death. He can then find out what the unit's last orders were, and from that information provide a more detailed account of the battle that took place on a particular day, digest it all, then provide a synopsis to inquiring families.

    "It is my passion to explain what Americans were doing here and to honor their memory and their heroic fight," said Lagin. "I try to explain what really happened and how he may have died."


    Lagin's passion for the battle of Belleau Wood is better explained by a visit to his museum.

    While visiting his museum and perusing his artifacts, one may get the impression that his passion has turned into an obsession. Lagin has complete uniforms, weapons and all of the items one would carry on the battlefield. Although the Frenchman may live in a two hundred year old house and is collecting artifacts from an 85-year-old war, when asked how he obtains items for his museum he simply states with a smile, "eBAY!"

    One of his most recent additions to the museum is a complete World War I U.S. Marine uniform he purchased for $500. Another recent purchase from the Internet was 47 German maps used during the battle. Many of his museum artifacts were also purchased at flea markets and estate sales. However, Lagin mentioned, it is getting more difficult to find items these days.

    The most prized possessions in his collection are "items with identification," said Lagin. With identification, the item can be traced to the owner and perhaps the owner to a family. Lagin added that he has had success in the past, but contacting families of the rightful owner is very difficult.

    In his museum are American, French and German relics and artifacts. Much of his inventory is in great condition. The artifacts found on the actual battlefield are in the worst condition. Every piece tells its own story and is a treasured item in his collection.

    Standing in his museum Lagin opened up a display case, reached in and picked up an upper receiver of a Springfield '03, the standard issued weapon Marine infantry carried into battle. He said he found this piece in the wheat field (Hill 142) where we visited earlier that day. As he pulled the receiver out, he pointed to the chamber where the round, encrusted in mud and rust, was clearly visible. The bolt was to the rear, the round in the chamber.

    "What happened," I asked, since the bolt should have been seated home on the round. For the next few moments we went through plausible explanations. Clearly the weapon received an impact breaking the left side of the receiver. The impact looked like that of a shell fragment. But more importantly, I wanted to know who owned the weapon. Did the Marine survive?

    The next item I picked up had a more obvious explanation. It was a semi-rusted helmet worn by a Marine with a clear entry hole in the front and a more destructive exit hole in the rear. No further questions needed.


  2. #2
    When asked how much money his collection cost him, Lagin struggled to find an answer. He hesitated and tilted his head, shrugged his shoulders and said about 375,000 Francs, which is about $70,000 dollars. This amount did not include the money necessary to renovate his barn to maintain the museum. That was another $20,000 he said.


    The details Lagin can talk about while touring the Belleau Wood battlefield are mind-boggling. His knowledge of the location of German and Marine positions is extraordinary. His accountability and detail of weapons and equipment used during the battle are accurate to the locations of where and when they were manufactured. His mind is as sharp as a tack, and there is no hesitation when he answers questions.

    To expect a single person to know where every foxhole, shell hole and trench line is located on a battlefield such as Belleau Wood is unrealistic. To believe that Lagin does not know the location of every foxhole, shell hole and trench line on the battlefield would be equally unrealistic.

    "It is small, but it is the most interesting battlefield. Everything is the same, nothing has changed," said Lagin.


    Lagin recently was hired by a film company from Hollywood to be a military adviser for the movie "The Lost Battalion." During May 2001, he spent nearly a month working on the film providing detailed and accurate information to cast and crew. Lagin said that his experience with working on "The Lost Battalion" was somewhat frustrating because they did not use much of the detailed information that he provided to the production crew. However, he said that he would like to work with Hollywood again.

    "If they want to make a movie about Belleau Wood, they need to talk to me," said Lagin. "I will ensure the movie is accurate and correct." Lagin's director of choice would be none other than Steven Spielberg. "He did a great job with 'Saving Private Ryan.'"

    The future of his museum is also a concern for Lagin. He would like to see the governments of France and the U.S. come together and open a museum near where Devil Dog Fountain is located in the town of Belleau. "With the American people and French Government cooperation maybe this is possible," said Lagin. However, he also acknowledges that he has no "diplomatic history to make the museum a reality."

    He also mentioned that perhaps an agreement could be worked out between the Marine Corps and the town of Belleau that would facilitate progress for a permanent museum.

    Dreams are a reality of life and Lagin has them too. His ultimate dream is to be the keeper of "Belleau Wood." As curator, he would ensure that the area in and around the Woods would stay as pristine as possible. He also has initiatives that would help visitors understand the battle such as a developing a brochure to hand out. He would also ensure all of the private memorials, informative plates and the statue of "Iron Mike" received proper attention.

    "This is my dream," said Lagin.

    Lagin is a single individual who has secured and will not let the history of the United States Marine Corps disappear in the country of France. For those of you lucky enough to visit Belleau Wood during your career, Lagin encourages you to contact him by visiting his website at

    If, for some reason you unexpectedly show up in Chateau-Thierry or Belleau, France, and have time on your hands, just look for a dinghy, old 4x4 with the only "Semper Fi" sticker in all of France stuck to the back windshield. That would be Gilles Lagin, on his way to or returning from the battlefield.

    More about Gilles Lagin

    A recent Navy/Marine Corps News video of Gilles Lagin and his Museum can be viewed by cutting and pasting the below URL into your web browser.

    Lagin's display cases are full of Marine Corps paraphernalia from the WW I era. Photo by: MSgt. Phil Mehringer



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