101 years after Marines from the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments braved hails of German machine gun fire among the oaks of Belleau Wood, acorns produced by its trees are now being grown at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh.
The idea has been nearly 20 years in the making. It started in the winter of 2001 with retired Col. John Giltz and retired Lt. Col. John Myrka at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California.
“We were huddled around a kerosene heater,” said Giltz. “There had been a storm in France around (Belleau Wood) so it was in our minds.”
“(Giltz) had a bright idea,” said Myrka. “It is a good thing I was a chief warrant officer and he was a major. I had to listen to it. It was a way to honor those Medal of Honor recipients from 5th and 6th Marine Regiment in World War I.”
Myrka did the research and legwork required to bring back 20 seedlings from France in April of 2001, but a myriad of incidences led to the seedlings not lasting. Still, the two men persisted.
Nearly 20 years later, Lt. Col. Dean Schulz, Marine Corps attaché to France, played a major role on the French side in securing acorns to be shipped back to the states. NCSU’s help was also key in getting permits ready and, now, caring for the newly sprouting trees.
“It’s a little different than what we normally do,” said Austin Heine, operations manager with NCSU’s Cooperative Tree Improvement Program (CTIP). “We have about 100 acorns here and I’ve planted half in a greenhouse. I planted them about two or three weeks ago. It feels like the majority have set down roots. Most should have shoots in about two weeks. The others are in a controlled environment to stay dormant and should germinate in spring.”
Heine hypothesizes that the trees will be about a foot tall in March or April of 2020. Following that, they will be moved to bigger pots.
“I imagine they’re going to need two growing seasons here before they will be planted. If I was to guess, it would be in the fall of 2021.”
The plan is to send trees to the 5th and 6th Marine regiments as well as Army units who fought in Belleau Wood, parks like the Pfc. William F. Moore Park in Queens, New York, NCSU’s campus and the campus of Virginia Tech University which has a building named for the late Lloyd W. Williams. Williams cemented himself in the annals of Marine Corps lore for his call of, “Retreat, hell! We just got here,” during the battle.
To Giltz, the trees are emblematic of the ties Marines have to their history.
“To have a piece of living history that will outlive all of us,” Giltz said. “We’re bringing back a piece of Belleau Wood … It’s a living reminder to the battle that serves as a rallying cry for the Marine Corps. I have no concern that the history of Belleau Wood will be lost. It means something to think of young Marines keeping that history alive under the shade of one of these oaks.”