Had the dark skies and sprinkles outside Paris today not prevented our president from attending the ceremonies honoring the dead from the Great War at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, he may have come across the one and only Congressional Medal of Honor recipient buried there; Chicagoan Lt. Weedon Osborne.
This dental surgeon, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the U.S. Navy was attached to the Sixth Regiment of the U.S. Marines Corps. Over a hundred miles from any major body of water, Lt. Osborne would become the first commissioned naval officer to be killed in action during land fighting overseas.
Naval historian Thomas Sheppard wrote of Osborne-
For the United States Marine Corps, few places can rival the iconic status of Belleau Wood. In the summer of 1918, during some of the most intense fighting of the World War I, the Marines established a reputation for heroism and courage under fire that won the highest praises from their allies, and the grudging respect of their enemies. After pouring machine gun fire on the advancing 2nd Division, the Germans were forced to concede that the “nerves of the Americans are still unshaken.” In the aftermath of the battle, German Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Otto applauded the “death-defying boldness,” “tenacious endurance,” and “extraordinary bravery” of the American troops. The French likewise showered their new allies with praise, calling them “our hope, our strength, and our life” after witnessing the Marines’ performance in battle, and comparing their arrival to a transfusion of blood into a dying man.
The outlook for the Allies in the early summer of 1918 was bleak. German offensives that spring had driven to within miles of Paris, and after four years of trench warfare, Allied armies on the Western Front were drained and demoralized. Allied leaders feared France was on the brink of collapse, and American Army and Marine Corps troops were desperately needed to bolster defensive lines. Given the magnitude of the crisis, Major General John J. Pershing reluctantly released just over 300,000 American troops to join French forces on the front. Although the arrival of fresh troops was a great boost for the morale of wearied soldiers, battle-tested French and British soldiers also had understandable doubts as to how these green fighters would perform in the heat of combat.
Twenty-five-year-old Weedon Osborne was among the newcomers. A Chicago native, Osborne was a dentist by training who entered the Navy in May 1917, just weeks after America declared war on Germany. By the time he reached Belleau, Osborne ranked as a lieutenant, junior grade, with an assignment as a dental surgeon. He was assigned to the 6th Marine Regiment, a unit that was among those designated for the thick of the fighting in Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood).
On 1 June, Osborne’s regiment reached the Western Front just as the Germans were seizing the small town of Bouresches. When the Marines arrived, the French were in the process of falling back to new defensive lines. Faced with the possibility of further retreat, one Marine captain famously responded “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” And the infusion of American troops indeed provided the needed reinforcement to hold the line. By 3 June, the German advance in this sector had stopped.
After blunting the German advance, the Marines launched an attack of their own, striking Bouresches on the morning of 6 June. Spurred on by Sergeant Dan Daly’s famous rallying cry “Come on you sons o’ bitches, do you want to live forever?” Osborne’s brigade charged into the teeth of enemy machine guns. As German fire cut down more than 1,000 men that day, Osborne scrambled to retrieve the wounded and rush them to safety. While he was carrying Captain Donald Duncan to safety, a shell struck and killed both men. For his “extremely courageous” efforts while under fire, Osborne received a posthumous Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross.
The Battle of Belleau Wood raged for almost another month after Osborne’s death, with American and French troops wracked by diarrhea, fevers, and sheer exhaustion slugging it out against the determined German army. Finally, on 26 June, a major was able to report that “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.” France later renamed the site of the battle from Bois de Belleau to Bois de la Brigade de Marine.
Over 100 years ago, Lt. Osborne and thousands of other soldiers selflessly gave their lives to stop the German advance from reaching Paris. There are monuments built to memorialize their sacrifice and veterans and dignitaries of multiple nations gathered at ceremonies today intended to honor their service. Meanwhile, our Commander in Chief couldn't make it because the weather was bad. Regardless of whether his failure to attend was due to the humidity causing his bone spurs to swell or if he was worried the wind and rain would muss up his hair, he should have been there. Our fallen heroes answered the call, why couldn't he?