In the late afternoon of June 11 this year I rode into Chateau Thierry, a date with added significance as this story unfolds.
It was Day 14 of “Euro II Cycling Tour,” my one-month, solo cycling adventure with the purpose of following the guidon of my father’s WW II military unit, the 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron.
This 1,140-kilometer trip took me from Carentan to Cherbourg in Normandie; to Melun, Seine Port, north to Charleville-Mezieres and Givet in the Champagne-Ardennes of northern France, into Belgium to a small village named Humain, where Pfc. Edward J. Valentine, a combat medic, spent Christmas in 1944, to Malmedy where, fortunately, he was in September to participate in the liberation of that city instead of December, when another U.S. Army Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron became victims of the Malmedy Massacre.
Two days earlier I found the exact place, Seine Port, where my father’s unit and General George S. Patton Jr. crossed La Seine on pontoon bridges. The Fourth Cavalry Group was two days behind Patton.
On the 28th of August, 1944, the 4th and 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons entered Chateau Thierry in the Champagne-Ardennes region of northern France. It was the first U.S Armed Force to enter that city since World War I.
Here, as the French road signs often show, I took a “deviation” or detour in time, 94 years from the present when a young man from Pagosa Springs, Lester Wane Mullins, a private in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Second Division, fought and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country and for the liberty of others in the Battle of Belleau Wood. He was the first Archuleta County serviceman killed in World War I. American Legion Post 108, Mullins-Nickerson remembers and bears his name.
The Battle of Belleau Wood (June 1-26, 1918) occurred during the German 1918 spring offensive near the Marne River in France. The battle was fought between the U.S. 2nd (under the command of Major Gen. Omar Bundy) and 3rd divisions and an assortment of German units including elements from the 237th, 10th, 197th, 87th, and 28th divisions. The battle has become a deep part of the lore of the United States Marine Corps.
The Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial is a 42-acre World War I cemetery in Belleau, Northern France. It is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. It is located at the foot of the hill where the Battle of Belleau Wood was fought.
After a 12-kilometer ride under the threat of rain that almost forced me to turn back, from Chateau Thierry with one 1.5 km climb of 6 percent, I arrived at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial at 1640 hours — 20 minutes before closing, as the small sign informed me. I was there alone, save for a grounds keeping crew of three. The grounds along a tree-lined entrance to the memorial chapel are beautifully landscaped, peaceful and comforting, with chimed music being played over a concealed sound system.
Hurriedly, I sought to locate the headstone of Pvt. Mullins.
A few years before, I had researched online the plot, row and gravesite number. Among the 2,289 Americans resting there in two sections, A and B, Pvt. Mullins is in Plot A. The music relaxed my pace. After searching one plot and finding a different soldier’s gravesite, I solicited the aid of the grounds crew. They walked me to the proper section and row.
It was 1655 hours.
I knelt on one knee and removed my fanny pack. I carried with me a 30 by 50-inch American flag for this day and also to wave on the roadside during the Tour de France.
I paused from taking photographs. In wonder, I realized the coincidence that I was here on the 94th anniversary: Private Mullins was killed on June 11, 1918.
It was moments before 1700 hours. The ground crew was leaving. The sun was breaking through the clouds for the first time that day.
I took one more photo of the headstone with my flag leaning against the cross. Since I was 20 years old and a sergeant of the guard of a double military funeral at Fort Ord, Calif., “Taps” has always struck a deep, respectful and honored,sad chord within me. It was no different here in northern France. I stood at attention with a hand salute; just me and the fallen heroes.
I was ready to leave when two civilian employees came out of the office to take down the two American flags that fly side by side. Later, I learned that one flag is for the cemetery, the other commemorates the valor of the U.S. Marines who captured much of this ground in 1918.
I watched and photographed as they retired our colors. Slowly and, respectfully, I approached them. Realizing that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience as they were about to take down the second flag, I asked, “I would be terribly honored if you would allow me to assist in the retirement of the colors.”
The woman took my camera and photographed as David Atkinson, the superintendent of the cemetery, and I — with all the military bearing of 1968 — properly folded the flag.
David Atkinson whose hometown is Las Vegas, Nev., is honored and enthusiastic about his work at Aisne-Marne. He insisted on showing me the chapel where the names of 1,060 men missing in action or unidentified, “sleep in unknown graves.” Recently, in the last 10 years, two soldiers were discovered by an archaeological team. Only one was positively identified, using partially decomposed papers in his billfold. He now has a “rosetta” next to his name in the chapel. National Geographic did a story about this discovery. David surmised that they believe one of the men was a medic, since one man held the other to his breast as the bomb blast killed them.
During World War II the chapel was damaged slightly by an enemy shell.
Next, David took me to his office. When I reminded him it was well past closing time, he replied, “your tax dollars fund this place,” and said there was no need to hurry. He showed me photographs and the program brochure for this year’s commemoration, and proudly let me know that the Memorial Day commemorations draw larger crowds than the D-Day ceremonies in Normandy. Each year, the Marine Corps sends a contingent.
In the ensuing days, as I continued my trek of following my father, the two world wars commingled in place, separated by only 21 years. I passed many French and German cemeteries. Each French and Belgian village from Normandie to Liege, regardless of size, has a war memorial remembering the conflicts of 1914 to 1918, with an added plaque or stone engravings mourning the losses, especially, “les enfants de la Republique”from 1939 to 1945. In both conflicts, men, women and children like Pvt. Mullins, and 235-troopers of the 4th and 24th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons, made the ultimate sacrifice, foregoing a future that became next generation’s life experience.
Let us also never forget their contributions and sacrifices.