In 1917 Walter J. Cox, walked into the recruiting station in Filer, Idaho, and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Before departing for service, he left his homestead claim on Buck Flat on the upper Bruneau with my father, saying if he did not return it was his. With thousands of other Marines, Walter was killed in the bitter fighting around Belleau Wood where more Marines were killed than in all the previous history of the Corps combined. His brother Wallace, a member of the field artillery of the Army’s 42nd division, was killed in the Battle of Croix Rouge Farm less than two weeks later.
In time Walter’s homestead claim devolved to my brother and I, where it remained until a few years ago when we decided to sell the land. My wife Mary and I used our share of the proceeds on a Veteran’s Day trip to the American military cemeteries in France where the dead from those two pivotal battles were buried.
It was the trip of a lifetime, but not without complications. Walter’s body was never found, but he is memorialized on the Wall of the Missing at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery below that of Pvt. James L. Corey. Wallace is buried at the Oise-Aisne Cemetery some 20 miles away. Rather than try to squeeze both cemeteries into a one-day visit, we decided to go Aisne-Marne on November 10 and Oise-Aisne the following day—which is still known as Armistice Day in France. It was a wise decision.
At Aisne-Marne we learned that they have tried to compile files on each of the over 3,000 casualties buried (or memorialized) there. The file for Walter provided information no one in our family knew. In the 1980s a former marine visited the cemetery with his son. The latter reported that his father located the foxhole where he and fellow marines Cox and Corey “were taking a heavy toll on the Germans until a German sniper killed Cox and Corey. A bullet, apparently from the same sniper, shattered the telescopic sight on the father’s rifle. He buried them in that hole at the end of the day.” Appropriately, alphabetical order has placed Cox and Corey close to one another on the Wall of the Missing.
The following day we journeyed Oise-Aisne Cemetery where a marvelous Armistice Day ceremony was held. French troops and veterans dressed in World War I uniforms joined American troops to form the color guard. Planes from the France’s Navarre Squadron did a flyover. Theodore Roosevelt IV gave introductory remarks and the military band played the French and American national anthems before French military representatives laid wreathes of red, white and blue flowers around the base of the American flag at the center of the entry rotunda. The flags of the French units were lowered and the color guard fired volleys in salute. A bugler from the U.S. Army Band Europe then played the French and American Taps, and after a moment of silence the French flags snapped to attention and members of the body marched back the way they had come. There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd.
As people dispersed for ceremonies elsewhere, Mary and I lingered behind hoping that we might be able to locate Walter’s gravesite. As we pondered how to proceed an attractive young Frenchwoman on a golf cart, one Nathalie Le Barbier, drove down the central walkway that extended from the memorial chapel at the top of the hill to the rotunda with the America flag. “Can I help you?” she asked.
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Told that were hoping to locate the grave of Walter J. Cox, she promptly replied: “Oh, it is in Section B, Row 3, Gravesite 3.”
“Wow, how’d you do that?” I asked, “There are over 6,000 interred here.”
“Oh, I have them all memorized,” she replied, and after a brief pause laughingly added, “I lie, they phoned over from Aisne-Marne yesterday and said you were coming, so I looked up his location. I stayed until we closed at 5:00 yesterday hoping to see you. Today is supposed to be my day off, but I came back hoping you might come today, after all there aren’t many next of kin still able to visit.”
Impressed, we thanked her for her efforts, adding that it was nice to know that someone in France remembers the sacrifices Americans made. “Oh, we remember,” she replied, “If it weren’t for you I’d probably be speaking German.”
She may well have been right. The battles surrounding Belleau Wood and the Rouge Croix Farm, together with the Second Battle of the Marne, blunted the last major German offensive not more than 75 miles from Paris and opened the way for the Allied offensive that, three months later, would culminate in Germany’s capitulation.
Mme Le Barbier pointed out the location of Section B and left us for some private time with what we found there. The memories linger still.