SYRACUSE, NY (October 16, 2003) -- As Eugene Lee, a native of Liverpool, NY, enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War I, he never thought that he
would one day be the Oldest Marine alive at 104 years old, a survivor of the Battle of Belleau Wood and a Silver Star recipient.
According to Maj. Daniel C. Kane, Inspector-Instructor at Marine Corps Reserve Center, Syracuse, NY, who during his tour as I&I has acted as the liaison between Lee and the Marine Corps, Lee's status as the Oldest Marine was discovered only recently.
"I called Headquarters Marine Corps to see who the Oldest Marine alive on record was. They told me a 103 year-old Marine living in Florida was the Oldest Marine. I told them I had them beat," explained Kane, with a sense of pride that indicated he viewed Lee as a cherished member of the local Marine Corps community.
Lee has been a member of the Marine Corps community for well over three quarters of a century.
"I always thought the Marines were wonderful. From a kid up, I wanted to be a Marine," Lee declared boldly. "I became a Marine as soon as I was old enough. I joined the Marines when I was 18 years old and maybe three weeks or so." At that time having a high school diploma or an equivalent degree was not an enlistment requirement of the Marine Corps. Lee, who has seen three centuries, had neither.
"I told my mother I was going in. She said it was okay," he mentioned, reflecting a time when being over 18 did not negate a young man's moral responsibility to honor his mother and father by asking for permission, even if it wasn't legally required.
"I was sworn in three different times: when I was recruited in Syracuse; and then Buffalo; and then down in the Philadelphia Navy Yard."
Lee learned to be a Marine at the Philadelphia Navy Yard just before being shipped to France. "That's when they trained us to do things. They put us on the rifle range. Then we came back, packed up, and they put us on board ship.
"We stayed in New York Harbor for, I dunno, two or three days, I guess. Then we started to cross. It was thirteen days getting over there, on account of the submarines. We were the first convoy over," Lee said of his journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Lee was with the 51st Company, 5th Marine Regiment. "They put us in with the 2nd Division, the Indian Head."
"After I first got there I had what they called the German Measles. They kept me in the tent."
While Lee's memory stretched back to a distant land and time, his eyes sparkled as youthful scene flashed across his mind. He recalled men, Marines from his unit. He remembered 5th Marines commander Col. Wendell Neville, who would later become Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1929-1930. "I didn't see much of 'em," Lee joked dropping a subtle innuendo about his junior enlisted rank at the time.
Another name that brought up strong memories was his battalion commander Lt. Col. Frederick Wise. "Oh, Yeah! I remember him! I don't know whether the fellas liked him too well."
On the first day of the Battle of Belleau Wood, June 1, 1918, 2nd Division troops dug in along a defensive line just north of the village of Lucy-le-Bocage. Capt. Lloyd Williams when advised by French officers to withdraw, replied, "Retreat, Hell! We just got here!" Williams did not survive the battle.
Lee recalled a time he knew Williams, a face with a name from more than an average lifetime ago. Lee struggled to reconstruct the mental scene that surrounded Williams' face. He seemed to resign the effort though when he looked about at the faces surrounding him and realized that none of them could relate to what he was picturing because, even the oldest was young enough to be his grandson.
As Lee's mind played back the footage of his Marine years, the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood came into focus.
"The way we got to Belleau Wood, they had to transport us from some place. They put us on some road starting to move towards Belleau Wood. We met all these refugees that were coming back, old people and ones they could carry and all. I felt sorry for 'em.
"There was one French soldier. He was walking back. He stopped. He just kept hollering, 'beau coups boche.'
"We got up there and they split us out into formation. They had the first wave go so far. They kept on firing in the woods there. The next wave would come and jump over them and they'd go so far, and would fire till they got in the edge of the woods." Lee explained that the wave would advance in a leapfrog manner. He was in the third wave. It took four waves across the field to make it to the wood line.
Lee stopped talking as the memories brought on a wave of emotions he couldn't withstand. He dropped the dignified air that a man of his years is accustomed to carrying and sobbed uncontrollably for a brief moment.
"I'm a damned fool!" Lee whimpered out, ashamed of his tears.
When Lee regained his composure he returned to his first hand account of the Battle of Belleau Wood. He explained how one wave of Marines would rush forward a number of yards. As that wave dove to the ground and began firing across the field at the German positions imbedded in the woods, another wave would come from behind. The second wave would run past the third wave as far as the first wave had run.
"I remember a sergeant. He was the first man I seen fall. Before we got to the woods, I seen him fall from view."
Lee wasn't sure how many Marines made it to the wood line with him. "When we got to the woods, there was fighting in there." His voice trembled after the comma of the previous sentence as another memory returned him to tears. He recovered more quickly, with the same courage it must have taken to overcome the fear experienced during the up-close fighting in the French woods. What kind of battle caused a Marine's voice to waiver after 86 years?
"When we got fighting in the woods there, we were mixed up," Lee said. The fear that comes from the disorienting confusion know as the fog of war, which Lee must have been experiencing at that moment in time back then, could still be heard in his voice as his few words implied so much.
"After we got settled there, I helped carry some of the fellas back so far," he said modestly.
The Battle of Belleau Wood raged from June 6 to 26, 1918. There were 9,777 U.S. casualties, of which 1,811 were fatal.
Lee received the Silver Star for his actions at Belleau Wood.
He went on to talk about his experience at the end of the war when the news of the armistice came to his unit Nov. 11, 1918. "The morning of the 11th we had crossed the river and laid on the bank. Nobody had fired a shot. It was all quiet.
"When it come 11 o'clock, way up on the hill a fella came 'long waving a white flag. He started walking down the hill with an aid. One of our officers walked out there and met him.
"When they met, the German soldiers... they come running down the hill. They didn't have any guns. Our fellas got up.
"Some could speak German and some of the Germans could speak English. That's the way we celebrated the armistice. That was the end."
Throughout World War I Lee never needed to use his mask. "We had some kind of a gas mask, but we didn't get any gas," Lee explained with a slight tone of scorn in his voice meant for those historians who portray World War I as time were every shot was fired by Marines wearing chemical protective masks.
According to Lee, God brought him safely through World War I. "I think He helped me all the time."
After the war, Lee came home with a composite regiment. "We paraded in England, Philadelphia and New York."
When Lee's time as an active duty Marine ended, he returned to Syracuse and took up employment with the Syracuse Lighting Company.
Lee met his wife while skating one crisp up-state New York winter morning, in a time when fires were still used for warmth and entertainment. His wife of 63 years has gone on ahead of him. They never had any children. His only surviving relative is a niece who resides in Ohio.
Lee moved out of his home in March, and into the retirement ward of an up-state New York hospital.
Lee told a story he has told many times since it actually happened. He didn't tell his story from the retrospect of the history books, including large-scale details he wasn't privy to at the time. Instead he told his story as thought it happened to him yesterday. He spoke only of what he lived.
Lee didn't have any disparaging comments about the country he once helped to liberate. There was no mention about France's lack of support for the current endeavors of the United States. He did his best to keep tears from falling as his words memorialized his youthful companions who fought and died by his side as they liberated France from it's German attackers for the first, but not the last time in American history.
As Lee talked about the carnage he experienced at Belleau Wood, the thin veil of time and space separating that time from this one seemed to dissolve for a little while as Eugene's memories flooded the room. The small room he now resides in quickly filled up with many unseen Marines. Those Marines of long ago were the only ones who knew what Lee was feeling. They were the only ones who could truly relate to his story.
There were a few times Lee seemed lost for a moment, like a straggler left behind in this world while the rest of his generation had already gone on to the next.
An honorary high school diploma on Lee's wall was presented to him by Liverpool High School in 2000.
At 104, his long life is a matter for careful consideration. Lee attributes his longevity to several factors. God's grace is the primary reason, followed by the facts that he quit smoking 64 years ago, stayed out of trouble, and never did drugs. Lee urged today's youth to stay out of trouble and never pick up cigarettes or drugs.
Lee gave a message to all young men who are considering becoming one of the few and the proud by earning the title of United States Marine, "they couldn't get in a better force."
Eighty-six years after earning the title, Lee still takes great pride in being a Marine. "I'll always be proud of being a Marine, always," he declared with tears filling up in his eyes once more.
At 104 years old, Eugene Lee is the Oldest Living Marine. Lee, who fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood during World War I, resides in the retirement ward of an up-state NY hospital. Photo by: Staff Sgt Jonathan Moor