Published Tuesday Jul 17, 2018
Walking across the French wheat field where the historic World War I Battle of Belleau Wood happened, dressed as a WWI Marine and carrying a machine gun just as soldiers did 100 years ago, Michael Burduck could feel the weight of the battle’s history.
With decades of experience doing living history events, Burduck has portrayed military personnel from WWI, World War II and the Korean War, bringing back his experiences to his literature students at Tennessee Tech.
“History and literature go hand-in-hand,” Burduck said. “As a literature professor, I always try to place literature in the context of its time. The best way to put literature into the context of its time for our students is to actually look a little bit into the history, give them a little bit of history in class. I have always done that.”
In 2014, Burduck was invited to join the Parris Island Living History Detachment, affiliated with the Parris Island Museum, working with the Marine Corps.
“I have always been interested in military history, and the chance to actually serve alongside Marines is the chance of a lifetime,” Burduck said. “To be accepted by them is an honor. I didn’t serve, but as they often tell me, I am doing my part now.”
The detachment travels around the country, doing public presentations and living history events on Marine Corps history. They also join new Marine recruits for an exercise called The Crucible, where soon-to-be Marines participate in a 9-mile march and a series of challenges as a capstone of their recruitment training.
Burduck and other living historians stand along the march route, in period clothing, stepping out of the dark to motivate the Marine recruits and remind them of the history of the Marine Corps.
The Battle of Belleau Wood is a big part of that history.
At exactly 5 p.m. on June 6, 1918, the Marines stepped out and began walking across a wheat field toward Belleau Wood, which was filled with Germans. The Germans fired their machine guns, but Marines kept coming. Three weeks later, the Marines had cleared the wood of Germans.
“The battle was one that historians say gave birth to the modern Marine Corps,” Burduck said. “It was in that battle that the Marine Corps made its mark on military history.”
The first day of that battle, the Marines lost almost 1,100 men, which was more than they had lost in their entire previous history since being established in 1775.
Despite machine gun fire, poison gas, extremely hot weather and facing up to five days at a time without food or water, the Marines held the line and prevented the Germans from advancing toward Paris.
Exactly 100 years later, at 5 p.m. on June 6, 2018, Burduck was among the living historians, some retired Marines themselves, who marched across the same field, where wheat is still grown and remnants of hastily dug trenches and shell holes from artillery explosions remain.
“We were there to commemorate those Marines who gave their lives and the ones who survived,” Burduck said. “We made it in, but they weren’t shooting at us.”
The event was more than four years in the making as Marine Corps leaders wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle, providing the detachment with travel and accommodations in France for the trip.
Burduck describes the experience as an extreme honor to work with the Marines, but it was also a reflective experience as they visited the American cemetery near the site.
“Walking through the cemetery looking at the crosses, I got a little bit angry,” Burduck said. “Why did those young people die? What did it achieve? These were young men, like I see in my classes. They said it was the war to end all wars, but 20 or so years later another war started.”
The history of the military, which Burduck has a great respect for, is something he often shares with those students in his classes at Tech, and his experience at Belleau Wood is one he is sure to share.
“Working with the Marines is both inspirational and motivational,” Burduck said. “The Marines teach honor, courage and commitment. We could all use those things. We could all learn something from the Marines.”
The Parris Island Living History Detachment worked with the Marine Corps to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood. In back, from left, are detachment members Steve Price, Fred Channels, Rick Winnen and Tech literature professor Mike Burduck; active duty Marine John Gibson; and detachment members John Dow, Frank LeClerc and Fielding Freed. In front are detachment members Tim Hodge, Tom Rock and Eric Junger.