The Battle of Belleau Wood holds an important place in Marine Corps lore – alongside Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Hue City and Fallujah. During that battle, a brigade of Marines was part of a two-division American force that helped turn back a German assault involving elements of five divisions.
But how would a modern Marine brigade handle that battle?
The Marine Expeditionary Brigade of today is an immensely powerful force, with a reinforced regiment of Marine infantry, a Marine air group, and loads of combat support elements. This is usually a total of 14,500 Marines all-included. Don’t forget – every Marine is a rifleman, but the ones who do other jobs will really leave a mark on the Germans.
How will the gear of the MEB stack up to those of the Germans? Well, in terms of the infantry rifle, there are two very different animals. The Marines will use the M16A4, firing a 5.56mm NATO round that has an effective range of 550 meters. The Germans have the famous Gewehr 98, with a range of 500 meters. More importantly, the M16A4 is a select-fire assault rifle, while the Gewehr 98 is a bolt-action rifle.
In other words, the individual Marine has the individual German outgunned. Furthermore, with optics, the Marines are going to have much more accuracy in addition to a much higher rate of fire.
For the Germans, it gets worse when one looks at other gear the modern Marine brigade has available. In a given fire team, there are two M16A4s, a M249 SAW or M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle, and a M16A4 with a M203 grenade launcher. The MG08 may have an edge over the M240 that a Marine company might bring into the fight, but where the Germans will really get chewed up is when they try to attack a MEB’s 18 M2 heavy machine guns and 18 Mk 19 automatic grenade launchers.
As the Germans break themselves on the Marine defenses, the Marine counter-attack will be devastating. M777 Howitzers will fire Copperhead and Excalibur guided projectiles to guarantee hits on German strong points. Marine M224 60mm mortars and M252 81mm mortars will add to the bombardment, and can also lay smoke.
Furthermore, Marine brigades will attack at night. The Germans do not have night-vision goggles or even IR viewers. The Marines do. The Marines will also be able to use AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles, LAV-25 light armored vehicles, and M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks to provide direct support. The BGM-71 TOW and FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles the brigade have will also help decimate German fortifications.
We’re not even touching what the air component of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade, three squadrons of AV-8B+ Harriers and two of F/A-18s, plus assorted helicopters, would be capable of doing. Let’s just say that Joint Direct Attack Munitions on fortifications and cluster bombs on infantry in the open would be a decisive advantage for the MEB.
The Battle of Belleau Wood lasted for 26 days in June 1918 — nearly a month of vicious combat that left 1,811 Americans dead. A modern Marine brigade would likely win this battle in about 26 hours, and they’d suffer far fewer casualties doing so.