On June 28, 1914 the heir-apparent to the Hapsburg throne in Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by an 18-year-old student radical no one ever heard of while visiting Sarajevo, Serbia. In truth the Archduke was not exactly “loved” in his own country, and one might not have expected the event to deserve more than a headline or two in a Europe where such events were not all that uncommon, but thirty days later an insulted Austria declared war on Serbia. Upon that action a series of mutual defense treaties began to come into play. First Germany declared war on Russia, then within another few days, Belgium and France. On August 4th, Great Britain declared herself at war with Germany, and the dominoes of history came tumbling down. Within weeks twenty-seven nations had declared war, and what became known as “The Great War” (eventually World War I), and “the war to end all wars” was underway.
World War I – “The Great War” – had been going on for three years, and twenty million were already dead before President Woodrow Wilson on April 6, 1917 finally got around to involving the United States. A surge of patriotism swept the country, and on May 3rd, 1917, Identical twins from Washington State named Auburn and Oscar enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, along with many of the Skagit county boys they had grown up with. They became the subject of some notoriety and a front page newspaper article when it was discovered that every inch of their body dimensions, and even some of their finger prints were identical.
They trained together in California, where their superb marksmanship on the rifle range quickly got them noticed. Soon they were on their way to the battlefields of France, where the boys from Skagit County became the backbone of the 20th Company, 5th Marine Regiment. There, the twins were permitted to serve in the same Company, but not in the same squad.
By June, 1918, the war was not going well for the Allies, and the Germans were poised to finally capture Paris. As the French retreated from the lines they had been holding near Chateau Thierry, about 30 miles short of their capitol city, the Marines were left to carry out a poorly-planned attack, across a field of wheat and oats to the side of a copse of forest growth known as Belleau Wood – a small patch of landscape which was about to make the United States Marines the legendary service branch it has been ever since. No one told Major Berry’s Marine Brigade the Wood was filled with a numerically-superior German force whose machine guns had been laid out to cover every square yard of the open field. At dawn on June 6th, the 5th Marines launched the attack, with the 20th Company out front. Auburn’s squad was decimated by enemy fire, and he himself was felled by grenade shrapnel to the head and face. Oscar’s squad soon passed by, and Oscar saw enough to be sure his brother was dead. Spurred on by that knowledge, in the hours and days to follow, his intelligence missions behind enemy lines would win him the Navy Cross and make him one of the most decorated Marines of the Great War.
As the grim battle swirled around him, Auburn was passed over by medics who left him with the dead where he lay until nightfall when those who came to collect the dead – Germans and Americans alike – determined he was alive. He would eventually spend nearly a year in hospitals in France and the U.S., much of that time unable to utter a word through the bandaged and wired facial wounds.
In a Naval hospital on the east coast he would meet a red-headed volunteer who would become his wife. They honey-mooned back in Washington, where the twins from Skagit County would be briefly reunited. Over the next forty years, divided by a continent, they would see each other only one more time.
The Battle of Belleau Wood is seen by historians as the turning point in the Great War – the “Gettysburg” of World War One. It gave the Marines the nickname “Devil Dogs” and defined the Corps forever after. The wounded and scarred twin from Skagit County refused the Purple Heart, and did not think he had done anything special. But he was a “hero” and a quiet inspiration to his four sons, two of whom would see action in other wars, and two who would become Marines. His full name was Auburn Forest Cooper, and he was my Dad. Not all of his wounds could be treated and he died too young. On June 6th, every year, I proudly place his circular dog tag and the attached globe-and-anchor emblem from his uniform around my neck as I dress for the day. He taught me all I needed to know about honor.