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South Boston remembers fallen soldiers with two saplings brought over from France

The trees planted in Medal of Honor Park last week commemorate a WWI battle in which 34 South Boston residents died.

People passed by one of the trees planted near the memorial at the Medal of Honor Park.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Right now they’re just two small, unobtrusive saplings in Medal of Honor Park. But eventually the two oak trees from the site of a World War I battle where 34 South Boston residents died will tower over the park’s memorial, dedicated to the fallen soldiers.

“They’ll be living memorials,” said Thomas Lyons, chairman of the South Boston Vietnam Memorial Committee.

City workers planted the trees Thursday, and they’ll be dedicated in September — one in honor of fallen veterans from World War I and the Marines killed in battle in all wars.

Lyons, himself a retired Marine corporal who served in Vietnam, said the Battle of Belleau Wood is something of Marine legend. The term “devil dogs” comes from that fight, when German troops used it to refer to Marines. The origins of the moniker are unverified, but the Marine Corps has embraced the term in the years since.


“It was a major turning point in the war,” Lyons said after the ceremony as he looked over the two trees in the middle of the park, each a couple of feet high.

Allied forces’ actions in the Battle of Belleau Wood, which took place near the Marne River in northern France, are credited with repulsing a German advance toward the end of the war in a bloody, multi-day conflict. Marines also view the battle as a core part of their tough front-line identity, elevating it in the eyes of US military commanders and in broader culture. The French government renamed part of the area “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” — Wood of the Marine Brigade.

More than 1,800 Americans died in the battle 105 years ago in June 1918, including, according to Lyons, the nearly three dozen from Southie.

Elected officials and veterans gathered at the Thomas J. Fitzgerald VFW Post #561 in South Boston on Sunday morning before marching a few blocks to the park for a brief wreath-laying ceremony on the eve of Memorial Day.


Members of the nearby Excel High School’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and several Girl Scouts led the way up the hill in the City Point area, with a couple of dozen people including Mayor Michelle Wu, City Council president Ed Flynn, and members of the post.

Under a warm morning sun, Wu, Flynn, and members of the VFW post laid a wreath on the Vietnam Memorial in the park. Other members left small bouquets of flowers; one placed a flag in front of the memorial.

“Boston always stepped up to serve, and Boston always will step up to serve,” Wu said. “The birds, the sounds of kids playing — we enjoy so much that we take for granted day in and day out, and it’s thanks to the sacrifices of those who came before us, those that have given their lives and those families who continue to live with their lives forever changed.”

Flynn, who represents South Boston and is a Navy veteran, said “a grateful nation” continues to honor fallen soldiers.

“Today and every day we remember the sacrifice our Gold Star Families made,” said Flynn, referring to the loved ones of fallen soldiers.

Memorial Day, a federal holiday, has been observed in various forms since the years following the Civil War, and became more nationally recognized following World War I.


Marine Corporal Ryan Sullivan, whose great-grandfather’s brother lends his name to the South Boston VFW post, said in an interview before the ceremony that he recently took a trip to the area of France where an artillery barrage killed Thomas Fitzgerald.

Sullivan said he has felt a calling to bring closure to the unfinished family business of finding out what happened to Fitzgerald in the area around Chouy in northern France.

“He was never found, so I’ve been searching for him,” Sullivan told the Globe. “It’s a somber day to reflect and remember.”

Sean Cotter can be reached at him @cotterreporter.