On a World War I battlefield that became America's biggest cemetery in Europe, U.S. "doughboys" were remembered Saturday for the bloody fight that spelled the end of the war.
U.S. and French war jets swooped over the cemetery 80 years to the day Gen. John Pershing and his American Expeditionary Force launched the Meuse-Argonne offensive in eastern France to break through German lines.American soldiers fired salvos into the air and military bands from both countries played at the ceremony that paid tribute to the thousands buried there as well as the dwindling number of living veterans left, too feeble to attend.
"Soon the generation that remembers the privations and horrors of that most brutal of all wars will no longer be with us," U.S. Army Secretary Louis Caldera told the gathering of about 1,000 invited guests.
"It is only fitting that we should take this last opportunity to thank them," he said, steps way from vast rows of marble tombstones, each with a small American and French flag planted in the grass.
"The memory of their sacrifices will live forever," he said.
Veteran Affairs Secretary Togo West Jr. and French Veterans Minister Jean-Pierre Masseret joined in placing wreaths.
"We have remembered these American soldiers for 80 years. We remember them today. We will never stop remembering," West said.
Masseret, whose government this year is honoring Allied veterans with the Legion of Honor, rendered "tribute to their courage and their spirit of sacrifice. . . . We, too, must be soldiers for peace."
With 1.2 million American soldiers, the Meuse-Argonne offensive was the largest battle of the U.S. war effort. Less than seven weeks later the war ended with the Nov. 11 armistice, leaving more than 116,000 Americans and millions of other troops dead.
After being elected on a peace platform, President Woodrow Wilson was suddenly pressed to send the country to war in 1917. "These were young kids with a tiny leavening of army guys," said Col. Peter Herrly, a defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.