On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Patricia Flynn stood in a Northeast Baltimore cemetery and saluted four French soldiers who have been dead for more than 90 years.
Flynn came to the service at the urging of her friend, Sharon Citro, who had attended the annual memorial several times before. A few minutes into the hourlong remembrance, it hit Flynn why she felt the urge to go to a funeral on an otherwise pleasant day.
"When I got here, my mind went back to the French people who helped us gain our independence, not only these four people," said Flynn, who lives in East Baltimore. "I'm grateful to all of them."
Flynn had no connection to the soldiers honored at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery but felt an appreciation for their sacrifice, a similar sentiment expressed decades ago by Emily R. Williams, a World War I Army nurse who found the graves sunken and unmarked in 1919.
Williams investigated the circumstances surrounding the foreign soldiers' deaths, then took it upon herself to have the graves restored. With assistance from the American Legion, she held the service from 1919 until she died in 1961. Then memorial has continued every year since, a symbol of French-American friendship, its organizers say.
American Legion District Commander John L. Voigt led Saturday's ceremony, telling the crowd of about 70 people that the honored soldiers had no families. The soldiers were part of a bloody four-year war in Europe and arrived by ship to Baltimore for resupply. Many crewman were stricken by the "wartime flu," a pandemic that killed 50 million people worldwide in six weeks beginning in October 1918.
Days after arriving in Baltimore, three of the soldiers died of the flu. French authorities arranged to have them buried in the farthest corner of St. Mary's, beside another French sailor who had drowned a few weeks earlier while swimming off his ship at Port Covington.
The three tombstones remained at the spot Saturday - two of the soldiers died the same day and are buried beneath one.
Chaplain Ray Glock, a Korean War veteran who gave the benediction, said he jumped at the chance to be part of the ceremony because, "They're veterans, too. We don't care what country they're from. Even though I never met them, it's an honor to do this. And the French, they appreciate it."
The three two-foot tombstones mark the names in bronze writing: Joseph Mevel, chief gunner of the French ship Amaral Cecile, who had drowned in the Baltimore harbor in August 1918; Pierre Chetodal and Louis Brazzard, members of the ship Almendral, buried in the same grave; and Louis Gouger, member of the ship Thiers.
French exchange officer Lt. Robert P. Kroeger brought nine French military students participating in an exchange program with the Naval Academy. Speaking in both French and English, Kroeger addressed the crowd and said, "I ask myself why are we, young and old, civilian and military, Americans and French, gathered here today? We're gathered here around the graves to honor the memory of the brave who died far away from their homes and gave their lives to defend honor and freedom."
A four-man firing squad closed the ceremony with a three-volley riffle salute, and Mark Zaruba, of Morrell Park Post 137, played taps.
The ceremony is held on the first Saturday in November, the closest day to Nov. 2, which is the traditional day for French families to remember their dead. The service was also part of the 160th anniversary celebration for St. Mary of the Assumption, which has helped organize the event the last 10 years.