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French sailors still remembered, 73 years after their deaths

A weathered marble gravestone marks the grave of French sailor Joseph Mezel, one of the four French sailors buried in the St. Mary's of the Assumption Cemetery in Homeland. The church will hold a memorial service for the sailors Nov. 5 at 11. a.m. in the cemetery located in the 200 block of Homeland Avenue.
A weathered marble gravestone marks the grave of French sailor Joseph Mezel, one of the four French sailors buried in the St. Mary's of the Assumption Cemetery in Homeland. The church will hold a memorial service for the sailors Nov. 5 at 11. a.m. in the cemetery located in the 200 block of Homeland Avenue. (Photo by Karen Jackson)

At the far back of St. Mary of the Assumption Cemetery in Homeland sits a cluster of little-known headstones for four French sailors who died in the Baltimore Harbor during World War I.

On Saturday, Nov. 5, the Baltimore District of the American Legion will hold a memorial burial service for the sailors at the cemetery in the 200 block of Homeland Avenue, next door to the Knights of Columbus hall.

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It's an annual tradition that dates back to the 1920s.

Maxine Canty, Baltimore district commander for the American Legion, will be attending the half-hour service at 11 a.m., as she does every year. Also attending will be Marilyn Murray and Lance Bendann, both members of the History Committee of St. Mary of the Assumption Church, in Govans, who live in Homeland. The church owns the nearby cemetery and maintains the sailors' graves.

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"It is part of our history, and it's a very moving ceremony," Murray said. "It kind of keeps a certain tradition alive."

The so-called "Four Frenchmen" memorial service typically includes a gun salute, the playing of "Taps," and the singing of the French and U.S. national anthems, Murray said. Most years, a representative of France comes, sometimes from the French Embassy, she said.

On Nov. 6, the church will celebrate its anniversary. That always happens the following day, so that the two ceremonies coincide. This year marks the church's 162nd anniversary.

It's not clear why the French Navy reservists — Pierre Chatodal, Louis Brazzard, Louis Gouger and Joseph Mevel — were here at the time of their deaths in 1918. Three died in the great influenza epidemic of that year and the fourth, Mevel, a 23-year-old chief gunner from Brest, France, drowned in Port Covington while swimming. All received a military funeral at St. Mary church, according to an official American Legion report in 1947.

Now, they are immortalized with a small headstone that bears their names on a bronze plaque and three even smaller gravestones. It's also not clear why there are only three gravestones for four men. Two of the names are inscribed on one of the stones.

But collectively, they make an idyllic plot near the back fence, overlooking the old church pastor's house and a small creek.

"I think at some point, we may have reset them," said Bendann, peering at the words of the stones.

"Marin Francais," says the stone with all four names, identifying them as French mariners.

Officials here couldn't locate next of kin for the sailors, so they asked St. Mary of the Assumption to bury them in the cemetery.

"After that, nobody paid much attention," Murray said.

But in 1919, Emily Raine Williams came to the cemetery looking for the grave of Marie Moss, the first Maryland U.S. Army nurse to die in service to her country.

Williams came upon the sailors' graves, sunken and untended; and became their benefactor, personally gathering wildflowers from an adjoining field to cover each mound, according to the American Legion report.

"Each year thereafter, she came to this cemetery with a French flag and the American Legion poppy for each grave."

Williams too could find no trace of next of kin, so she convinced the American Legion to take over the responsibility of caring for the graves and holding an annual ceremony in the sailors' honor. She served as chairman of the event until 1959 and died two years later at age 82. She is interred at the top of the hill of the U.S. National Cemetery in Baltimore, according to the report.

The bronze plaque on the largest headstone was commissioned by former French Consul John Phelps, chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the report states.

Canty, the American Legion's Baltimore district commander since 2001, said she comes every year and still looks forward to it.

"The first year I went, I cried," Canty said. "And it takes a lot to make me do that."

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