French sailors buried far from home honored Service in Govans cemetery fulfills pledge from 1919

November 05, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

The fast-fading memory of World War I was recalled briefly yesterday in a small corner of Baltimore with the renewal of a 76-year-old pledge to honor four French sailors who died unmourned and far from home.

The men -- in their 20s -- were buried in 1918 in unmarked graves at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Govans, where yesterday speakers in French and English memorialized them and reaffirmed the Franco-American friendship born during the American Revolution.

"It is a unique friendship; we have been side by side since the birth of the United States," declared Cmdr. Daniel Fremont, deputy military attache at the French Embassy in Washington, as a piercing wind whipped the colorful array of U.S., French and American Legion flags held by a Legion color guard.

French Navy Lt. Frederick Sanoner, an exchange professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, said of the long-dead sailors, "They had no families who were identified in France, but they found a larger one here, the American nation."

The bloody four-year conflict in Europe was winding down in October 1918, as several French ships arrived in Baltimore for resupply. Many crewmen already were stricken by the "wartime flu," a pandemic that, in six weeks in October and November, killed 50 million people worldwide, including 5,160 here.

Within days, three sailors died of the influenza. When French authorities found that none had relatives at home, they arranged burial 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 war ended Nov. 11; the ships sailed, and the four men were forgotten -- until the late Emily R. Williams, a World War I Army nurse visiting the cemetery in 1919, found the graves sunken and unmarked.

Learning the circumstances of their deaths, Mrs. Williams "adopted" the four Frenchmen and arranged to have the graves restored. With the help of American Legion comrades, she conducted an annual memorial service from 1919 until she died in 1961.

Three stones mark the graves; two of the men died the same day and were buried together. A monument was built in 1937 with a bronze plaque sent by the French government naming the men -- Joseph Mevel, Louis Gouger, Louis Brazzard, Pierre Chetodal -- and identifying them as "Marins Francais. 1918."

Daniel H. Burkhardt, 79, legion adjutant for Maryland from 1949 until 1982, led yesterday's ceremony, as he has since Mrs. Williams died. He has attended the services annually since 1947 and said, "I promised Mrs. Williams that I would do it as long as I am able. I'd like to do it until I'm 100, but I have several volunteers to take over from me."

Various groups, including the French Benevolent Society, placed floral decorations -- one in the form of an anchor -- at the monument. A seven-man firing squad from Morrell Park Post, No. 137, shattered the silence with a three-volley rifle salute, and Melissa McPherson, a junior member of Hamilton Post, No. 20, sounded Taps.

The ceremony is held on the first Saturday in November, the closest day to Nov. 2, All Souls Day, the traditional day for French families to remember their dead, and a few days before the traditional Nov. 11 remembrance of Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I.

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