Ray Shearer has been in France only two hours, and already he's climbing into a church belfry in the village of Bony, trying to make out a 90-year-old inscription on a weathered bronze bell.
"In memory of Lieutenant Alan Mathews," he reads aloud, translating the French. "Killed in action Aug. 3, 1918."
From the top of the church, Shearer can see the white marble crosses of the Somme American Cemetery. Among them is a headstone for Mathews, a second lieutenant in the 132nd Infantry and Cornell graduate, killed by shell fire when his regiment joined the front line at Albert.
Unknown to all but a few, Bony's church bell belongs to an aging group of private memorials, monuments and isolated burials across France that trace American blood spilled in the two world wars.
Shearer visits and photographs as many of these sites as he can squeeze into his trips for the American Overseas Memorial Day Association (AOMDA), which, with The American Legion's support, places flags at all known graves of U.S. servicemembers in Europe.
As a trustee and secretary, Shearer attends AOMDA's annual board meeting and Memorial Day ceremonies at many of the U.S. cemeteries in France. Years ago, he started taking a few extra days to crisscross the country, curious to learn more about the 183 remote burials that receive U.S. flags from AOMDA every spring.
"Over time, fewer people are aware of the sites," he says. "Nobody could tell me anything about them – who they were, where they were at. So I obtained a list and started going out."
Stanley Hill of Massachusetts survived a fractured skull when a shell exploded near his ambulance as he was evacuating wounded soldiers near Reims on July 15, 1918. He died of meningitis a month later and is buried in a French military cemetery in La Veuve.
Norman DuBois of New Jersey served as a second lieutenant with the 149th Field Artillery. He was killed in action July 15, 1918, and is buried on the north side of a church in Cuperly.
Richard Banks of New York, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Service, was killed in a truck accident Oct. 30, 1918. He's buried in Cimetière du Sud in Nancy.
Shearer has been to their graves, and dozens more like them. When a U.S. flag's out, he'll spot the headstone right away. Other times, having incomplete or inaccurate information, he'll ask le maire – the mayor – or another local for help.
Inevitably, these conversations alert him to a memorial plaque or monument the next town over. They spark friendships, too – from French citizens to U.S. veterans living there, Shearer is finding allies in his efforts to document and preserve sites honoring America's wartime contributions in France.
No Small Task. Lillian Pfluke welcomes Shearer's work. A retired Army major who graduated in the first class of women at West Point in 1980, she spent a decade at the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) in Paris overseeing private memorials – basically, anything that isn't put up by the U.S. government.
ABMC keeps track of, and periodically inspects, assorted statues, plaques, fountains, windows and other markers. Some were gifts to be maintained by their recipients. Others were erected by villages, families or veterans associations. ABMC encourages sponsoring organizations and towns to take care of these, and even allows them to set up a trust fund with ABMC for that purpose. But ABMC doesn't maintain them.
"It's not ABMC's mission to do that, and they don't really have the money to do that," Pfluke says. "I made a lot of headway for them, but I realized I was never going to solve the problem within that constraint."
She left and started a nonprofit foundation, American War Memorials Overseas  (AWMO), to "document, promote and preserve" the nation's wartime legacy. As of March, its online database had recorded 542 private memorials at 310 sites, with 3,206 names and 1,105 units.
Some are especially distant, including the graves of five airmen of the U.S. Army Air Corps in Australia, two plaques in New Zealand commemorating the arrival of the 2nd Marine Division following Guadalcanal, and a monument to Task Force Smith at Osan, South Korea. The lion's share of memorials, though, is in Europe.
"Documenting means finding them all, which is no small task," says Pfluke, who relies on volunteers to photograph sites, describe them, and pinpoint their locations for posting on AWMO's website.
"You can read a book and say, ‘Oh, there's a plaque in Bastogne,' but you'll look a long time for a plaque in Bastogne unless you know exactly where it is. We give GPS coordinates and a good description so people can actually find it."
Preserving private memorials is a greater challenge. Gen. John J. Pershing said of his generation of fighting Americans, "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds." Our memories aren't so fortunate.
In fact, Pershing opposed anything other than official monuments because he feared they'd eventually be neglected, says Peter Herrly, Pfluke's husband and a retired Army colonel and member of the Legion's Paris Post 1.
Nevertheless, there are as many as 800 private memorials in France.
"The sources for them are legion," Herrly says. "Maybe it's a village that saw an airplane shot down and rescued somebody. They saw the other crew die and put up a monument to them. Maybe it's an infantry unit, a stone that says, ‘To the American soldiers from the state of Pennsylvania who fought and sacrificed here.' Well, it doesn't belong to the Army. Who's going to take care of it? Maybe the state of Pennsylvania will, but they have to know about it.
"Maybe it's a mother of a soldier who was killed, and she comes to France or Belgium or Luxembourg to put up a monument to her son. She convinces the village to let her place it there and then she dies. Again, who's going to take care of it?"
The French have a private association, Souvenir Français, to care for their war memorials. Pfluke believes a similar outfit can find long-term maintenance solutions for America's memorials.
Many sites are well cared for by the French, particularly in areas where tourism is a big part of the economy, she says. But other American memorials fall into disrepair as sponsors pass away and personal knowledge about the events disappears. In those cases, AWMO contacts the military unit or local officials to help. Depending on the situation, it may pay for materials and send in volunteers like the Girl Scouts to clean up.
"Often, if we do a renovation, it renews the town's interest in the monument and they jump in to take care of it," Pfluke says.
Sacred Ground. Shearer has a personal connection to World War I. His great-uncle was Maj. Maurice Shearer, who led the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines in the final assault to capture Belleau Wood. On June 26, 1918 – after three weeks of brutal hand-to-hand combat with the Germans, 1,811 killed and 7,966 wounded – he sent the famous message, "Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely."
In 1998, Shearer traveled to France to mark the battle's 80th anniversary, and he returns every year to lay a wreath at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, down the hill from the forest of the legendary teufelshunde – "devil dogs."
He knows the surrounding fields and villages well – Belleau, Torcy, Lucy-le-Bocage, Bouresches. This is where Capt. Lloyd Williams, when advised by a French officer to withdraw, said, "Retreat? Hell, we just got here." Where Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient before he even got to Europe, shouted, "C'mon, you sons of bitches, you want to live forever?" Where 2nd Lt. Tom Ashley charged a German machine-gun nest, fought until he was shot through both hips and the abdomen, and bled to death under a tree.
In Bouresches, Shearer stops at Café de la Place, a small restaurant owned by friends, Magdalena and Jean Myslinski. Inside, faded photos of crumbling buildings remind residents of how the village was nearly destroyed during the war. And on a bulletin board near the bar hangs a story about Pvt. 1st Class George Dilboy, titled "A Soldier's Tale for Those Who Come to Bouresches."
Dilboy was a Greek immigrant to America who fought at the Mexican border in 1916 and 1917. He rejoined the Army to fight in France, where he was killed when the 103rd Infantry encountered German resistance at Bouresches. After his platoon captured a railroad station, Dilboy was fired upon by a machine gunner. Standing on the track and fully exposed, he fixed his bayonet and ran forward. His right leg was nearly severed above the knee, and his body was riddled with bullets, but he continued to fire, killing two of the enemy and dispersing the gun crew. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Magdalena tells Shearer about a new memorial to Dilboy, in the field where he fell on the outskirts of Bouresches. On July 18, 2010 – 91 years after Dilboy's death – villagers joined members of his family in planting an oak tree from his homeland. With Memorial Day approaching, the accompanying plaque is decorated with U.S. and French flags.
Before heading out to see it, Shearer walks through town with Magdalena, who points out walls and roofs that were never repaired after the war. Much of the rebuilding was done using the same stones, she says.
All over Bouresches, more miniature U.S. and French flags wave, including a couple from a street sign bearing the name of Lt. j.g. Weeden Osborne, a Navy dental surgeon and Medal of Honor recipient who was killed in the advance on Bouresches. Osborne was carrying wounded Marine Capt. Donald Duncan to safety when an artillery shell exploded and killed them both instantly.
In a few days, following the Memorial Day ceremony at Aisne Marne, Café de la Place will host guests from the Marine Corps battalions that distinguished themselves at the Battle of Belleau Wood – the 2/6 out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the 3/5 out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Together, they'll toast their predecessors' bravery and sacrifice.
"It's an honor to have them," Magdalena says.
Hearts and Minds. Just opposite the church in Lucy-le-Bocage is an imposing concrete boulder, about five feet across. On the top is a raised star, with a tarnished marker dated June 1, 1918. The Army's 2nd Division placed 24 of these monuments in France, wherever it saw action.
"This is one of the few that still has a bronze plaque," Shearer says. "We don't know what's happened to the others. Could be collectors over the decades. We're trying to get them replaced."
He was able to do something similar in Ville-Savoye, where 2nd Lt. Edward Graham of the 305th Field Artillery died Aug. 21, 1918. Four days earlier, Graham had been relieved because his eyes were inflamed from mustard gas, but he insisted on returning to duty.
Outside a cave used as a shelter by soldiers, Graham and two other men were killed by an exploding shell. For decades, a bronze plaque marked the spot, but when Shearer finally located the cave, the plaque was gone.
"You could see where it had been," he says. "I got together with a few people I knew would support something like this, and we had a new plaque made of granite, with one of those ceramic photos people put on headstones now."
Shearer isn't alone in doing restoration work. Near the village of Jaulny, in northeastern France, the above-ground tomb of Capt. Oliver Cunningham has been repaired and the land around it cleared.
A Yale graduate who fought at Chateau Thierry, Vaux and Belleau Wood, Cunningham was killed by mortar fire on his 24th birthday, Sept. 17, 1918. His comrades of the 15th Field Artillery buried him with military honors where he fell, though he was eventually reinterred at St. Mihiel American Cemetery in Thiaucourt.
When Shearer first looked for Cunningham's tomb, he came up empty, walking within 20 yards of it and turning around when he saw high weeds and downed trees. Making the search more difficult were old instructions that located it 500 meters from the village cemetery. "That could be anywhere," he says.
Shearer then realized that the wooded area had been a field, and tried again. He found the tomb, but it was cracked, and the marble tablets on top were in pieces. Since then, a local group – the Association Lorraine d'Histoire Militaire Contemporaine – has done a complete renovation.
"The mortar has been patched, the tablets have been replaced, and there's a placard on the front," he says. "It looks fabulous. It's a perfect example of the efforts made by many people in France to maintain our memorials."
Some are even building new ones. Jocelyne Papelard loves the United States. She came to the country on a Fulbright scholarship, married an American and became a U.S. citizen. After moving back to France, she joined AOMDA's board, and she takes local schoolchildren to place flowers on soldiers' graves at Epinal American Cemetery for Memorial Day.
Last year, Papelard invited veterans of the 3rd Infantry Division to help inaugurate a monument honoring 18 U.S. soldiers who died to liberate her village of Luxeuil les Bains in 1944. This summer, Army officials from Germany will dedicate a stele for 1st Lt. Robert Booth of the 405th Fighter Squadron, who crashed in the Vosges while trying to deliver relief supplies to the 36th Infantry Division's "Lost Battalion" on Oct. 27, 1944. Both monuments were donated by a Frenchman.
"It isn't important who organizes these ceremonies," Papelard says. "It's that they take place. Not only do we have to keep the memory alive ourselves, we must nurture it in the hearts and minds of our young."
That seems to be the sentiment at Shearer's next two stops, which are also World War II sites. At Perreuil, in eastern France, he pulls over to see a memorial stone for flight officer Leroy Saunders, who died Sept. 4, 1944, when his P-47 Thunderbolt crashed during an armed reconnaissance mission. Saunders stayed with the plane to make sure it didn't hit the village, and until his remains were moved to Epinal, the people of Perreuil guarded his grave. Today, they fly the U.S. flag over his memorial.
In Plottes, Shearer looks around for a plaque on the wall of a small house. He finds it at the town square. This is where the bodies of three crewmembers and six passengers were brought after their B-26 crashed in the woods Nov. 13, 1944. Despite fog warnings, Lt. Richard Hisey flew on toward Longvic, the new home of the 320th Bomb Group. When he descended, trying to find the Saône River, the plane flew into a hillside and burst into flames. The townspeople never forgot, and on the 60th anniversary of the crash, they welcomed relatives of the bomb crew for a memorial celebration, parade and laying of flowers.
Back on the road – somewhere in Allerey is the grave of Pvt. Paul Burton, the first American to die at the camp hospital there in 1918 – Shearer considers what to do with all the information he's collecting. He'd like to share it in some way with Americans who want to personally trace the U.S. military's legacy in Europe.
"It's safe to say that wherever you go in France, you're probably within an hour of an isolated burial or private memorial," he says. "Take the time to visit a site."
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.