Walking across the Suresnes American Cemetery near Paris, I was surrounded by more than 1,500 headstones. Most were Latin crosses. Twenty-two were stars of David, and 974 tablets honored the missing. These are the final markers of men and women who gave their lives in Europe while in the service of the United States, during World War I.
“Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,” American Expeditionary Forces Gen. John Pershing promises in the cemetery brochure.
Since the end of World War I, the American Legion Department of France has maintained the Legion’s presence in Europe. And, like many posts in that department, the members of Paris Post 1 have taken on the special responsibility of performing ceremonial duties to remember those Americans who have fought for justice, freedom and democracy in Europe over the past century.
In that first great “war to end all wars,” more than 53,000 Americans lost their lives to combat in Europe and its waters. Over double that number died from disease and other causes during the war.
Although they were originally buried at more than 2,400 locations across the continent, plans were made to create eight permanent American cemeteries so that the glory of their deeds shall never be diminished or forgotten.
Paris Post 1 Past Commander Carl Hale first learned of The American Legion when he was assigned to the U.S. mission to NATO in Brussels. When a Legion member invited him to Memorial Day services he recalls visiting three of the cemeteries where heroes of the Great War rest – the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery, the Ardennes Cemetery and Flanders Field American Cemetery. Hale also spoke of escorting three national commanders who visited the department to honor the fallen. He escorted them to Colleville-sur-Mer, the American cemetery in Normandy, Utah beach, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc and Ste.-Mere-Eglise.
After World War I, the City of Paris granted The American Legion a small plot of land in the Cimetiere de Neuilly. In the 1930s, the Paris post built a mausoleum on the site. Since then, more than 300 Paris Post 1 members have been interred there. Post members, who consider themselves guardians of the mausoleum, maintain it on behalf of their American Legion comrades who reside there in Post Everlasting.
The post conducts ceremonies at the mausoleum throughout the year. I asked Paris Post 1 Auxiliary President Ginette Crosley about her motivation. Her answer came easy, “Because I married an American soldier. He was devoted to The American Legion.”
A tear came to her eye as she continued. “I have to continue helping all the people who depend on the Auxiliary and the Legion Family.”
Paris Post 1 continues to support U.S. memorials and monuments that are not only related to the organization but also those that pay respect to all American fighting men and women of the world wars, and those of the Allies.
Paris Post 1 maintains an original seat on the comité de la flamme, an association in charge of ceremonially reviving the Eternal Flame of the French Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located under the Arc de Triomphe. Throughout the year – and specifically on the Fourth of July – the post participates in the ravivage de la flamme, or rekindling of the flame.
“We honor our allies who served here in France because that unknown soldier could have served with an American soldier,” Hale explains.
The Lafayette Escadrille is a memorial outside of Paris dedicated to the 269 American pilots who volunteered to fly and fight with French squadrons prior to the United States officially entering World War I. Although they were scattered throughout various squadrons under French command, the American flyers were collectively known as the Lafayette Flying Corps.
The Lafayette Escadrille memorial, which received American Legion support both at its construction in the late 1920s and again through the Legion’s Overseas Graves Decoration Trust Fund for a major renovation in 2015, is now under management of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Paris Post 1 Commander Bryan Schell says U.S. families often communicate with the Legionnaires in France, looking for the final resting places or monuments that honor family members. “We receive emails and correspondence from families searching for their loved ones. We have veterans groups in the United States where we help them create memorials over here.”
Schell told of a specific event in which a family of a deceased Legionnaire had contacted him in search of his grave. Their grandfather, Sgt. Joseph Hughes, had sailed from New Jersey to enter the fighting in World War I. After the war, he married a French woman and stayed in Europe, passing away before World War II began. His family then immigrated to the United States. “We were able to gratefully get them connected and let them know that their grandfather is at our mausoleum,” Schell said.
Serving our current veterans and those who have passed is part of the legacy Paris Post 1 hopes to continue. As Hale put it, “As long as we have an ambassador in France, we will serve to maintain that memory. That’s our duty.”
Jeric Wilhelmsen is a member of American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood, Calif., and co-host of “To Strengthen a Nation,” a series of videos on the history of the nation’s largest veterans organization.