Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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The Four Frenchmen Buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery,
Norfolk, Virginia

Erected by American Legion Auxiliary Post No. 36

Many years ago, I came across an interesting newspaper article dated, July 1956. Sacred Heart Catholic Church celebrating Bastille Day (July 14th) in St. Mary’s Catholic cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. A group of parisheners were laying flowers on the graves of four Frenchmen who apparently died in World War I. This was the last time Bastille Day was observed. As I was reading this article, I wondered who were these Frenchmen buried here in St. Mary’s Catholic cemetery? How did they die? How did they get to Norfolk?  What was their story?

In 1918 just after the World War I had ended, a French cruiser called Hellene pulled into Norfolk harbor.  During this time influenza virus was spreading across Europe, the United States, as well as in Norfolk, Virginia. Inside the ship were four very sick men who had come down with the deadly influenza. The four crewmen were immediately taken to old St. Vincent Hospital at the corner of Church and Wood Street. They were given the best care, but within a few days all four men died. The date was December 20, 1918, and all four men were buried together near the corner of St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery that borders our Lafayette Park.

For many years the American Legion paid tribute to these four Frenchmen who passed away right after the Armistice was signed and ending the First World War. The date was eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.

On July 15, 1925, the ladies auxiliary of the American Legion erected a beautiful marble cross and four marble head stones for these four French sailors who were considered heroes. Their names were: Francoise Morrellec, 1882-1918, Auguste E. Besnier, 1883-1918, Yves Pezennec, 1887-1918, and Jean Baptiste Le Forestier 1881-1818.

Interestingly, the histories of our two countries (France and USA) have been closely intertwined since the American Revolution. America and France's friendship were very strong during the First World War. We were allies and France lost so many men during this conflict.

However, on July 15, 1925, the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion, to show their appreciation to France, decided to remember these fine men who died away from home just one month after the Armistice was signed. A ceremony and parade took place here in Norfolk, Virginia. Many organizations decided to join in and marched, followed by soldiers and sailors of France and the USA. Also, a delegation of local officials and visiting French officials including Commander Gripon from the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. were on hand for this big event. They all marched down Main Street to Granby Street to St. Mary’s cemetery. Along the route many locals and especially school children had American and French flags waving as the procession passed. It was this day that France and America renewed their bonds of Friendship over the graves of these four French sailors.

As Judge T. H. Wilcox said in his address, “These Frenchmen whose graves we decorate today died heroes, although they were not in a battle. When I was in France, I saw many Americans who had fallen in the Great War and the women of France keep their graves green. It is fitting we do the same here for these four Frenchmen. The boys of France did not die in France, England or America, they died that the whole world might live in peace.”

But, before I end this narrative, several years ago vandals had broken the large marble cross on the Frenchmen’s lot. Due to two concerned citizens of Virginia Beach, (Pinewell section), Warren Chauncey and Alan Haines brought this vandalism to the attention of the American Legion Post on Tidewater Drive, Norfolk, Virginia. The year was 2020, and within a few months the No. 327 American Legion Post restored the cross and headstones, making the lot more attractive and presentable today.

On May 19, 2021, Rear Admiral Ducellier and the 327 American Legion Post held its first ceremony in 64 years, honoring and remembering these Frenchmen. And due to the efforts of 327 American Legion Post, these four Frenchmen are remembered every May 19th.  The French Consultant and French military and members of the American arm forces are present with their 21 gun salute. After all the speeches and fanfare are over, one can hear in the distance Taps being played in a faraway section of St. Mary’s cemetery.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com