Memorial Day - Honoring the Fallen

Honoring the Fallen: Laying Wreaths… LEST WE FORGET

Monday, May 31st was Memorial Day. An Action Hour co-sponsored by DAF Grenoble, Marseilles, Brittany, the DAF Veterans and Military Families (VMF) Caucus and DA France gave US veterans and military family members of DA France and DA Germany an opportunity to tell their stories and say who they would like to honor and remember on this day. Another Action Hour item was calling Senators and Representatives to ask them to urge the VA to provide vaccinations for veterans living abroad.

Sunday, May 30th. Laying wreaths for Memorial Day was different this year. There were no public gatherings at the ABMC cemeteries in France except at Suresnes (photo left) and the Lafayette Monument (photo right) but DA France was still able to honor the men and women who lost their lives during WWl and WWll.  


Wreaths were sent for the limited-attendance ceremonies around France performed by the cemetery staff at: the Belleau Wood, Oise-Aisne, Meuse-Argonne, St. James, Epinal and Colleville-sur-Mer. The Toulouse Chapter laid wreaths to honor two OSS Commandos downed during WWII in the Tarn.

Rebecca White, Treasurer DAF Toulouse, Tarn

To further mark Memorial Day, DAF VMF Caucus members joined the American Legion Paris Post 1 at the Mausoleum in Neuilly-sur-Seine and attended the dedication ceremony to celebrate the recent reopening of Pershing Hall.


Pershing Hall Dedication Ceremony                                      American Legion Mausoleum, Neuilly-sur-Seine

After the ceremonies, wreaths were placed on graves of the African American, Asian American, Native American and Jewish communities. At Belleau Wood and Oise-Aisne cemeteries, two very learned guide-staffers gave the DAF VMF caucus representatives a lively, instructive, historical tour. Wreaths were laid on the grave of an African-American soldier from the Pioneer Infantry at Belleau Wood and a Native American at Oise-Aisne. At Suresnes, Tilly Gaillard placed the wreath on the grave of a Polish Jew who had joined the American Red Cross during WW1.

Below are articles we would like to share about three cemeteries east of Paris:

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery (Belleau Wood), often called the Marine Mecca, is situated at the foot of Belleau Woods. The cemetery was badly damaged during WWII and was meticulously restored after the War. A bullet in the Chapel wall has been kept as a reminder. The names of 1060 servicemen ‘missing in action’, including that of a 16-year-old enlisted youngster, have been engraved on the Chapel walls. In the cemetery there are 250 unidentified servicemen. Most of these soldiers fought in the Marne. The DAF wreath was placed on the grave of an Afro-American from the Pioneer Infantry (WW1). He is buried next to a white General.

Although the conflict began in 1914, the US did not enter the war until April 1917 and only then because of two main catalysts: the torpedo bombing of the Lithuania and, more importantly, the German offer to give US territory to Mexico, if Mexico joined the Central Powers (Germany et al.). The US was outraged and considered this a Declaration of War. At the time, the US had an army of only 200,000 servicemen which President Wilson realized was far too small, and thus he called for the draft.

Before the American troops could even come to the Marne, roads had to be cleared or constructed for the transport of weapons and equipment. President Wilson conscripted the American Forestry Service to clear the forests and railways of fallen trees and to build an infrastructure. Two African American battalions also participated in this construction.  Meanwhile, the US troops, mostly without any military experience, were being organized and trained. Training started in the US, then continued in France. The troops finally entered into battle in June 1918 but having been trained in old school warfare, were not prepared for the new German warfare with its machine guns, poisonous gas and tanks. The first American servicemen to go to battle in the Marne were the Marines, who were unprepared for the attacks by the more modern Germans. 

In spring 1918 the Germans attacked the French Army who was taken by surprise, overwhelmed and in a state of panic. The Germans captured the town of Château Thierry but did not cross the Marne River because their weapons and supplies were running short. The Germans were just 50 miles east of Paris.  On May 27, 1918, General Pershing, the Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces sent three battalions to the area, each composed of 24,000-28,000 men, more than double the French military presence.  In the meantime, the Germans had managed to cross the mountains to Belleau Wood, where they were well hidden in the forest and ready to fight.  Along the forest were knee-high wheat fields, which left anyone attacking them with no cover.

Three American Battalions, including Marines, were approaching the area. On June 2nd, the Germans opened fire, but with no cover and obsolete warfare methods, the result was a disaster for the Americans. Only 24 of the 250 Marines survived. They managed to retreat to the nearby town of Bouresche and to fight off the Germans by their pure marksmanship. The Germans had been fighting for three years were tired and worn down. The Marines, the mere 24 Marines, notwithstanding their devastating battle, were fresher and held the town for a full day, until back-up troops arrived.

The battle was finally won by the Allies, but lasted for 20 days, until June 6,1918. The US lost 1800 men, more casualties than in any other battle during the war. The Marines lost 20% of their men.

The German Cemetery Near Belleau

To the east of Paris, very close to the Aisne-Marne American Military Cemetery and far from any expectations there is a Germany Military Cemetery built in 1922 by the French government as a place to bring together 8630 German WWI soldiers who were buried in 123 different cemeteries throughout the region: 4308 are in single graves of 4 soldiers per cross, 4322 are in two mass graves.  

Most died in the battle of the Marne in Sept-Oct 1914. In 1972 wooden markers were replaced by gray granite crosses, except for the graves of the 15 Jewish soldiers whose graves are indicated by rounded markers with the Star of David.

A 1926 agreement with the French authorities led to the construction of a wall and the planting of over 200 trees to stake out the cemetery. In 1966 a maintenance agreement was concluded, and in the summer, school children from the youth section of the German War Graves Commission come to tend the cemetery, which is supported by donations.

Oise-Aisne American Cemetery

France is home to several American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) military cemeteries including the impressive Oise-Aisne American Cemetery located in Fère-en-Tardenois, less than 100 miles east of Paris. Representatives of the DA France-Veterans and Military Families Caucus, Anna-Marie Mattson, Tilly Gaillard and Karen Kenny visited this cemetery and laid a wreath on the grave of a Native American killed in WW1. There are 6,012 marble headstones for the honored dead of World War I in Plots A, B, C & D. The cemetery includes a pink sandstone chapel with the names of 241 soldiers ‘missing in action’ engraved on a Wall of the Missing and a map room showing the 1918 military operations.



Plot E

Just across the road from these four plots lies Plot E, out of the sight of the public, tourists, and passers-by. This is where 94 dishonorably discharged US WWII soldiers are buried. The Plot E soldiers, the “dishonored dead,” were executed by a firing squad (called a “musketry”) or hanged for the rape and/or murder of fellow soldiers or civilians (with one exception, a deserter), mainly in France but also in the UK, North Africa, Belgium, Germany, and Italy between 1943 and 1945. They were originally buried near the scenes of their crimes, but in 1949 the remains of all these soldiers were transferred to Oise-Aisne Plot E, which was unofficially recognized by the American Battlefield Monuments Commission (ABMC) in 2004. 

The shame involved in Plot E was so great that information of who was buried under each marker stone only became available in 2009 when it was mandated by the Freedom Of Information Act. The number of dishonored servicemen is minimal, considering the huge number of honorable servicemen and women who fought in WWII.

How was this location chosen? The Oise-Aisne cemetery, established in 1918, had space across the road from the main cemetery. No country wanted a stain of shame to scar a glorious record which often also included liberation, but the fact was that most of the crimes had been committed somewhere in France.

Plot E, aka "the Fifth Field," was created in 1949 next to the cemetery's administration building. This 100m x 50m well-tended grassy area, surrounded by neatly trimmed hedges, has flat stone markers distributed in four rows with a number representing each of the 94 deceased, and a large unmarked white cross but no US flag. Its peaceful landscape is a sign of respect for the next of kin. 

Eighty of the deceased were African Americans. The soldiers were from 22 states – but the majority were from the South, e.g., Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, etc. They were between 19 and 38 years of age; 61 had previous court-martial records ranging from AWOL to felony. 71 of their victims were civilians. There were 30 murders and 36 rapes, of which 5 consisted of rape and murder. Rape victims ranged in age from 7 to 75.  

The condemned soldiers at the time of death were dressed in unadorned regulation uniforms stripped of all rank, decorations, insignia, and other signs of identity. The time between hanging (drop) and pronounced dead (no heartbeat) varied between 3.5 and 22 minutes; the average time was just under 15 minutes. It is noteworthy that not all the hangmen were professionals. Four of the executions were by a US firing squad, the rest by hanging. Four stone markers denote the remains of four men convicted to life imprisonment for capital crimes, but who died before being sent to prison. Four others were never buried in Plot E; their remains were sent back to the U.S. right after the War. Two (Slovik [1987 Michigan] and Miranda [1990 CA]) were buried, exhumed, and returned to the US at the cost of their families.

The executions had to be approved at the highest level of government, with 71 of them being confirmed by General Dwight Eisenhower. In December 1943, General Eisenhower decided that in an Army General Courts-Martial, the jury must include one black member if a black man was on trial. In one case, four men were sentenced to death for raping one single woman. There were four separate cases, but all four were heard, expediently, by the same jury. As a rule, the relatives were told that these men had died in combat, or because of “willful misconduct,” a term that is ambiguous. It could mean suicide, but in any case, was less damning than the truth.

In 1943, in response to the dire need for more soldiers, the IQ level required for enlistment was lowered from 80 to 70 to 60 (at least three), and finally to 50 (one soldier was said to have the mental age of a 9-yr old). Some condemned soldiers were mentally deficient, or were psychopathic or schizophrenic; in other words, unfit to serve. In the world of today, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a recognized malady…

Two cases stand out for very different reasons: Eddie Slovik, because he was hanged for being a deserter and refusing to return to his unit, and Louis Till because he was the father of an assassinated 14-year-old who became an icon of the civil rights movement.

Their stories:

Eddie D. Slovik

The death of Private Eddie D. Slovik (born in 1920 in Detroit, died 1945), was a warning about the extreme importance of discipline. He was accused of deserting his outfit in Belgium on or about August 25, 1944. The Canadian military returned him to U.S. authorities near Brussels on or about Oct 4, 1944. He said he would desert again and was accused of “intent to avoid hazardous duty and shirk important service.” One explanation was that he wanted to be tried and then jailed in a safe place. (He had been in and out of jails and detention centers for years.) But instead, he was dishonorably discharged from the Army, had to “forfeit all pay and allowances,” and was sentenced to be shot to death by a firing squad composed of members of the unit he deserted. 

His trial took less than two hours. Since the 1800s, no one had been sentenced to death for desertion. He was given a chance––but refused it––to return to his unit, which had suffered heavy losses. On November 27, 1944, Major General Norman Cota approved the death sentence, but said nothing about the “forfeiture of pay and allowances.” In 1987, his remains were returned from Plot E in France to Michigan via San Francisco, where, at first, his remains were “lost” in transit at the airport, but then eventually found. At the Detroit Woodmere Cemetery, his gravestone shows his name, but no mention of his having been executed as a deserter. Note that in other battle situations there were many desertion-surrender cases, but the norm was for the culprits to be returned to their units, generally without punishment.

Louis Till

Louis Till (1922-1945) and Mamie Carthan were married when they were both 18. Mamie left Louis when she found out that he was being unfaithful. This infuriated Louis. He strangled Mamie to unconsciousness; thereafter, she reacted by throwing scalding water at him. In 1943, for disobeying a restraining order, the judge gave Louis a choice: prison or the Army. He chose the latter. 

The couple had a son, Emmett, who at age 14 left their Chicago home to visit relatives in Mississippi. For ostensibly offending a white woman in a grocery store (she recanted years later), the woman’s husband and brother-in-law beat, mutilated, and shot Emmett, and threw his body in a river. (The assassins were acquitted by an all-white jury in September 1955). Mamie insisted that the mutilated body be brought back to Chicago and viewed in an open casket, which thousands of people saw, and the photo was reproduced in newspapers across the country. This is how 14-year-old Emmett became an icon of the civil rights movement. 

And that is the story of Plot E.

Written by Tilly Gaillard, Karen Kenny and Anna Marie Mattson

Democrats Abroad France Veterans & Military Families Caucus

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