This weekend, Sole Traveling Mama and her childen had the great privilege and honor of placing American and French flags at the gravesites of over 1500 patriots who truly gave ALL, in a foreign land. A small group of ex pats from the American Women’s Group of Paris, journeyed out just past La Defense to the Paris suburb of Suresnes, to the Suresnes American Cemetary and Memorial. I had never heard of this site, but was eager to volunteer.
A long heritage of service to Country exists in my family, dating back to the American Revolution where my ancestor, Nathanael Folsom, served in an Exeter, New Hampshire militia and I am proud to be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. As a child we were taken to battlefields all over the US, making our heritage come alive for us and kindling the love of history that I have today. I remember my paternal Grandmama going every year to the local cemetaries, November in Asheville, NC and May in Exeter, NH, to lay flags on the veterans graves but am ashamed to say, I never went with her, nor have I ever participated in a project like this. Living in France now and having this opportunity, felt like things coming full circle for me, with honoring my Grandmama, my ancestors who served country, and paying tribute to the sons and daughters of fellow Americans, who had loved ones left forever on foreign soil.
The old addage “many hands make light work” certainly applied to the task! This wooden platform with 2 nails on the bottom, is used to line up flush with the base of the gravemarker, and puncture two holes in the soil for the placement of the flags, American on the left and French on the right. The 3000+ flags were in the back of a truck and the children took turns as “runners” bringing the bundles down the long rows of headstones. It didn’t take too long to get some good teamwork and a sytem going!!
WWI saw the loss of 81,067 Americans on European land or in European waters, with approximately 2,400 burial places across Europe at the War’s end. In 1919, eight permanent American cemetaries were established in Europe, of which Suresnes is one. It was dedicated on May 30, 1919. The cemetary honors the dead from both WWI and WWII and the land was granted for use in perpetuity to the United States, free of tax and/or charge.
Of the 1,565 headstones, there are 1,543 Crosses and 22 Stars of David, 6 Unknown comrades from WWI and 24 Unknown comrades from WWII. There are also two pairs of siblings buried there, a set of sisters and a set of brothers. It struck us how the dead are buried here in complete equality with Captains next to Stevedores – no life is worth more than another. The curator of the Cemetary was fantastic and made us feel the pain of sacrifice even greater when talking about the African American troops of WWII. Still segregated in the US at the time, they had the lowest of the lowly Army jobs, even having to ride in the back of the troop convoys behind the white, Nazi prisoners. They were fighting for freedom and equality in Europe and those fortunate to go home, did so to continued segragation and oppression. Those remaining on hallowed soil, died for a freedom for strangers that they didn’t yet have as Americans in the US.
The chapel on the grounds has a solemn grandeur, with the mosaic Angel of Victory and her palm branch looking out over her fallen warriors. There are four large bronze plaques with the names of the 974 men lost or buried at sea in WWI.
The WWII loggia has a bas-relief of soldiers carrying an unknown soldier and a carved list of the other WWII foreign cemetaries. The bas-relief pictured here is in the WWI loggia and depicts soldiers carrying an empty bier and again, a carved list of the other WWI cemetaries.
It was also interesting to learn that this was not a combat cemetary. When the Armistice was signed on November 7, 1918, the American Expeditionary Force had 192,844 troops and support staff in hospital beds. A large number of those who died, succumbed to the Spanish influenza pandemic, or it’s complications, that began sweping through Europe in September of that year.
Having this opportunity to be humbled by the tremendous sacrifice of each soul here, I will never look at Memorial Day the same way again. Our family is changing their ways and beginning a new tradition in 2014 of decorating veterans graves annually. For too many years we have been off having fun at pool parties and picnics or attending sporting events, without reflecting on the true meaning and purpose of the day. It doesn’t have to take much time but the benefit is great. My 16, 14 and 12 year olds, who big-time grumbled when I said we were getting out of bed at 7:45 on a dreary Saturday morning to do this, absolutely loved it and said they wished they had brought friends along for the experience.
The Suresnes American Cemetary and Memorial can be reached easily from Paris by taking the Line 1 Metro to La Defense, then switching to the 360 Bus for a 7 minute ride, exiting at the Mt. Valerian stop. The cemetary is a 2 minute walk from the bus stop with sweeping views of the Paris skyline. The address is 323 Boulevard Washington, Suresnes, France 92150. If you are only in Paris for a short time and don’t have the ability or time to get out to Normandy, take a few hours to make this very worthwhile visit. There is a Visitor’s Center on premises with bathrooms.
For more information on the American Battle Monuments Commission and other Sites see http://www.abmc.gov