2017-10-20 / Front Page

Hero recognized, 102 years after his death

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Flanked by an honor guard from the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corp based at the Coast Guard base in South Portland, and Commander David Tanguay, U.S. Navy retired, who served as master of ceremonies for the event, State Rep. Kevin Battle of South Portland delivers a legislative proclamation at South Portland’s Forest City Cemetery Sunday, October 15, recognizing for the first time Medal of Honor recipient Emile LeJeune, who, for more than a century, had laid to rest in an unmarked pauper’s grave. (Duke Harrington photo) Flanked by an honor guard from the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corp based at the Coast Guard base in South Portland, and Commander David Tanguay, U.S. Navy retired, who served as master of ceremonies for the event, State Rep. Kevin Battle of South Portland delivers a legislative proclamation at South Portland’s Forest City Cemetery Sunday, October 15, recognizing for the first time Medal of Honor recipient Emile LeJeune, who, for more than a century, had laid to rest in an unmarked pauper’s grave. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Under crisp autumn skies, Sunday, Oct. 15, about 30 area veterans gathered in South Portland’s Forest City Cemetery, to recognize one of their own, raising the flag of a hero over what, for more than a century, had been the unmarked grave of a pauper.

“It’s quite an honor to he involved in this,” said Wes Splettstoesser, commander of South Portland American Legion Post 35, who presided over the planting of the flag by a sea cadet from the local U.S. Coast Guard station. “It kind of chokes you up inside.”

The road to recognition began more than two years ago, in January 2015, when Ray Johnston of the National Medal of Honor organization in Indiana placed a call to David Tanguay, a retired commander in the U.S. Navy living in Windham. Johnson was on the hunt for 384 recipients of the Medal of Honor — the highest and most prestigious personal decoration awarded by the U.S. military — who had been buried without recognition of their status as national heroes.

There were 10 such unmarked graves in Maine, Johnson said, six still to be researched, and four of which he was fairly certain. Tanguay agreed to help, and later that summer Tanguay presided over a Medal of Honor ceremony in Raymond, where service markers and the Medal of Honor flag flew for the first time over the headstone of Civil War veteran Daniel Millikin. Soon after, memorial plaques were placed at the veterans cemetery in Augusta, recognizing two Mainers awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, after being lost at sea. But then came the fourth case, and that proved a tougher nut to crack.

Using Johnson’s information, Tanguay was on the hunt for the grave of Seaman Emile LeJeune, awarded the Medal of Honor after saving the life of a drowning man in Port Royal, South Carolina.

Records show that LeJeune was born in St. Malo, France in 1853 and immigrated to the United States in 1871, living in New York, where he soon joined the U.S. Navy of his adopted country. He served aboard the U.S.S. Plymouth, one of the Navy’s early 250-foot screw driven sloops, and, on June 6, 1876, he had a few fellow crewmen took the ship’s steam launch to shore at Port Royal.

What happened there, exactly, is unknown. But three days later, LeJeune was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the life of a civilian who fell off the Port Royal Wharf. He is one of just 193 men awarded the Medal of Honor during peacetime.

How LeJeune came to be living in Maine is a tale lost to history. The scant details available of his life show that LeJeune married in New York sometime around 1887 and lost his wife in 1894. A son from that marriage later moved to Canada. LeJeune married a second time in 1911 and was serving aboard the U.S.S. South Dakota when discharged from the service in 1915. A year later, he was known to be living in Portland, his pension checks delivered to 45 Boyd St., when he died of tuberculosis on July 10, 1916.

Tanguay was dispatched to Forest City, a cemetery located in South Portland but owned by the city of Portland. There, at gravesite N-62-2, Tanguay was surprised at what he found.

“My first observation upon visiting the site was that it was empty and stark,” he said. “No marker. No flag. A pauper’s grave. Not a thing to indicate the presence of a veteran.”

But there were other issues as well. For one thing, the last name of the person in that unmarked grave was spelled differently on cemetery records. So was the first name. In this case quite drastically, as records indicated the person buried at the site Tanguay had found was not “Emile,” but “Emily.”

At this point Tanguay got some help from his fellow Windham veteran, Norm Spear, who worked at Forest City for several years in the 1960s.

“I can tell you first hand just how messed up the records here are from that time period” he said. “I can guarantee you, there are at least six or eight other people buried in that same plot, all unknown.”

What sealed the deal after “about 40 hours of research” conducted by Spear, was that the plot in which LeJeune was buried was owned by a Portland physician, W. C. Whitmore, who also happened to be a mortician, and, as it turns out, the person who named as LeJeune’s doctor on his death certificate. It appears that, LeJeune, being destitute, with no family to claim the body, was given a burial by Whitmore.

“That was just a service that he provided for his patients who had no other means,” Tanguay said.

Gathering all he had discovered, Tanguay presented his findings to the Veterans Administration, which concurred that that the grave did belong to the man who so long ago was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallant heroism, and a bronze marker was installed at the gravesite, denoting the military status of the person buried there for the first time, after more than a century.

On Sunday, amid pomp and circumstance, a rifle salute, the laying of a wreath by U.S. naval cadets, and proclamations from the state legislature, read by State Rep. Kevin Battle, and the city, delivered by Mayor Patti Smith, LeJeune, who by all accounts died alone and unknown, was finally honored with a hero’s send-off, the Medal of Honor flag planted beside his new headstone.

It matters not, Tanguay said, that today LeJeune might be awarded a Navy Lifesaving Medal, but nothing so lofty as the Medal of Honor. Following the incident at Little Big Horn, when the entire regiment was posthumously submitted for the award — a list finally whittled down to 24 recipients from the battle — new standards were applied, such that the Medal of Honor was to be given “not for the simple discharge of duty,” Tanguay explained, “but for such acts beyond this that, if omitted or refused to be done, should not justly subject the person to censure as a shortcoming or failure.”

Using this standard, LeJeune might still have qualified.

“After all,” Battle said, “you have to remember, back in those days, nobody swam. It just wasn’t a thing that most people did. So, to dive into the water to rescue someone else, someone who was probably unable to swim at all and really panicking, you really were risking your life.”

But then, prior to World War II, the standard changed again, and today the Medal of Honor is given only for gallantry performed during times of war.

Following the ceremony for LeJeune, one spent shell from the rifle salute was left on his headstone, amid the flowers and markers. Also left behind, one penny, placed heads up, a silent indication to others that a veteran his visited the grave of a fellow comrade in arms, to pay his or her respects.

“I’m a veteran, and I just find it rewarding to give back to other veterans,” Tanguay said. “So, when I was asked to help out with this, I just could not say no.

“This award was the highest that could be given to an enlisted man at the time and that alone is worth making sure this man is remembered,” Tanguay said. “There is an organization out there that is still researching trying to correct the missteps of history, and there may be six more unrecognized Medal of Honor recipients here in in Maine. But the problem we have with all of these is that most of their lives are lost to history. It’s just amazing that we were able to pull a string on this one and find it attached to another one.

“But even with the honors given here today, these surroundings do not tell the story of the man beneath this stone,” Tanguay said. “We may never know the facts of his life here in Maine and elsewhere. That is left to history, or to other scholars to uncover.

What we have done is pay our respects to a fellow veteran who was recognized by his country for his bravery with the highest award it could bestow. That is worth his being remembered. And now, forevermore, this markers and these flags will be here as testament to this life.”

“This is still a valuable piece of history,” Splettstoesser. “Being here, and being part of this, it really makes you feel something.”

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