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Norwich veterans honor fallen French sailors of American Revolutionary War

Norwich — A tradition is growing slowly to honor a local connection to America’s oldest ally on July 14, what later became known as Bastille Day or French National Day, marking the start of the French Revolution.

Two years ago on July 14, four members of the Norwich Area Veterans Council placed French flags, played "The Marseillaise" and said a prayer at the site of an oft-overlooked memorial to 20 French sailors buried in 1778 at the historic Norwichtown burial ground. Last year, eight people attended the ceremony and placed small French and American flags at the base of the 1901 monument.

On Tuesday, about 25 members of the veterans council, a few reenactors wearing 18th century garb and onlookers attended a ceremony to honor the fallen sailors, who had been held by the British as prisoners of war in New York and released in an exchange for British prisoners held by the French.

“With these men, most people don’t even know they’re here,” said Disabled American Veterans Commander Brian Hague of Waterford, secretary of the veterans council. “It’s a shame. It’s American history. These men were here before we were even a country and they helped establish this by fighting the British. I look at France, the way they take care of Normandy, Belleau Woods and all the other cemeteries in France. They’re absolutely pristine. They take absolutely good care of them. Why don’t we do that for their countrymen here? That’s one of the reasons we do this.”

Two weeks ago, members of the veterans council came to the burial site at the entrance to the Norwichtown burial ground, cleared brush and cut the grass. They weeded the dirt area at the base of the 1901 monument erected by the Norwich Daughters of the American Revolution and laid down a mesh to prevent weeds, topped with pea stones and edged with granite stones to protect the flags. A second monument stands nearby, erected in 1920 by the French government.

Tom Callinan of Norwich, inaugural state troubadour, sang a 2015 song by a Norfolk, Va., songwriter, “L’Hermione,” honoring the French ship that brought men and arms to help the American forces secure victory at the Battle of Yorktown. He added a second song he wrote in 2006 poking fun at a meeting between George Washington and French Gen. Compte de Rochambeau in Wethersfield in 1781, when initial plans to retake New York from the British mysteriously turned into a campaign to finish off the British at Yorktown, Va.

“Everybody wants to know why Washington and Rochambeau chose Yorktown as the place to go to give the Brits the old heave ho,” Callinan sang for the chorus.

Verses speculated the two military leaders might have had too much wine that day and translations got confused, or someone spilled food or drink on the final war plan, smudging “New” but not “York,” leading the troops to go to Virginia.

Callinan added “Yankee Doodle,” and the American veterans stood silently and saluted as a recording of "The Marseillaise" played, then removed their caps and bowed their heads for a closing prayer.

“Our heavenly father, we are grateful for the blessings of liberty,” veteran Marvin Serruto said. “Please give us guidance to maintain and secure and pass onto future generations the blessings of liberty.”

Hague invited participants to next year’s ceremony on July 14, 2021.

“Without these kinds of ceremonies, these men don’t exist anymore,” he said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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