SOUTH PORTLAND — A U.S. Navy seaman who earned the nation’s highest military honor was finally recognized Oct. 15 after being interred for more than 100 years in Forest City Cemetery.
Emile Lejeune received a U.S. Navy Medal of Honor for saving a civilian, but was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at 232 Lincoln St.
His grave is now marked with a bronze marker that bears the Navy Medal atop a granite stone.
David Tanguay, a former Navy commander, and past commander and adjunct at American Legion Post 148 in Windham, was contacted by the National Medal of Honor organization in Indiana about a year ago to check on Lejeune’s grave.
Tanguay said research by the organization indicated Lejeune was buried in South Portland and was probably a Medal of Honor recipient.
“My first observation upon visiting the grave … was it was empty and stark,” Tanguay said. “No marker, no flag, a pauper’s grave, not a thing to indicate the presence of a veteran.”
Tanguay then got in touch with American Legion South Portland Stewart P. Morrill Post 35 to see if local legionnaires would organize a Medal of Honor ceremony.
The ceremony began with an honor guard from the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets, prayers, the national anthem and “Taps” played by Carla Beaudoin from Bugles Across America. There were also speeches, placement of an American flag and the Medal of Honor flag, and the laying of a wreath on the newly memorialized grave. The U.S. Marine Corps League, Southern Maine No. 1324 rifle squad saluted Lejeune.
Mayor Patti Smith read an official citation from the city and Rep. Kevin Battle, I-South Portland, read a state of Maine citation honoring Lejeune.
The service was attended by more than 50 people, including members of the American Legion, veterans and those affiliated with military organizations, and South Portland residents.
During the service, Tanguay said a lot of the existing history was lost about Lejeune, but he shared the information uncovered by the National Medal of Honor organization.
Tanguay said it is believed Lejeune was likely born in St. Malo, France, in 1853, and, according to 1910 census records, immigrated to the United States in 1871. He joined the Navy and by 1876 was a seaman on the USS Plymouth, a 250-foot crew-driven sloop.
On June 6, 1876, Lejeune rescued a civilian who fell from a wharf in Port Royal, South Carolina, and was awarded the Medal of Honor three days later.
He married in New York in 1887, and had a son, Emile Charles Lejuene. Lejuene lost his wife in 1894 and remarried in 1911. He was likely discharged from service in 1915, while serving on the USS South Dakota.
Records indicate Lejuene was living and collecting a pension at 45 Boyd St. in Portland when he died of tuberculosis on July 10, 1916, and was buried in a plot owned by his physician, W.C. Whitmore, at the South Portland cemetery.
The whereabouts of any family members are unknown, Tanguay said, although records show his son was living in Canada in 1911.
Tanguay has previously worked with the National Medal of Honor organization to honor a veteran in Raymond and two in Augusta.
He said the organization contacts him for help when it is already about 80 percent sure of who the veteran in question is and where the grave is located. He said membership is made up of “retired veterans and history buffs who spend their time looking for connections and combing through records.”
The Navy Medal was the first Medal of Honor issued and dates back to 1861. According to the website of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the organization “furnishes upon request, at no charge … a government headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible veteran in any cemetery around the world, regardless of their date of death.”
Tanguay, who learned the bronze marker would be placed on top of a cement base, paid for the granite base for Lejuene’s grave.
“I’m a veteran and I have been with the Legion for over 20 years and part of the Legion’s motto is ‘Veterans serving veterans.’ Even though these veterans were long gone, they need to be properly recognized,” Tanguay said. “I feel I have the skill sets to be able to do this. This is part of a larger picture in an attempt to support veterans.”
Tanguay estimated he spends three to four days a week doing everything from placing flags and wreaths on graves to taking care of the Windham Veterans Center’s memorial gardens.
“There are six other named Medal of Honor recipients in Maine,” he said. “As to where they are, we don’t know. At this point they are lost to history.”
Norm Spear, a retired U.S. Navy veteran, places a flag at the grave of Emile Lejeune at Forest City Cemetery in South Portland during a Medal of Honor ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 15. Lejeune, who died more than 101 years ago, had been buried in an unmarked grave.
David Tanguay, a former U.S. Navy commander, salutes during a Medal of Honor ceremony was held for Emile Lejeune at Forest City Cemetery in South Portland on Sunday, Oct. 15. Tanguay helped organize the tribute.
The bronze-and-granite memorial that now marks Emile Lejeune’s grave at Forest City Cemetery in South Portland.