On June 6, 1876 – the eve of the United States’ centennial – Navy Seaman Emile Lejeune, serving aboard the USS Plymouth, was taking shore leave with a few other crew members.

As they approached Port Royal, South Carolina, in their steam-powered launch, a civilian fell off the wharf and into the water. Lejeune, his captain attested, rescued the person. He received a peacetime Medal of Honor for his efforts.

For the next 100-plus years, Lejeune’s name was on the rolls of Medal of Honor winners, but the location of the Frenchman’s remains was a mystery. He was born in Paris and lived in New York, and his place of death was unknown.

Aat 2 p.m. Sunday, veterans from the American Legion Stewart P. Morrill Post No. 35 in South Portland will lay a wreath at Lejeune’s once-unmarked grave in Forest City Cemetery in South Portland, where the marker with his name and service information was laid on his gravesite this summer.

An organization run by retirees and armchair investigators dedicated to finding the remains of Medal of Honor winners found Lejeune, despite a few bumps in the road.

The grave of Emile Lejeune at Forest City Cemetery in South Portland. Photo courtesy of Forest City Cemetery via findagrave.com

A PAUPER’S GRAVE

Lejeune was buried under the wrong name, for a start. “Emily Lejeane” was buried in a pauper’s grave with eight other bodies. Researchers say they figured out the body in the plot was Lejeune’s by determining that the typed paperwork at the cemetery likely got a few letters wrong.

“They’ve been looking for this gentleman for a while,” said Elaine Spring, administrative associate at Forest City Cemetery, who helped researchers find the grave. “Problem was, on the card they spelled both the first and last name incorrectly.”

After a bit of “detective work,” Spring said, they concluded that “Emily” was “Emile.”

Researchers from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society cross-checked pension records that showed Emile Lejeune living on Boyd Street in Portland, then a death certificate for, “Emily” who died of tuberculosis, and War Department records showing Lejeune as dead and the department seeking a return of $7 from his last pension.

It’s still a mystery how Lejeune came to be buried in the South Portland cemetery plot of his doctor, who was also a funeral director who used it as a pauper’s gravesite. Researchers determined it all added up to a case of a mistyped death certificate and burial data.

“The problem we have with all of these is that most of their lives are lost to history,” said Dave Tanguay, a retired Navy veteran and local history buff who worked with the researchers from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. “It’s just amazing that we’re able to pull a string and it’s hopefully attached to another one.”

Lejeune, he said, last served on the USS South Dakota and retired sometime around 1914. He died at age 52, after apparently marrying twice and having a son who moved to Canada.

MEDALS MORE COMMON

Tanguay, who has helped find and honor three other Medal of Honor recipients in Maine, said the criteria for getting the Medal of Honor have changed over the years. When Lejeune got his, it was more common to get it for rescuing someone, Tanguay said, noting that eight other Medals of Honor were awarded to crew members on the USS Plymouth during the same period.

On the day Lejeune rescued the civilian who fell off the wharf, the headlines of the day were probably filled with news of the first transcontinental train arriving in San Francisco, on June 4. Or perhaps people were still marveling at the news that three months earlier, Alexander Graham Bell had made the first telephone call, with the words, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

Tanguay said there is more work to do in Maine, finding Medal of Honor recipients lost to time.

“They think they have at least six more in the state of Maine,” he said. “We’ve put four of them to rest.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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Twitter: noelinmaine