Otherwise Lost: Stories from Suresnes

When I learned that I was going to Paris with my family during the summer, the first thing that came into my mind was one...

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By Ben Weinstein

When I learned that I was going to Paris with my family during the summer, the first thing that came into my mind was one name: Calvin William Greene, World War I soldier and Stuyvesant graduate.

Greene’s story had been brought to life by senior Dawei Huang as part of history teacher David Hanna and his AP U.S. History students’ contributions to the Monuments Project. The Monuments Project was started by the American School of Paris. It centers around honoring and telling the stories of the soldiers interred at Suresnes American Cemetery, just outside of Paris.

Since senior Justin Chan had found Greene’s name etched into the bronze plaque on the first floor, Mr. Hanna had talked a lot about how wonderful it would be to have someone go to France and visit Greene’s resting place in person. They could bring a little piece from the Stuyvesant of the today to the gravesite of a soldier who graduated one hundred years ago: a small pennant donated by the Stuyvesant Alumni Association.

I was honored to be able to be that person. In France, I met the American School of Paris Middle School Director, Jeffrey Lippman, and the Technology Integrator and leader of the Monuments Project, Claude Lord, at the cemetery on August 17.

After introducing ourselves and walking around the cemetery a bit, we found Greene’s grave. I remember thinking about what it would have been like to talk to him. On the surface, he seemed stoic and even a little bit intimidating. In one of the two pictures of him, Greene was dressed in full army get-up. In the other, he wore a three-piece suit. He was a star athlete in tennis, and he was the manager of the rowing team. Like your typical Stuyvesant student, he had the grades, too. Albeit, not the academic grades, but the physical: Greene passed the army’s training and conditioning tests with a resounding 99 percent score. A Second Lieutenant at the age of twenty, Greene was one of the youngest officers in the United States Aviation Corps.

What would he think of a Stuyvesant student body that is now co-ed and three-quarters Asian? Or of the new building, 10 stories high, not even being in Stuytown? I can’t imagine any of my fellow classmates becoming officers in the army two or three years from now, but then again, could he have imagined the academic reputation that Stuyvesant has now? We live in completely different worlds, 100 years apart. Even though, looking at a map of Manhattan, if he were alive today, we’d only live two miles apart.

After a moment spent taking in the scene and posing for a couple of pictures, the American official on site, Matthew Brown, came up to us and offered a tour of the grounds. He explained the history of the cemetery as we walked around.

Although there hadn’t actually been any fighting in Paris during World War I, the site of the cemetery had been chosen so nearby for good reason. Each one of the 1,541 American soldiers buried at Suresnes who had served in World War I had gotten wounded on the front lines, had been taken to the American Hospital, and hadn’t made it. The cemetery sits on the slope of a hill. At the top, there is a commemorative chapel, from which we could see into Paris from above. The chapel has two wings, one in memory of the American soldiers from World War I, the other in memory of those from World War II (there are 24 graves dedicated to unknown dead from WWII as well). The walls of the chapel are lined with four bronze plaques. They bear the names of 974 additional missing American soldiers from WWI, most of whom, Brown told us, were presumably killed by German U-Boat attacks before they could make it across the Atlantic.

From that vantage point on top of the hill, we could also see through a web of trees down to the American Hospital. Brown explained to us that, at the start of the war, the hospital had only 30 or 40 beds, but by the war’s end, it could hold almost 650.

One fact that I remember very clearly from our tour was when we saw, etched in marble, a list of the other dozen or so American WWI cemeteries in France. Next to the name of each of the cemeteries was the number of soldiers that had been buried there. The American Cemetery at Suresnes was one of the smallest.

I remember thinking that the sheer amount of death in WWI was incomprehensible.

The work that the Monuments Project is doing is so important because it helps to shine a light on Americans of the past who, otherwise, would be lost in the numbers and the statistics, For me, my fellow students, and the entire Stuyvesant community to be a part of that experience—by connecting through Greene—was really something special.