Best friends, WWI veterans, get new headstones

BELLEVILLE — At 9 a.m. on Memorial Day, the bells of St. Peter’s Church on William Street rang out with the sounds of “God Bless America,” the patriotic music echoing through the neighborhood — and across the small cemetery that borders the church.

Later, in that cemetery, there would be a special prayer service led by St. Peter’s pastor, the Rev. Ivan Sciberras, honoring all the veterans who are buried there — including two who were receiving overdue memorials. Literal memorials: new gravestones to mark their final resting place.

Last year, we wrote about the rededication of a marble plaque embedded in the cemetery wall listing the 13 St. Peter’s parishioners who were casualties of World War I. After nearly a century since its placement, it had become virtually unreadable — until the Belleville Historical Society stepped in and completely refurbished it in 2017.  It now glows in the sunlight and is bordered by brilliant red, white and blue bunting.

According to Michael Perrone, Belleville Historical Society president, 700 Belleville men served in the Great War, and 21 of those died. Reportedly, most of the casualties were buried on the Western Front, where they had fallen — but Perrone was aware of two who had been interred at St. Peter’s: Edward Joseph Crowell and Michael Augustine Flynn, whose stories are inextricably entwined.

Crowell and Flynn (son of Police Chief Michael Flynn) grew up together as best friends. Both enlisted in the Army when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, but they were in different regiments. However, reportedly they met at least twice in Europe.

During one chance encounter, they were photographed with a third soldier — John Grant of Boston, who served with Flynn.  As the story goes, sometime afterward, the second meeting occurred as Flynn’s unit was being moved to the front, and Crowell, who had been wounded, was being taken back to base camp.

Both decorated combat veterans, they survived the war, but Flynn died Dec. 7, 1918 — less than a month after the Armistice was declared on Nov. 11. He was 21.

Crowell, age 26, died Aug. 4, 1919. And it was that month that the two  friends finally came home —  together.

In a full, combined military funeral, their flag-draped coffins, on horse-drawn caissons, were carried in a cortege along Washington Avenue as thousands looked on. The destination was St. Peter’s, where they were buried side-by-side in their family plots.

Anyone wishing recently to pay personal respects to them, though, might have had a difficult time finding the graves. Perrone told us that the century had taken its toll: Flynn’s military headstone had become illegible, and Crowell’s had broken apart. Thus was born the historical society’s project — led by Perrone and Belleville Historical Commission Chairman Tom Grolimond — to give them new markers.

The white marble stones, bearing the two veterans’ names, ages and dates of death, were beautifully engraved by expert craftsman Val Hadshinow of North Arlington and placed in the graveyard in time for Memorial Day.

Now, may lifelong friends Edward Joseph Crowell and Michael Augustine Flynn rest forever in peace — together.

[Note: Readers wishing to learn more about township heroes from all our nation’s wars should visit author Anthony Buccino’s comprehensive website,].

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