By John Kelly
Monday, May 31, 2010; B03
On April 1, 1917, a crewman aboard the German submarine U 46 spied a vessel riding low in the water off the northwestern coast of France. It was the American steamship Aztec, and it carried what the Germans considered a contraband cargo.
The United States had not yet entered the Great War, but the U-boat commander considered such freighters a provocation. He gave the order to fire a torpedo. Aboard the Aztec, manning one of the three-inch guns that had been hastily installed as a defensive measure before the ship left New York, was Jonathan Eopolucci, a boatswain's mate with the U.S. naval guard. He was 27 and had been in the Navy eight years. He was from 649 I St. SE in Washington.
The torpedo found its target.
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One morning last week, Lee Rogers picked me up in front of The Post. We headed up 15th Street NW in his white Hyundai then cut over to 16th and continued north. We were going back in time.
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On May 30, 1920 -- Memorial Day -- a somber ceremony was held at the intersection of 16th Street and Alaska Avenue NW. The Marine Corps Band was there, a Navy chaplain, the Honorable Benedict Crowell, assistant secretary of war, and officials from most of the city's veterans groups, from the American Legion to the United Confederate Veterans.
Memories of the Great War were still painfully fresh. More than 500 District citizens had been killed in that conflict, a startlingly high number when you think of the size of Washington. Those men (and women, at least six of whom died in Europe) had to be remembered.
Upper 16th Street was practically the country then and in that sylvan setting, people gathered to plant a tree, which would soon be followed by others, some 530 in all, one for each Washingtonian killed in the war. The trees -- maples -- were planted about 40 feet apart on both sides of 16th from Alaska Avenue to Varnum Street. Sunk into the ground at the base of each tree was a small concrete plinth to which was affixed a tiny copper name tag.
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Jonathan Eopolucci made it into a lifeboat but drowned when it was swamped by debris from the sinking Aztec. He was the first U.S. sailor to die in World War I -- which the United States officially entered five days later. President Woodrow Wilson waived civil service rules to allow Eopolucci's grieving mother, Annie, to take a job as a seamstress at the Navy Yard.
Family friends worried about Jonathan's younger brother, William. He was due to be drafted, and they contacted officials to see if he might be exempted. "Neither Eopolucci nor his mother have made any effort to save him from draft, lest they be considered selfish and unpatriotic," reported The Post.
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"Sometimes you have a little stub," said Lee, a retired transportation planner who is 69 and lives in Temple Hills. We were walking along 16th Street just north of Alison Street. "They stick up a little bit." He felt with his foot in the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. Then we spotted a weathered concrete cube.
"That's basically what remains," he said as we walked towards it.
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On the morning of Sept. 28, 1918, the 312th Machine Gun Battalion was sent in support of the 316th Infantry, which had been ordered to replace an American position in the Argonne. Their advance was to be preceded by an American artillery assault, but the promised assault sputtered, and the men met withering resistance from the Germans.
The 312th engaged a German machine-gun nest. According to the U.S. unit's official history, "The retaliatory fire of the enemy inflicted severe casualties."
Pfc. William Eopolucci died at the first-aid station.
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"They were dedicated in alphabetical order," Lee said, starting with Edward D. Adams in the north and ending with Randolph T. Zane to the south. As early as 1927, there were complaints that some of the markers had been damaged.
"Accidents," said Lee. "That's what takes out a lot of them." That plus sewer work, electrical work, new bus stops. Today, fewer than 40 concrete stubs remain, curious artifacts that bedevil people mowing the grass. Look at them closely and you can sometimes make out the ghostly image of a shield. It's the copper name plate, now long vanished.
Lee is obsessed with learning about the chipped and worn memorials -- and with protecting them. "It can only be a living memorial if people remember it," he said.
Monday at 10:30 a.m., he'll meet Bill Brown of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia at 16th and Alaska to walk south reading the names of the war dead aloud. A little north of Military Road, he'll come to two names: Jonathan Isadore Eopolucci and William Anthony Eopolucci.
"I'll walk by myself or with 5,000 other people," Lee said. "If they're coming, they should wear comfortable shoes."