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All in a name: Group wants to rename Hartselle street for local war hero instead of disgraced French official

A street that bears the name of a disgraced French official might soon be renamed for a World War I soldier from Hartselle through a partnership between the local American Legion and the Hartselle Historical Society.

Lee Greene Jr., vice president of the society, is leading the effort to rename Petain Street, which was named for Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, a French hero in World War I who collaborated with Nazi occupiers in World War II.

“While doing an inventory of street names in Hartselle, we found that the streets around Petain going north to the junior high were all named for WWI heroes,” Greene wrote in a letter to residents of Petain Street. “Haig, Bullard, Pershing, Thompson, and even Petain were all household names in Hartselle in 1919 when this subdivision was platted. All were well known and respected as heroes, and the developer named the streets for them.”

The street was named for Petain, the “Lion of Verdun,” because of his heroism in leading the French forces against the Axis powers during the first World War.

According to Greene, when the Nazis overran France, they set up a puppet government, the Vichy French regime, and Petain was made the leader. He handed over French Jews to the Germans and had French resistance fighters executed regularly under his regime.

Charles DeGaulle and his Free French Army reentered a liberated Paris on Aug. 25, 1944. Petain was tried for treason and convicted after the war. DeGaulle spared Petain’s life because of his previous heroism, but he lived in confinement until his death in 1951.

Greene and retired Col. Mark Hendrix at Hartselle’s American Legion wrote to the French Embassy to the United States. François Bridey, head of Museums and Cultural Heritage at the U.S. French embassy, wrote back to Greene, confirming that Petain’s crimes later in life overshadowed the heroism shown during the first World War.

“While Petain was a respected hero of France after World War I, he was tried and convicted in 1945 for high treason, stricken with ‘national indignity,’ after he served as the leader of the collaborationist regime of Vichy, France, during World War II,” Bridey wrote in an email.

Bridey said there are no more French streets or monuments left that bare Petain’s name. Most were removed in 1945 after liberation, with the last street having been changed in 2013 by the mayor of Verdun, France, the same street where Petain honorably led French troops in World War I to defeat the Germans.

The New York Times reported in January that Jewish community leaders in that city want to remove plaques honoring Petain and another Nazi collaborator from the “Canyon of Heroes” sidewalk in Manhattan.

Greene said Hartselle should act, too.

“Having his name on a street in Hartselle is a slap in face to WWII veterans who had to fight across occupied France to finally liberate the country,” Greene said.

When society members discovered the history of Petain, they reached out to the American Legion Post 52 to find a suitable World War I Hartselle veteran as a replacement name for the street.

“They found one that was a true hero of WWI,” Greene said. “Sgt. Ollie R. Fenn of Hartselle was a hero of the first World War and was highly decorated for his action.”

Legion members believe Fenn was awarded at least three, possibly four, French Croix de Guerre awards for heroism and bravery.

“We are awaiting his actual, translated citations from the French embassy, but his obituary in 1929 tells incredible stories of his heroism,” Greene wrote.

Greene said the legion, together with the Hartselle Historical Society, contacted relatives of Fenn and received permission to name the street after him.

Once approved by the Hartselle City Council, Greene said, a ceremony will be held to unveil the new street name. The family of Fenn as well as representatives from the French embassy have expressed interest in being present.

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