Lee Brezel (pronounced “bre-zeal”) was born on May 25, 1890, in Gordon, Wilkinson County, Georgia, between Macon and Milledgeville. His father was Forrest Brezel (1868-1924) from Irwinton who married Mollie Brantley (1876-1933) of Gordon on December 7, 1884. In 1900, Forrest worked as a day laborer in Gordon and lived in a rented house with Mollie and four of their children: Lee the oldest, age 9, who attended school, as did Ella (1894-1932) and Daisy (1896-1958), and Pearl, born in 1897. Boarding with them was a 26-year-old day laborer from Georgia.
By 1910, Forrest had moved his family to Ehren, Florida, where he was a turpentine worker. Ehren was a small company town in Pasco County named for the German home of the Müller brothers who established a large sawmill in the area. A turpentine still was built just southeast of the sawmill. Residing with Forrest in Ehren was his wife Mollie, their four children, including Lee, a laborer, and three other workers ranging in age from 25 to 16. A few years later, the Brezels had relocated some twenty miles south to Tampa, where Forrest held several different jobs, including porter and, at the time of his death on November 12, 1924, policeman.
When Lee Brezel registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, he was living in Brooksville, Florida, 25 miles north of Ehren, and working as a laborer for H. Hausmann. When asked if he had any disability that might disqualify him from military service, he indicated that a “leg & arm [had] been broken.” He appears to have been living in Tampa when he was inducted into the army on June 20, 1918, in Brooksville.
WWI Draft Registration, Lee Brazel, Brooksville, Florida, June 5, 1917.
Brezel spent the next two months in basic training in Company 52, 13th Training Battalion, 153rd Depot Brigade, at Camp Dix, a half a mile south of Wrightstown, New Jersey, before he was assigned to Company B, 536th (Colored) Engineer Service Battalion, with the rank of private. Brezel was one of 2,500 draftees from Florida sent to Camp Dix, a National Army cantonment established in July 1917 to serve as a training center for the 78th (“Lightning”) Division. Troop capacity at the camp which consisted of more than 1,400 buildings was 42,806. When he arrived at Camp Dix on June 24, 1918, it was near capacity. Fewer than two thousand of the troops were African Americans.
The 536th, whose maximum authorized strength was 1,008, was originally organized in May 1918 at Camp Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan. Brezel was assigned to the unit after it had transferred to Camp Dix, which also served as an embarkation camp where soldiers prepared to deploy overseas. While the men were all black, their officers were white. Their commanding officer was Major Arthur P. Christophel, a native of Iowa who had worked in construction for Allis-Chambers before the war. Brezel’s Company B, which consisted of 250 enlisted men at full strength, was commanded by Captain Royal Sibley Durrell from Cheyenne, Wyoming, who after graduating in civil engineering at Ohio State University worked in building railroads, improving river and harbor facilities, and designing and constructing sewers. And Brezel’s First Lieutenant, Stanley Perry, was a Kentucky-born electrical engineer who had worked at Dayton Ohio Power and Light.
On August 26, 1918, the 536th climbed aboard the troop transport USS Mount Vernon at Hoboken, New Jersey for their passage to France. Originally a German liner called Kronprinzessin Cecile, the United States government formally took possession of the ship in February 1917, and it was sent to Charleston Navy Yard to be refitted as a troop ship. Not long after it arrived in Brest, France, and Brezel’s unit and others had safely disembarked, the Mount Vernon was torpedoed by a German U-boat. She survived the direct hit and was ultimately repaired, but 37 crew members died and an additional 13 were wounded.
The 536th’s mission was to join the Services of Supply (S.O.S.) support chain for the American Expeditionary Force in France. Specifically, it was assigned to the large depot at Gièvres, a community located in the southern Loir-et-Cher department in central France, between the landing ports of Saint-Nazaire and Brest. Here, astride the main rail lines leading from the base ports to the advance depots and the front, the A.E.F. had constructed an immense supply base, called the G.I.S.D (General Intermediate Supply Depot), capable of furnishing food, clothing, and technical, medical and communications equipment for an army of two million men. Cargo which had to be unloaded from railcars and stored at the depot reached 350,000 tons a month in October 1918. The depot collected and shipped all types of Quartermaster supplies, from tobacco, boots, helmets, and gloves to rolling kitchens and wagons assembled from parts shipped by the base depots. It covered twelve square miles in area, requiring 165 miles of railroad track to operate, with a coffee roasting plant and field bakery, coal and gasoline storage, central baggage office, remount depot and veterinary hospital. But the greatest single feature at Gièvres was the “ice box,” an ice plant 896 by 110 feet, holding up to 18,000,000 pounds of frozen fresh meat and capable of handling 2,400,000 pounds in twenty-four hours. The General Intermediate Supply Depot #1 was the largest depot in the A.E.F., with over 25,000 personnel assigned to it.
Here Private Brezel spent his time in France, until about a month before he was to return home, when an accident at the depot resulted in his fracturing his 5th and 6th vertebrae at the base of his neck. He was rushed to U.S. Army Camp Hospital No. 43 in Gièvres, where he died on June 10, 1919.
Lee Brezel was buried in Grave 1396, American Cemetery, Gièvres. Disinterred on June 20, 1920, his body was returned from St. Nazaire aboard the Pocahontas, and arrived on October 1 at Hoboken, New Jersey, the same port which he left some twenty-six months earlier. His flag-draped casket arrived in Tampa on January 1, 1921, and it was turned over to his mother. He was reburied in Memorial Park Cemetery in Tampa.
Brezel was memorialized on the West Coast Memorial Highway Monuments in Tampa not long after his body had been returned. Three years later his name was added to the Scrolls.
Five of Brezel’s former comrades in the 536th (Colored) Engineer Service Battalion are also among Florida’s Fallen. Two men served in his same company, Private First Class Dick Coleman of Winter Haven and Private Charles Riggins of City Point, Florida. Henry Madrey of Jupiter, Florida served in Company A, while Peter Bisbee of Greenville was a member of C Company. They all died of viral or biological infections at about the same time and all four names are on the Scroll. The name of Private Elliott Brooks of Blountstown, who also served in Company C, is not on the Scroll.
Accidents were responsible for the deaths of 3 % of Florida’s Fallen
Tampa Tribune 6/27/1919 p. 7
Veterans Administration Master Index file, providing two different spellings for Brezel’s name, and a birthdate different than the one he reported to the draft board in Brooksville. The Harrison Street address was where his parents lived in Tampa.
Burial Case File for Lee Brezel
“Manifest of Overseas Dead” for Pocahontas, October 1, 1920. Private Brezel’s coffin is #38.
Brezel’s sister, Daisy Sands, applied for a military headstone for her brother’s grave. She named her only son Forrest, after her father.