|A Civil War veterans grave in rural Oklahoma, decorated for Memorial Day|
I didn’t know Buster, but I wish I had.
BUSTER E. WILLIAMS
CPL 501 PRCHUTE INF
101 ABN DIV
JUNE 30, 1922 SEPT. 24, 1944
I don’t know how he died, but this 22-year-old Oklahoma paratrooper with the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne fell in Europe not long after D-Day, fighting for freedom, when I was home safe, a few months old. His name is etched in marble on one of the headstones in the U.S. National Cemetery at Fort Smith, Arkansas.
This Memorial Day there will be speeches and flags and flowers and 21- gun salutes and prayers and Taps at this cemetery just across the border from Oklahoma. There will be similar services in other cemeteries all over America, saluting the veterans.
Roses the color of blood grow on the fences, as about 9,500 grayish-white headstones of veterans from frontier days to the Gulf War sweep over the grassy green hills, like the white stripes on the American flag, gently rippling in the free breeze.
JOHN HERBERT MAYBERRY
JUNE 2, 1932
NOV. 28, 1950
Most of the headstones are uniform, 24 inches out of the ground, 15 inches wide, gently oval at the top, 3 feet from the next gravestone to the side, 10 feet from the ones above and below it. On some there are small crosses above the names, the service, the dates. Simple. Sparse, Military. The precision is perfect and from any angle the headstones maintain perfect rank order--marching like rows of men going into battle--only here there are no more gaps where comrades are cut down by enemy fire. Here the ranks march on forever, into eternity.
WALTER WAYNE POGUE
JUNE 16, 1919 APRIL 13, 1944
KILLED IN ACTION
The cemetery office doesn’t have biographical records on how all the veterans died, but some stand out. Like Lt. Pogue of Fort Smith, missing in action since April 13, 1944 over Europe. German historians and the pilot who shot down Lt. Pogue’s P-38 fighter located his remains a few years ago. They were buried with full military honors on Dec. 21, 1996--52 years later. His widow, who never remarried, couldn’t attend because she was in a Ft. Smith hospital, and she’s since died. But his son, Walter Wayne Pogue Jr., who probably never met his daddy, received the folded American flag with triangle of stars showing as his father was laid to rest with 21-gun salute.
WADE HALTON COTTONHAM
JUNE 29, 1920 JAN. 1, 1945
There is a section where men who were buried at sea, and those whose remains were never recovered, are buried. Those graves are closer together, clustered for companionship. They may have died alone, but they’ve joined more than a million other American veterans who’ve died in the defense of their country.
C. COLDER WHITMAN
CO A 14TH KAN CAV
1834 SEPT. 11, 1863
This is one of the few national cemeteries where Union soldiers are buried alongside Confederates, because the South occupied the Fort in the War. Most Southerners are buried in Confederate cemeteries or in thousands of private cemeteries. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other, and people still put flowers on those graves.
About 350 graves a year are added to the Fort Smith cemetery. Any veteran may request burial in a national cemetery, and the surviving spouse, or a child who dies under 21 years of age, may join him. Every veteran receives the regulation tombstone, and the folded flag for survivors. Retired veterans and those who were killed in action receive full military honors, including the 21-gun salute. A fresh bouquet of red carnations was placed at Pvt. Deason’s grave recently. People remember a long time in a national cemetery.
And there are more than 100 Unknowns in the ranks of these headstones--no stories, no names, no dates--of men who died and are forgotten, except for a marker in a graveyard of heroes, ordinary men who fought and died in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Air Corps, Coast Guard. All are equal in the cemetery--officers rest beside enlisted men.
The cemetery is quiet but not deathly silent. In the spring and summer, meadowlarks and mockingbirds add their songs to the air. The sky is hazy. There is the smell not of bodies cut down, but of fresh-cut grass. Life. In autumn, breezes swirl falling leaves into garlands on every grave as a year slowly dies. And winter brings snow to bury the graves in dignity and silence once again, over the gentle swells, up and down the long ranks of graves, past the etched names of states--Iowa, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma--past the years--1819, 1864, 1918, 1943, 1950, 1969-- preserving the order of march, marshaling forces for a final charge.
I wish I’d known them all. Don’t you?
At the two-story brick house that serves as cemetery office and headquarters, a plaque carries President Lincoln’s words as he dedicated a national cemetery at Gettysburg 147 years ago. Hallowed ground. Above, the Stars and Stripes wave in the breeze over the grass patterned with headstones.
Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day, started in 1868, three years after America's bloodbath. Survivors and families began decorating the graves of those brave men who died, with flowers and flags.
The practice continues, not just in national cemeteries but in public and private ones all over America.
Every day at 5 p.m., the haunting, plaintive notes of Taps echoes across the green hills, caressing each white gravestone.
Goodnight, Buster. Goodnight, Lt. Pogue.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this was a newspaper column of mine.