Group fights for recognition of veterans resting at abandoned Jacksonville cemetery

August 24, 2010 at 4:12 pm Leave a comment

By Timothy J. Gibbons

The scraggly footpath into the woods didn’t seem to lead anywhere as Mike Gregory stared at it, waiting for the grocery store workers to finish loading his truck.

There’s a cemetery back there, one of the workers mentioned, and the former Marine decided to check it out.

First, as he came around the bend, Gregory was struck by the condition of the Moncrief Road site, with beer cans, old tires and other trash scattered about.  Then he started noticing how many of the tombstones were the distinctive Department of Defense-issued monuments given to veterans.

“I was both ashamed and angry about it,” he said. “I bet those men who served never thought they’d be forgotten like that.”

Now Gregory and his friends – many of them affiliated with the Jacksonville outpost of a Massachusetts veterans group – have vowed to do something about it, raising both public and political awareness in hopes of getting the veterans buried in respectful graves.

“The way we feel is they’re our brothers,” said Joe Dalphond, a Massachusetts native who fought in Vietnam. “We want to fight for them.”

A visceral anger underlies Gregory and Dalphond’s words when they talk about the site, as it does in the words of Dave Smyth, who shakes his head whenever the topic comes up. “There must be more veterans than civilians there,” Smyth said. “The number is astronomical.”

Their anger transcends race: The local veterans group is mostly white, and Sunset Memorial was historically the final resting place of black residents.  It goes beyond military branch: Dalphond was in the Army, Smyth the Navy and Gregory the Marines. It ignores time of service, with the modern vets serving at different times and the buried men having seen combat dating back to World War I. The names of those men are etched into white granite tombstones scattered haphazardly throughout the site. Many lean to the side, while some have fallen down altogether or are buried under years of drifting dirt or are simply worn smooth by the hand of time.

Others provide mute testimony to those whose passing they mark.  Fred Douglas Lewis, an Army private born in 1886, fought in the first World War, died in 1970.

Johnnie Powell, a private first class. Fought in Vietnam. Died in 1968.

Lampert Brautley, buried in 1991, one of the last bodies committed to the ground of Sunset Memorial.

Those graves and others are decorated with flags, which Dalphond’s group – the Jacksonville branch of the Merrimack Valley Vietnam Veterans – brought over on the Fourth of July.

Like the rest of the clutch of cemeteries that occupy acres of land around Moncrief Road, Sunset Memorial boasts a long and confusing history, with ownership of and responsibility for the property unclear.

Many of the sites, including Sunset Memorial, were owned by the storied Afro-American Life Insurance Co., which started in Jacksonville at the turn of the 20th century.  The sites fell into disrepair as the company slid into bankruptcy through the 1980s, and when it shut down in the 1990s the burial grounds became overgrown and unorganized.

In the 1990s, said Shannon Palmer, a local cemetery historian who founded the Cemetery Recovery & Preservation Trust of Jacksonville, the city picked up maintenance responsibility for some of the cemeteries, but included just the front part of the 10-acre Sunset Memorial, which sits near the intersection with Edgewood Avenue West.

The rest of that site had been bought by a developer who bought it without realizing it had been a cemetery, which is undevelopable. With the taxes again not paid, the land reverted back to the city this year.

Councilwoman E. Denise Lee, who in the early 1990s persuaded the city to take over maintenance for the cemeteries – minus the part that had been sold – said the city should now clean up the entire site.  “We tried to get it initially. That’s when we found out the owner had sold it,” she said. “We should have acquired it back then and kept it clean.”

With money tight, though, maintenance work at the cemeteries the city does oversee is sporadic and focuses more on keeping the grass cut rather than repairs and reburials.  Because of liability issues, Palmer said, the city frowns on having volunteers show up and do larger types of projects, no matter how eager they are. “It’s a big hot mess,” she said. “I feel for Joe and those folks. It’s such a tricky situation.”

For Dalphond and his friends, the trickiness of the situation is almost besides the point. Doing what’s right for their brothers in arm is what matters.  In Dalphond, a big man who likes driving a truck and likes a cold beer at the end of the day, emotion isn’t far beneath the surface, particularly when it comes to veterans issues.

In recent years he’s made it a habit to visit veterans in hospice, a tradition started with visits to VA Hospital patients back in Massachusetts.  Tears come to his eyes when he talks of the Bataan Death March survivor he spoke with in her last weeks, the World War II veteran missing an arm and leg who wanted to talk about the old days.  Their units and ranks roll off his tongue as he talks about being able to share those last moments.  “He remembers those things,” said his wife, Judi. “I just remember the emotions.”  Those emotions, Dalphond said, will spur him and the rest of the group to do something to fix the situation at Sunset Memorial.

Their plan now: Exhume those bodies whose families so desire and rebury them at Jacksonville National Cemetery.  The veterans aren’t sure how such a project would be paid for, or even how many families they could find who would be interested.

The solution might instead lie in doing something to fix Sunset Memorial itself, closing the open graves, cleaning up the battered monuments.  Whatever path they start down, Dalphond said, they plan on it leading to  victory.  “It’s going to be a long battle. We know that going in,” he said. “But we don’t give up. We know that, too.”

Entry filed under: Cemeteries, Historical Places & Locations. Tags: , , , , , .

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