In my innocence, I thought the only requirement for burial in a cemetery was that you had to be dead. I thought anyone could buy a plot anywhere they fancied and be buried there. Granted, I had factored in that to be buried in say, a Jewish cemetery, I’d have to be Jewish. Or in a Catholic cemetery, I’d have to be Catholic. And after I sat and thought about it for a while, I went even further and reckoned that some cemeteries might even be reserved for residents of the parish or village, town, or city in which they sat. I’d simply assumed that to be buried in a military cemetery, I’d have to have served. But hey, I’ve been wrong before, as I learned on a trip to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.
I’d never before seen epitaphs on both sides of a headstone. It took me a while to figure out what was going on (husband/wife, father/child). And then, on further reading I discovered something.
Burial in a national cemetery is open to all members of the armed forces who have met a minimum active duty service requirement and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. A Veteran’s spouse, widow or widower, minor dependent children, and under certain conditions, unmarried adult children with disabilities may also be eligible for burial. Eligible spouses and children may be buried even if they predecease the Veteran. Members of the reserve components of the armed forces who die while on active duty or who die while on training duty, or were eligible for retired pay, may also be eligible for burial.
Who’d have thought it, eh?
It was a dull, overcast day and the trip unplanned. I’d mentioned our visit to El Campo Santo in downtown San Diego the previous day, and our hosts thought immediately of Fort Rosecrans. I say this because had I done my homework, I’ve have searched for a few notables instead of aimlessly wandering.
On our visit to Williams AZ, I’d seen graves of veterans of wars I knew about – Korea, Vietnam, WWI and WWII. But I had completely ignored the fact that military life didn’t begin with the two World Wars. Fort Rosecrans is now home to veterans of the 1846 Battle of San Pasqual, although Brigadier Stephen Watts Kearny, known as the Father of the US Cavalry, is himself buried in St Louis, MO. Originally, those killed in action were buried where they fell only to be moved in 1874 to the San Diego Military Reservation. Contradicting the idea of eternal rest, they were moved again in 1882 to what’s now known as Fort Rosecrans, which didn’t become a National Cemetery until 1934.
So taken was I with the military precision of the place, and the stunning views, I missed the monuments completely. Had I paid more attention (and indeed had more time) I might have seen the granite obelisk commemorating the 62 sailors who died when a boiler exploded on the USS Bennington in 1905. Or the four marking those who died during the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Phillippines.
Leyte Gulf was decisive in that it destroyed much of the remaining Japanese surface fleet while virtually ending Japan’s ability to move resources from Southeast Asia to the home islands. Japanese losses included four aircraft carriers, three battleships, six heavy and four light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, along with several hundred aircraft and over 10,500 sailors. Allied losses were one light carrier, two escort carriers, two destroyers and one destroyer-escort.
The Allied Forces lost some 2800 troops so on paper, I guess they won. That got me wondering – is war really a numbers game? I’ve just finished watching series of Rebellion about the 1916 uprising in Ireland and I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
Perhaps the most interesting miss of all is the Blue Star Memorial Marker…
a tribute to American men and women who have served, are serving, or will serve their country. Its symbolism dates to World War II when families of servicemen and women displayed a square flag decorated with a blue star in their windows to signify that a loved one was in the armed forces.
A memorial to those who will serve (and die) in the future.
When I visit the dead, I tend to look for those who’ve been there the longest, working on the premise that they’re the ones most likely to have been forgotten by time and circumstance. Next time, I’ll go see Major Mason Carter who died in the Indian War Campaign in 1877 (Section PS-4, Site 102). I’d like to have a chat with him about what he thinks of it all now. Captain Walter Marty Schirra is another I’d like to drop in on (Section MZ, Site 106). One of the first NASA astronauts, he’s was on three missions: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. His CV makes for interesting reading, far too much for the simple dash between dates of birth and death. But if I had to pick one, it would be PFC Oscar Jones Singer, a Navajo Code Talker in WWII ((Section O, Site 350).
Depending on pronunciation, a Navajo word can have four distinct meanings. Navajo verb forms are especially complex. Outsiders generally find the language incomprehensible and have likened hearing it spoken to listening to the rumble of a freight train, the gurgling of a partially blocked drain, and the flushing of an old-fashioned commode. In 1942, there was no Navajo alphabet. The language did not exist in written form.
Using Navajo as code to confound the Japanese was the brainchild of missionary child Philip Johnston, a civil engineer who was raised on a Navajo Reservation. He had seen how the Choctaw and Commanche code talkers had used their language as code in the latter years of WWI in Europe.
Cemeteries truly are museums of history and the gateway to all sorts of knowledge, their epitaphs giving you insights into who they were as people, beyond what they did for a living.
As usual with military cemeteries, I left wondering what motivates someone to enlist to serve their country in wars not of their making? And what sustains them when they return, not paraded as heroes but vilified as murderers? The rational part of me says they sign up for it, they know what might happen. And I know for some, they sign up for the education they get, the career that evolves, or because they fell foul of conscription. But for those who voluntarily serve their country (and their adopted country) out of love and duty … hats off to them. To all of them, actually, no matter their motivation. As I’ve seen etched on so many military markers – they gave their today so that we might have our tomorrow.