When you take the Blue Line on the Washington Metro from Virginia into D.C., you may notice that not many people get off at the stop for Arlington National Cemetery. One sees a few tourists now and then, but normally — especially in the morning, during rush hour — the platform is deserted.
One Saturday morning in mid-December was an exception. When the train pulled into Arlington, the crowded subway car I was on emptied. The occasion was the 17th annual wreath-laying sponsored by Wreaths Across America. This voluntary effort was started in 1992 by Morrill Worcester of the Worcester Wreath Company, in Harrington, Maine. Arlington was the largest focus of the commemorative ceremony, but not the only one; nationwide, some 100,000 wreaths were laid at over 300 cemeteries in all 50 states. Its goal is to put a wreath on as many service members’ graves as possible.
About 3,000 people turned out on this frigid, clear Arlington morning. I attended with a group of two dozen from the headquarters of the Army Corps of Engineers, where my wife is stationed. The crowd was a cross-section of America, young and old, some in uniform, others wearing items that bespoke of previous service — an American Legion cap, a Vietnam Vet pin, a jacket emblazoned with a unit emblem. The rally point was McClellan Gate, a red sandstone edifice completed in 1879, which was the original entrance to the cemetery. A couplet inscribed across the top of the gate in gold letters reads:
On fame’s eternal camping ground, Their silent tents to spread,
And glory guards, with solemn round, The bivouac of the dead.
The verse was taken from a poem by Kentuckian Theodore O’Hara, who served in the Mexican and Civil Wars, in the latter as a Confederate. The focus of our wreath-laying efforts was Section 12, the area directly south of McClellan Gate, with approximately 10,600 graves. A tractor-trailer loaded with wreaths was parked just inside the gate, and a second truckload was standing by. After opening remarks from some dignitaries, the crowd moved in an orderly fashion to collect the wreaths and fan out among the stones.
The graves in Section 12 go back to the Civil War, but most are from World War II and Korea. Many of the remains have been reburied from sites overseas. And for every grave there is a story. Samuel D. Hammett was a veteran of World Wars I and II who became famous as the writer Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, among other works. He had left express wishes not to be singled out from the other service members, and his nom de plume was left off his stone.
Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Stanley Walter Pleva was aboard the submarine USS Bass (SS-164) on August 17, 1942, when a fire broke out in the aft battery room and quickly spread though the adjacent compartments. GM3 Pleva was one of 25 enlisted sailors who died on the Bass of asphyxiation.
Two brothers, Pvt. Raito Nakashima and Sgt. Wataru Nakashima, served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese Americans who had been released from internment camps to serve the country that had placed them behind barbed wire. Gen. Mark Clark said of the unit, “These are some the best [expletive] fighters in the U.S. Army. If you have more, send them over.” Raito and Wataru were killed in Europe and now lie side by side.
The collective grave sites have their own poignancy. They are easy to spot, marked by large grey stones carved with several names each, often flight crews who went down together. One famous stone marks the last resting place of famed British Maj. Gen. Orde Charles Wingate, along with his aide and six American crewmen of a B-25 that crashed in India on March 12, 1944.
Another honors the crew of a B-26 of the 323rd Bomb Group known as “Jakes Jerks.” They took off from England on February 3, 1943, part of a mission to attack German airfields south of Amsterdam. The attack began at 3:50 in the afternoon, and not long afterwards, “all hell broke loose,” according to one report. “Jakes Jerks” pilot Capt. Anthony W. Geiser, flying the lead aircraft, tried various evasive maneuvers against the enemy flak while still maintaining his formation. But as they neared the target, shrapnel pierced their plane’s left fuel tank. “Bursting into flames, it dropped out of formation and fell rapidly with the wing off,” a communiqué to headquarters said. “No one was seen to leave the airplane.” Later reports indicated that Captain Geiser had eased the craft out of formation before the wing collapsed, so as not to endanger the other aircraft. He was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross. The crew’s remains were originally interred by Germans in Amsterdam, and Captain Geiser and four of his six men were reburied in Arlington on January 29, 1951.