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.
Among those laid to rest in Section 12 are ten Medal of Honor recipients, one from the Civil War, one from the Spanish-American War, and the rest from World War II and Korea. One is Col. John J. Tominac, who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. In the fall of 1944, as a first lieutenant with the 3rd Infantry Division, he led an assault on German positions near Saulx de Vesoul, France. He was responsible for taking out four enemy emplacements, at one point leaping onto a burning tank to use its external machine gun to drive away a counterattacking enemy force. In the course of this action Tominac was severely wounded.
A similar story is that of Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Charles W. Turner, of the 2nd Infantry Division. On September 1, 1950, he was near Yongsan, Korea, when he saw an American armored unit being assaulted from an enemy position that he could see but they could not. He ran 100 yards under heavy fire, leapt onto a tank and used its machine gun to direct fire on the enemy, and helped the gunners bring the tank’s main gun to bear. The tank was hit 50 times by enemy rounds, but Turner stayed at his position until he was felled by a burst of automatic-weapons fire.
For Marines, Section 12 is worthy of special note. Here is Henry Talmage “Baron” Elrod, the first aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II, for his heroic actions in the doomed defense of Wake Island in December 1941. Sgt. Michael Strank is there, one of the six flag raisers on Iwo Jima, who was killed on the island a week later. Gunnery Sgt. William Gary Walsh was also at Iwo Jima. On February 27, 1945, he led two charges against intense enemy fire in an assault on the rocky and heavily defended Hill 362. Once he and his men had surmounted the top of the hill, surviving Japanese troops hurled grenades at them from the reverse slope. Sergeant Walsh threw himself onto a grenade, the force of which killed him. For his bravery he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
PFC Franklin E. Sigler was on Iwo, as well. After taking command of his rifle squad when the squad leader went down, he rushed a series of Japanese positions, conducting a one-man grenade assault. He was wounded but refused to be evacuated, and took three even more severely wounded comrades to safety, returning to combat each time until he was ordered off the line to save his life. PFC Sigler was awarded the Medal of Honor, survived the war, and lived until 1995.
Section 12 is also the final resting place of one of the most famous Marines, Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism at Guadalcanal. He was later killed leading his men in an assault off the beaches of Iwo Jima, for which he was awarded the Navy Cross, the only Marine in World War II to be honored with both awards.
But we were not there to decorate only the graves of the recipients of the nation’s highest award; we were there to recognize the sacrifices of all those in Section 12. Some of the more noteworthy sites receive visitors regularly, but who knows how often the other graves had been visited by family, friends, or comrades in arms? In some cases, maybe just once. Perhaps others buried at Arlington were laid to rest without anyone who knew them ever seeing the site, touching the stone, or remembering the life they led. I came upon the weather-worn memorial of Cpl. John S. Kredic. By then most of the graves in that part of Section 12 had been visited. Green wreaths with red bows were everywhere. People walked among the grave sites, talking, taking pictures, or lost in thought. I laid a wreath on Corporal Kredic’s grave.
I later learned that John Kredic was from Cleveland, Ohio. He was born on June 12, 1923, and lived on Beaver Avenue on the south side of town. He was a parishioner of the St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Church. In June 1942 he graduated from East Technical High School, where he studied machine design. John enlisted on April 6, 1943, and was issued serial number 35057898. He joined the field artillery and rose to the rank of corporal. He died on Tuesday, August 1, 1944 — where or how I do not know. But it is enough to know that he gave his life for our country.
On the way out we passed by Section 60, across Eisenhower Avenue from Section 12. This is the section where the most recent burials are taking place, including those who have died during service in the War on Terror. Preparations were underway for funerals later that day. In that respect, it was a normal Saturday on America’s most hallowed ground.
– NRO contributor James S. Robbins is the director of the International Security Studies Program at Trinity Washington, senior fellow in national security at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point.