'Nothing too great' for military deceased

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerMay 25, 2013 

Bill Cannon can't count the number of times he has heard that haunting melody rustle through the trees of a peaceful cemetery where soldiers come to rest, but those 24 notes always awaken feelings that can't be explained.

"I get goose bumps," he says.

His emotions started to stir six years ago, when he took over as manager of Fort Benning's Main Post Cemetery. Cannon was an Army veteran so the sound of a lone bugler playing taps was nothing new.

But something was different. Something had changed. Maybe it was the setting. Maybe it was because he stood on holy ground.

"At the very first service, I had visions of times when I was a soldier. I remembered where I had been and I remembered all the great people I had known who never made it home. This was not a job I volunteered for, but I began to realize what a great honor I was being given."

Goose bumps haven't gone away as Cannon continues to look after the 9,955 people buried in the well-kept plot of land near the installation's main gate. It has been a resting place for soldiers and their families since 1922, the same year Fort Benning achieved permanent status and moved to its present location south of the city.

Army cemeteries were common then, so land was set aside when the 115,000 acres that made up the original site were accumulated. Across the sprawling installation are 63 burial sites that were located on family farms before the post was built. Among those graves is a veteran of the Revolutionary War and one from the Civil War.

More than 90 years later, the main cemetery is one of only six still in operation on posts across the country. It is funded by Fort Benning -- not the Pentagon. "The Department of the Army is doing everything it can to get out of the burial business," Cannon said.

But changes do not detract from the respect or dignity shown to the men and women who are buried there. Cannon is their protector. He treats them as his extended family, outranked only by his faith and his own family.

"There is nothing too great that we can do for them," he said last week as he prepared for Memorial Day -- a day set aside to remember. "We owe these people so much."

Cannon constantly reminds his workers of that debt.

"I impress on them that the people buried here are your family. Treat every person who comes here like you would treat your own mother or father. If an employee can't do that, we don't want them."

The cemetery's first burial was on Dec. 10, 1922, and the young private was a murder victim whose body was found on post. William S. Hart served in Company B of the 15th Infantry. Circumstances of his death are unknown.

Two U.S. Army generals -- Charles W. Pence and Walter Scott Fulton -- are also buried there, but Private Hart is given the same respect as the men who wore the stars. Rank means nothing in death for every marker is the same. That includes the six unknowns found on post but never identified.

Among the dead are three recipients of the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military honor. They represent three wars.

• Spc. 4 Donald Ray Johnston (1947-1969) was the first recipient buried on post. The Baker High graduate was killed in action in Vietnam and was honored posthumously.

• Col. Edward Schowalter Jr. (1927-2003) served in Korea. He was a resident of Auburn, Ala.

• Col. Robert Nett (1922-2008), a veteran of World War II, was a middle school teacher in Muscogee County who was known as the father of Benning's Officer Candidate School.

Details of their individual valor are found on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website.

The cemetery is also the resting place of an Olympic Gold Medalist. Command Sgt. Maj. Eddie Crook Jr., (1929-2005) was on the same boxing team with Muhammad Ali in the 1960 Olympics. Crook served two tours in Vietnam and earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

Alongside the U.S. soldiers and their dependents are 44 German POWs and seven prisoners from Italy. They were among 11,800 prisoners interred at Benning during World War II. At one point, 700 internment camps were scattered across the country, including 40 in Georgia.

With most of America's able-bodied men overseas, the area had a severe labor shortage and prisoners were hired out to work on farms in Muscogee, Chattahoochee and Marion counties.

The highest ranking POW buried here died in an auto accident on July 1, 1945. Lt. Gen. Willbald Borowietz received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves -- Germany's equivalent of the U.S. Medal of Honor.

Nearly 900 German POWs died during their internment and are buried at 43 sites across the United States. Death was usually caused by illness and accidents, though fellow prisoners murdered a POW in Oklahoma. His six killers were tried and executed.

Each November, officials come here for a ceremony on Germany's Memorial Day. At that time, musicians play Ich hatt' einen Kameraden, a dirge about the loss of a buddy in combat that is the equivalent of taps.

These stories are compelling, but Cannon has learned that everyone has a story. He hears them when people come into his office to arrange a burial. There are times he wishes he could forget the paperwork and listen.

"This is history," he said.

History is also found at Fort Mitchell National Cemetery, built in 1981 on the site of a historic outpost built in the Creek War of 1813. It is one of three national cemeteries in Alabama and one of 147 across the country.

"We're a national cemetery run by the Department of Veterans Affairs while Fort Benning is a post cemetery that comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army," said Otis Broadnak, a program assistant at the Fort Mitchell National Cemetery.

Fort Mitchell includes 316 acres but only 70 of them have been developed. It has 8,500 graves but has little danger of being filled.

That is not the case at Fort Benning.

For a long time, officials have talked about the day when the cemetery would be totally filled -- a day that could come within the next five years. To prepare, a $694,000 columbarium was built in 2009. In it are 990 people who chose cremation over traditional in-ground burials.

The cemetery averages 209 services a year though that number declined to 180 in 2012. Today Cannon only accepts what he calls "second burials." That is a dependent that will be buried on top of their loved one.

Controversy arose at Arlington National Cemetery when media reports revealed discrepancies in burial records. Afterward, Fort Benning embarked on an accountability mission that will allow people to use their smartphone or their computer to locate a family member's headstone.

"This could give you peace of mind and a sense of pride," a post official said.

Soldiers from Fort Benning's 3rd Brigade are using iPhones to photograph every headstone in the cemetery. They hope to be done within the next two years.

That effort involves new technology but Bill Cannon provides old-fashioned service to people that come to the cemetery. That is not going to change. Nor are the emotions he feels when he hears a familiar melody being played on a bugle.

Those languid notes might signal the death of a retired general or it could be the wife of a crusty sergeant. To Cannon it doesn't matter.

"The most important one I do is the one I do today."

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at www.twitter.com/hyattrichard.

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