Memorial Day: Remembering three men from three wars

George Koon 2 cropped

It’s difficult to walk through any older Southern cemetery and not find gravestones identifying individuals who gave their lives for their country.

Even if one doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of Confederate dead that dot cemeteries from Virginia to Florida, the Carolinas to Texas, there are many, many thousands who died in the line of duty, whether it was during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars of the 1830s, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or the other conflicts the US has been involved in over the past 240 years.

In a small church cemetery in the South Carolina Midlands rest the remains of three men who died during three major conflicts that the United States participated in during roughly the first half of the 20th century,

Each died in very different times under very different circumstances, yet all are buried in Old Lexington Baptist Church Cemetery within about 15 feet of each other.

Milton Wilkins Shirey was a private in Company B, 31st US Infantry Regiment who perished of pneumonia on Dec. 12, 1919, in Siberia, at age 19.

Gravestone for Pvt. Milton W. Shirey.

Gravestone for Pvt. Milton W. Shirey.

US involvement in Siberia is a little-known aspect of the Great War. President Woodrow Wilson sent several thousand troops to Vladivostok in 1918 following the October Revolution for a number of reasons, including aiding in the rescue 40,000 members of the Czechoslovak Legions, who were being held up by Bolshevik forces as they attempted to make their way along the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific, where they hoped they could eventually make their way back around the world to the Western Front.

Also, Wilson wanted to protect large quantities of military supplies and railroad rolling stock that the US had sent to the Russian Far East in support of the prior Russian government’s war efforts on the Eastern Front.

Weather conditions made the Siberian experience a miserable one. There were problems with fuel, ammo, supplies and food, and horses suffered terribly in the sub-zero Russian winter.

Troops struggled, as well. During the American Expeditionary Force’s 19 months in Siberia, 189 soldiers, including Shirey, died.

It took four months for the US government to get Shirey’s body back home to South Carolina, where hundreds attended his funeral in April 1920.

Pvt. Ulysess S.G. Shealy, 23, was killed in action Sept. 27, 1944, in Italy. Details of his service, unit, and where he was killed are sketchy, but online records do show that Shealy’s remains weren’t returned to the US for burial until March 1949.

Gravestone for Pvt. Ulysess S. Shealy.

Gravestone for Pvt. Ulysess S. Shealy.

Given that 73,000 American dead from World War II are still missing in action, though, of course, presumed deceased, just the fact that Shealy’s body was returned to his home state was no small feat.

Finally there is the grave of Sgt. First Class George Walter Koon. Koon, 36, enlisted in the US Army in 1936 and served for nearly 15 years.

He was taken captive by Chinese forces on Dec. 1, 1950, after the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, a fierce conflict between Chinese and American troops.

Evidence shows he died of neglect, specifically malnutrition, gangrene and dysentery, while being marched from Kunu-ri to a POW camp along the Yalu River, military records show.

Sgt. Koon was one of 11 individuals whose bodies were found in a mass grave by US authorities, assisted by North Korean officials, in 2002. In 2005, Koon’s brother Carl gave a blood sample and the military was eventually able to match it with the remains.

A funeral service for Koon was held in May 2008 at Old Lexington Baptist Church Cemetery, 57 years after his death.

Three men, ranging from a 19-year old just out of high school to a career soldier nearly twice his age. Men whose causes of death ranged from illness, to wounds and neglect, to being killed in action. Men who died thousands of miles from their homes in the rural South. It was scene played out, of course, all across the United States.

Each, sadly, is a story that was repeated tens of thousands of times in the 20th century alone. It continues today.

There are those who believe war is wrong under all circumstances; it certainly is a terribly unfortunate occurrence.

This Memorial Day many in the US will give little more than a glancing thought – if that – to the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their nation. There are many in other parts of the world, including South Korea and Italy, though, who still remember.

Research finds evidence of plague’s impact on England

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_Wolgemut

A new archaeological study, drawing on finds from thousands of pits excavated during the past decade, reveals in detail the incredible swath of death left behind when the Black Death swept through medieval England.

Researchers, using pottery shards as a proxy for the presence of humans, calculated the decline in remnants after England was hit by the plague epidemic between 1346 and 1351.

In some locations, such as Binham in Norfolk, Cottenham in Cambridgeshire, Shillington in Bedfordshire, and Great Amwell in Hertfordshire, catastrophic declines exceeded 70 per cent, according to information released by the University of Lincoln.

Millions died in England alone, and it’s estimated that half of Western Europe’s population, as many as 200 million individuals, succumbed to the plague during the period.

The research, led by Professor Carenza Lewis from the University of Lincoln and published in the journal Antiquity, indicate “eye-watering” declines in population within rural communities which are still inhabited today and generally regarded as “survivors” of the Black Death, according to the University of Lincoln.

“The new data reveal which places were most severely hit by plague, from the level of individual plots and parishes up to whole towns and counties,” the university added.

Data was gathered from more than 2,000 test-pits excavated by members of the public under professional archaeological supervision between 2005 and 2014 across the six counties of eastern England. These spanned 55 different rural settlements which are inhabited today. Deserted medieval villages were deliberately excluded from the study.

Overall there was a decline of 45 per cent in pottery finds between the high medieval (early 12th to early 14th centuries) and the late medieval period (late 14th to late 16th centuries) across the area studied.

“The true scale of devastation wrought by the Black Death in England during the ‘calamitous’ fourteenth century has been a topic of much debate among historians and archaeologists,” said Lewis, an archaeologist and Professor for the Public Understanding of Research in the School of History & Heritage at the University of Lincoln.

“Recent studies have led to mortality estimates being revised upwards but the discussion remains hampered by a lack of consistent, reliable and scalable population data for the period,” Lewis added.

The new research supports the emerging consensus that the population of England remained somewhere between 35 and 55 per cent below its pre-Black Death level well into the 16th century, Lewis added.

(Top: The Dance of Death, a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death, brought about in no small part by the lethality of the plague.)

Jesus: Apostles needed; Goliath need not apply

the last supper

I’ve occasionally pondered a blog dedicated solely to the religious adventures of Daughter No. 3. For one, there’s definitely no lack of material. She’s the one who most recently expressed interest in looking into the church role of “crucifier” (rather than “crucifer,” the individual who carries the processional cross into and out of church at the beginning and end of mass).

But as much as I chortle at some of her misguided answers to basic Christian history, I often find even better her attempts to explain her lack of knowledge.

Last week, for some reason (perhaps simply because I decided it was time for a little levity), I asked Daughter No. 3 what term was used to refer to the men closest to Jesus.

“UH, UH, UH, I KNOW THIS! I KNOW THIS! – The Twelve Disciples!” she shouted, proud as a peacock.

“No, not quite,” I replied. “You got the number right, but you missed on the title.”

“What?!? 12 Disciples! It’s disciples, I know it’s disciples!”

“No, I’m sorry, it’s not,” I stated. Then, looking at her siblings, I asked, “Anyone else?”

In unison I heard, “The Twelve Apostles!”

Daughter No. 3 was less than impressed. “Disciples, apostles, what’s the difference?”

After explaining that any follower can be considered a disciple, but the 12 specific individuals who were Jesus’ closest followers were his apostles, she seemed less than convinced.

So I followed up with, “All right, how many of the Twelve Apostles can you name?”

This, of course, is where the fun began; Daughter No. 3 began racking her brain for biblical names.

“David … Jonah … Adam … Abraham; how about those?” she asks.

“Well, you seem to be on a decidedly Old Testament bent, sweetheart,” I told her. “Think New Testament.”

She paused, then blurted out, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!”

“I’ll give you credit for two,” I replied, figuring that then was not the time for a discourse on who the actual authors of the books of Matthew or John might have been, or that the authors of Mark and Luke are not known. “That means you’ve got four more to go to get to 12.”

She paused, then reverted back to the Old Testament: Daniel? … Noah? … Moses? …. Did I already say David?”

“Yes. You need one more.”

“Uh, Joseph,” she said.

“Which Joseph,” I asked. “There are several in the bible.

Goliath, who didn't make Daughter No. 3's list as one of the Twelve Apostles.

Goliath, center left, who didn’t make Daughter No. 3’s list as one of the Twelve Apostles.

She stared blankly back at me in the rearview mirror. I tossed out a name: “How about Joseph, Jesus’ father?”

“Yeah, that’s a good one.”

I looked at her incredulously. “If your brother was, heaven help us, a religious figure of some stature, do you think he would want me as one of his apostles?”

That brought a round of laughs.

Still, she wasn’t budging from Joseph, the father of Jesus.

“Congratulations,” I said in my best game show host’s voice. “You just named two out of 12 of the apostles. And to think you completed a two-year confirmation course just two weeks ago.”

“They didn’t teach us anything,” she blurted out in semi-disgust.

“Oh, I have a feeling they taught you plenty, you just weren’t learning,” I told her.

With that, I got a wave of the hand and a laugh. She knows that since I teach in the same faith formation program, I have at least a slight idea what was going on in her class.

I did give her credit, though. For once she didn’t go to her safety answer for all bible questions. Typically, the first name blurted out, no matter what the question, is “Goliath.”

Progress is coming in very, very small baby steps, but it is progress nonetheless.

(Top: Leonardo’s Last Supper, showing Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.)

Bidding adieu to a century of history; holding on to memories

sigma-nu-maine 3 retouched

Sometime this summer the University of Maine will demolish the Sigma Nu fraternity house, a structure that has been a part of its campus for nearly a century. The fraternity chapter’s 99-year lease expires next year and the house is in need of serious repairs.

The university, in its ever-generous magnanimity, had offered to extend the lease by “seven or eight” years if the house were renovated or up to 15 years if it received a significant overhaul to bring it up to date. Costs for such renovation have been estimated at $1 million.

The fraternity, which owns the house but not the land on which the structure sits, will instead give the building, built during World War I, to the university, which will then raze it in order to create a parking lot.

I spent three years living in what we referred to as the “Great White Castle of Sigma Nu overlooking the placid Stillwater River in beautiful Orono, Maine.” (The structure was white and great, and the river placid, but I’m not sure how beautiful Orono, Maine, was – then or now.)

The chapter has been on the ropes of late: It was suspended for five years in 2012 for alcohol violations, and the house has been leased to another fraternity for the past couple of years.

And while there’s no question that the house is in need of renovation, it also offers the university a convenient excuse to do away with another vestige of the Greek system.

University officials around the nation and not a few in the mainstream media have had fraternities in their sights for some time, accusing them of elitism, classism and sexism, among other “isms.”

While there is no question that some fraternity chapters have committed serious improprieties over the years, lumping all fraternity members into the category of alcohol-abusing date-raping Neanderthals is simplistic and grossly inaccurate.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house, likely taken in 1940s.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house at University of Maine, likely taken in 1940s.

As a pledge, the worst hazing I was subject to was being “forced” to drink beer – lots of beer. (Yeah, it was hell.) There was no paddling, no humiliation and no weirdness.

My time at Sigma Nu was spent with a pretty good group of guys. Unlike the stereotype, none were rich – in fact, as far as I know, all were middle class, ranging from a small number of upper middle class to a small number of lower middle class. Most were somewhere in the middle.

Some were more into school than others, but most of us graduated. Some went on to become doctors and lawyers, others firemen and salesmen. In other words, pretty much like students from any college dorm.

And I don’t recall the police arresting anyone for a felony (not that there weren’t some very stupid misdemeanors committed).

A handful of things I recall about the house:

  • The third-story floor had thousands of tiny marks from fraternity members, in training for service in World War I, trying on their hobnail boots;
  • The time an aging fraternity member stopped by to visit and told of a fellow brother who, during World War II, while flying a B-17 bomber on a training mission from the air base at nearby Bangor, put his plane into a full screaming plunge at the house before pulling up at the last moment, than waggling the plane’s wings before heading back to the base;
  • The rats that lived in the basement. They had moved into the house through pipes in the mid-1950s when a neighboring fraternity house burned;
  • The awful paint schemes that existed throughout the house. It costs a lot of money to paint the interior of a 13,000-square-foot structure, so we were always looking for a bargain on paint, and stores don’t put their top-selling brands or colors on special. We must have got one heck of a deal on lemon yellow; and
  • The aging piano that sat in the living room. It was at least 40 years old in the late 1980s, and probably had had a thousand gallons of beer spilled on it over the decades, but it still worked. There was always someone with enough musical ability to play an intro to a rock song on it. One of my pledge brothers, for example, could knock out the start to “Home Sweet Home,” by Motley Crue.

Of course I’m disappointed that the university will knock down a structure that’s been around for two-thirds of the history of the 151-year-old school. But I also realize that given the environment we live in today, the days of fraternities in general are likely numbered.

It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen my old fraternity house and nearly as long since I’ve seen any of my fraternity brothers. When you live 1,200 miles from your alma mater – and the general area where most of your college buddies still reside – it’s tough to drop in for a visit.

But “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” will always be connected by our experiences in the grand old house of Sigma Nu, whether it’s standing or exists only in our memories.

High Hill Baptist Church retains old-time atmosphere

High Hill Baptist Church cropped

High Hills Baptist Church is an antebellum structure with an interesting history, but like many old rural Southern churches it would seem its best days are behind it.

The congregation was begun in 1772 and the current church building was erected in 1848, replacing an earlier structure that dated to 1803.

Richard Furman (1755-1825), influential in spreading the Baptist faith in South Carolina, was the first pastor of the church, taking over at the tender age of 18.

Furman was a native of New York who had moved to Charleston as a youth. At 16 he converted to the Baptist faith, turning away from the evangelical Calvinism of his family. Two years later, in 1774, he was ordained as pastor of High Hills Baptist Church.

Bees coming and going into hive in wooden column on front of High Hills Baptist Church, Stateburg, SC.

Bees, left, corner, coming and going into a hive in wooden column on High Hills Baptist Church, Stateburg, SC.

The High Hills of Santee area, around present-day Stateburg, SC, was, from the colonial era until the War Between the States, noted as a healthful region where wealthy planters from the South Carolina Lowcountry would escape to during the summer months, when malaria and yellow fever were especially prevalent.

Thanks to Furman’s efforts, numerous Baptist churches emerged around South Carolina during his decades as a pastor.

Furman was an ardent patriot, as well. During the American Revolution, he volunteered to serve in the Continental Army but instead was persuaded that his talents could better be used as a speaker to help gain support for the American cause.

On the fall of Charleston to British forces in 1780, General Lord Cornwallis announced a princely bounty of £1,000 for Furman’s capture, and the latter was forced to flee South Carolina.

The land where High Hills Baptist Church is located was donated by American patriot Thomas Sumter, the South Carolina militia general who played a key role in defeating the British during the Revolution.

While many of the large plantation-style homes and other structures that once dotted the area were destroyed in the waning days of the war by Union troops, some survived, including High Hills Baptist Church.

The distinctive Greek Revival structure has remained largely unchanged over the past 168 years.

Good old outhouse. Operational, as author found from experience.

Good old outhouse. Operational, as author found from experience.

In fact, there is still an operational outhouse out behind the church, one of the few churches in South Carolina with such a “facility.”

The church is showing the ravages of time, however. Bees have set up a hive in one of the wooden pillars at the front of the church, and the slats along at least one of the large hurricane shutters are deteriorating.

Given that the church has just a single service each week, and that it takes place at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, it’s likely the congregation is small.

Inside, the church features tiled floors, hard-carved walnut woodwork and old-time wooden pews.

Despite the church’s diminished role, it’s left an indelible mark on the state that continues unabated.

Furman University, one of the Southeast’s most prestigious private schools, was established in 1826, the year after Richard Furman’s death. It was named in his honor.

Now based in Greenville, Furman University was located near High Hill Baptist Church from 1829-1834. It later relocated to Fairfield County, SC, before moving to Greenville in 1851.

Graduates of the institution include Nobel Prize winning physicist Charles Townes, John Watson, the founder of Behaviorism, and SC Governor and US Secretary of Education Dick Riley.

Idiot, intent on taking selfie, shows downside of tourism

dom sebastian statue

In our supposedly enlightened age it’s easy to look back at societies of the past and tut-tut the apparent barbarity they not only espoused but seemingly revelled in.

England has long been held out as an example of the legal conundrum that existed in much of the world prior to the 20th century in terms of jurisprudence. By the late 18th century 220 felonies carried the death sentence in English courts, including such seemingly mundane acts as poaching, minor theft and even “being in the company of gypsies for one month.”

The idea was to scare people into behaving, among other things.

However, perhaps there was also a measure of frustration with those who chose to flout the law, at least when it came to legitimate crime.

This may seem a stretch until one reads about incidents such as that which took place in Portugal last week, when a tourist destroyed a 126-year-old statue when he climbed alongside it in an effort to take a selfie.

Broken statue of Dom Sebastiao after tourist tried to take a selfie with it in Lisbon.

Remnants of broken statue of Dom Sebastiao after tourist tried to take a selfie with it in Lisbon.

The 24-year-old man, who has not been identified, scaled the façade of a Lisbon train station to get next to a famous statue of former Portuguese king Dom Sebastian I in an effort to take his own picture next to the art work.

After reaching the statue, the man knocked the freestanding sculpture off its pedestal. It fell to the ground and was smashed to pieces, according to Fox News.

In fashion befitting a halfwit, the tourist reportedly tried to flee but was apprehended by police.

He will face charges of destruction of public property at a later date.

Sebastian ruled Portugal’s between 1557 and 1578. He became king at the age of 3, although regents ruled until Sebastian reached the age of majority.

Sebastian is a legendary but tragic figure in Portuguese history; the young king embarked on a crusade against Morocco but was killed at the famous Battle of the Three Kings in northern Morocco at the age of 24. His body was never recovered.

The statue in Sebastian’s honor had stood proudly outside Lisbon’s Rossio railway station since 1890 – until last week.

The pinhead who perpetrated the act of stupidity may not deserve the death penalty, but should a Portuguese judge decide to level a heavy sentence, I, for one, won’t lose any sleep. You can’t cure stupid, but you can certainly try to keep it under wraps.

(Top: Statue of Dom Sebastian in Lisbon’s Rossio railway station prior to its loss after a tourist climbed alongside it to take a selfie.)

Spectacular violet diamond to go on tour this week

argyle violet diamond

An “impossibly rare” violet diamond, plucked deep from a remote mine in the north of Western Australia, will go on tour later this week, with an estimated value of nearly $4 million.

The gemstone, originally 9.17 carats, was the largest jewel of its kind ever discovered when found last summer at Rio Tinto’s Argyle mine. It has since been polished down to a 2.83 carat oval-shaped beauty.

“Rio Tinto said that the jewel had been assessed by the Gemological Institute of America, and while they said it would be the centerpiece of their upcoming show, they would not disclose its estimated value,” according to the website Red Orbit. “However, the firm noted that they expected to receive a significant amount of interest from potential buyers, and some figures suggest it could bring in $3.96 million.”

The diamond has been assessed by the Gemological Institute of America as a “notable diamond with the color grade of Fancy Deep Greyish Bluish Violet.”

Site of Argyle Diamond Mine, in the East Kimberley region in north of Western Australia.

Site of Argyle Diamond Mine, in the East Kimberley region in north of Western Australia.

“It is not known how diamonds acquire their colored tinge but it is thought to come from a molecular structure distortion as the jewel forms in the earth’s crust or makes its way to the surface,” according to Agence France-Presse.

The Argyle Violet is the largest such diamond Rio Tinto had ever recovered from the mine.

London-based Rio Tinto said that violet diamonds are extremely rare, and that only 12 carats of such polished stone have been produced during the 32 years the Argyle mine has been in operation.

Other unusually colored diamonds, including those that are pink or red, are typically worth 50 times more than regular white diamonds, the firm told the Daily Mail. Some of them have even sold for as much as $1.95 million per carat, it said.

The Argyle Violet gem was polished in Western Australia by one of Argyle’s master polishers, according to a Rio Tinto press release. The diamond’s tour will take it to Copenhagen, Hong Kong and New York, the company added.

(Top: The Argyle Violet diamond – the big, purty one – next to smaller diamonds.)