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.

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5 thoughts on “Memorial Day: Remembering three men from three wars

  1. Words fail me. I don’t do anything special for Memorial Day. However, being Southern and having soldiers throughout my family for many generations, I do spare a moment and a thought for those who lost their lives in war – usually when I am enjoying a spring morning or walking through the woods on a perfect October day.

    Thank you for singling out these three men to stand for all those who died in combat.

    • You’re welcome, and thank you for your kind words.

      It’s easy with all that we to forget the many, many thousands who have given their lives over the years. Remembrance of those who gave their lives on behalf of their nation shouldn’t be limited to a single day – but I suppose for some it would be a start.

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