Moments in Memory: Chattanooga's National Cemetery is a place of honor

Moments in Memory: Chattanooga's National Cemetery is a place of honor

May 26th, 2019 by Davis Lundy in Local Regional News

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The Chattanooga Area Veterans Council will sponsor a Memorial Day service at 11 a.m. Monday at the Chattanooga National Cemetery, 1200 Bailey Ave. In addition, James Ogden, a well-known park ranger at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, will conduct a walking tour of several veteran graves beginning at 8:45 p.m. at the cemetery. Ogden will share the story of the veteran through actual letters written to and from family members during the conflict in which the veteran served.

Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To read more, visit timesfreepress.com/150years.

The unusual May heat wave was quickly warming up by 10 a.m. Thursday morning at the Chattanooga National Cemetery. Patrice Harris had arrived in Chattanooga from Birmingham on Wednesday to spend a couple of days with her parents, Helen and Bennie Harris.

But the visit began with a lone figure sitting down in front of one headstone among hundreds. The Brainerd High School graduate wiped teardrops, not beads of sweat, from her face as the temperature seemingly rose by the minute.

"I visited my dad about once a month after he died because it just made me feel better," said Harris of the man who became the first black judge in Chattanooga when he was elected to City Court in 1969. "I would bring a quilt, a picnic basket and just spend the day with him. Mom's here now."

And the honor of the surroundings?

"It's more a place of love to me. It's where I can be close to them," she said.

The Chattanooga National Cemetery was founded in 1863 after the civil war battles in and around Chattanooga as a place to bury Union soldiers. It rests at the corner of Bailey and Holtzclaw avenues and is the resting place for 58,681 veterans of military service, including Judge Harris. The last veteran interred before Memorial Day 2019 was Sgt. First Class David Sizemore, who was laid to rest with full military honors at 12:30 p.m. Friday.

The cemetery covers 120.9 acres, according to Bill Saches, an administrative officer and veteran who began working on the grounds a decade ago. Saches said the national cemetery interred 1,251 veterans, either in caskets or cremains, in 2018 and 1,244 in 2017. He estimates 65,000 people a year pass through the main gate.

"You especially think about the people buried here when you work outside in the field," said Saches, a 26-year veteran of the Air Force who was deployed to Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Qatar. "Some days when I was out interring these veterans, you stop and think about who they were and where they served what it means."

Officials believe the cemetery has 10-12 more years of capacity for caskets and 20 years for cremains. Six Medal of Honor recipients are buried there.

"It is an extremely historic cemetery we have in Chattanooga," said Keith Hardison the executive director of the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. "When you go there and visit, it reminds you of the enormity of the cost of freedom and the willingness of thousands to pay the price for us."

***

Memorial Day became an official American holiday in 1971, and the first observed Memorial Day in Chattanooga was lucky to make the front page of the Chattanooga News-Free Press (30 pages, 10 cents) on May 31, 1971.

The banner headline across eight columns announced, "BLASTS, FIRES HIT 7 BUILDINGS." The newspaper reported that two businesses and five homes were damaged or destroyed by an arsonist the night before and the financial loss was significant, "in excess of $200,000."

"Lawyer Prater, Audie Murphy 3 Other Men Missing on Plane" was a report above the newspaper's fold on a missing twin-engine plane carrying Chattanooga lawyer Raymond Prater and "actor-war hero Audie Murphy." The afternoon paper went to press just hours before the wreckage of the plane carrying Prater and Murphy, a Medal of Honor recipient, was found 12 miles from Roanoke, Virginia, shortly after 3 p.m. The paper carried a picture of the wreckage on the front page and reported on the deaths on June 1, 1971.

Legendary UTC football coach A.C. "Scrappy" Moore died at the age of 68 that Monday morning and editors at the paper placed his obituary on the front page.

The News-Free Press report on the first Memorial Day observance in Chattanooga was placed in the middle of the front page.

"TRIBUTE PAID

FALLEN VETS"

"Mayor Asks More Loyalty to Nation" was the secondary headline over a report that said, "Mayor Robert Kirk Walker said today 'our summons may be to answer our nation's call by becoming involved in our community.' The mayor's remarks came during Memorial Day services at National Cemetery. He recalled America's colonial past and said, 'In the journey of two centuries that America has made since the Revolutionary War, we have found ourselves on several occasions embroiled in armed conflict with those who would seek to destroy those freedoms up0on which this nation was predicated.' "

The report describes the event, saying, "With tiny American flags fluttering over the graves of 20,000 servicemen, the mayor looked around the cemetery and said, 'Perhaps the most fitting tribute we can pay here today [for] those of our fellow Americans who have fallen in the defense of our country is to rededicate ourselves to that great tradition of public service which they created and sustained.' "

Both the Chattanooga Times and the News-Free Press routinely offered editorials on Memorial Day after its founding in 1971 and continued to do so after the two papers merged in 1999. On Memorial Day 2002, the year after 9/11, the Times wrote:

"To visit Chattanooga National Cemetery on Baily Avenue, or other places where a proud veteran's resting place is marked by military insignia, is to make common cause with the past and to reaffirm the constant belief in freedom that has marked America from its founding to this day. To truly understand the meaning of freedom, perhaps it is necessary to walk the hallowed ground where monuments of stone commemorate the unflagging spirit and devotion of those who willingly took up arms for their — and our — nation."

The Free Press editorial said, "Who can pass the Chattanooga National Cemetery on Baily Avenue without a reverential thought about all of the brave and sacrificial service those beautiful white stones represent. And increasingly, when we pass our National Cemetery these days, we see the flag atop the hill at half-staff. That signals another funeral is being held for an honored veteran."

***

The Chattanooga National Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 16, 1996. The national cemetery system consists of 40 sites in 40 states and Puerto Rico, according to the Department of Veteran's Affairs, which manages the 147 national cemeteries. There are five cemeteries that are part of the national system in Tennessee, two in Georgia and three in Alabama.

Memorial Day dates back to the end of the Civil War. According to the Veteran's Administration, an organization of Union veterans established Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, as a day to decorate the graves of Union soldiers. In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the "birthplace" of Memorial Day based on a May 5, 1866, recorded event that honored local veterans.

The historical Memorial Day facts didn't matter to 84-year-old Joe Stewart on Thursday morning. Stewart drove six hours early Thursday morning from Mobile to place flowers and an American flag at the grave of his wife, Erma. The Stewarts were married for 19 years, and Erma is buried alongside her son and first husband, a veteran. Stewart was a seaman in the Navy from 1958-61.

"She wanted to be near her son, and that's fine with me," said Stewart, the lone person standing at the base of a hill of headstones. "There is such a sense of kinship here. Where would I be without the people before me?

"There's history here, no doubt it and history is important. I worry about that young people won't take the time to understand the sacrifices. They are a different generation and with all the electronic stuff, they just don't seem to value associating with people face to face. You come out here and you can associate with people throughout history. It is such a place of honor."


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