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Graves of the military dead at national cemeteries across the U.S. and in Chattanooga will lack the American flags placed by the Boy Scouts of America this year, and there will be no public Memorial Day ceremonies because of the coronavirus.

For decades in Chattanooga, a highlight of the scouting year has been placing flags on veteran graves that now number more than 50,000 on the hill rising from downtown's southwestern corner.

National cemetery officials in Chattanooga say the move to cancel public activities is aimed at keeping people from gathering where social distancing could be problematic.

While formal ceremonies won't take place, all 142 national cemeteries in the U.S. will be open for visitation for the Memorial Day weekend, and families and friends are welcome to place flowers or individual flags at veterans' grave sites, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration's website.

"It's not the scouts, it wasn't their decision," Chattanooga National Cemetery Administrative Office Bill Sachse said Monday. "The cemetery administration — as of today, anyway — they're not allowing the flags to be placed this year. The reason for that is because of the social distancing and all the stuff from the virus."

Sachse said the office here is also responsible for the 65-acre Nashville National Cemetery — Chattanooga's is almost 121 acres — where scout groups there made the decision not to do flag placement before federal officials called off the annual activity. Sachse said there seems to be a mutual agreement on the need for caution.

There are plans in Chattanooga for a wreath-laying service to honor nearly 60,000 laid to rest there who made the supreme sacrifice, he said, but it will not be open to the public. The time of the ceremony most likely will not be announced.

Sachse said there are tentative plans to livestream the service but they have not yet been finalized. An announcement will be made if the online service is developed, he said. Other national cemeteries will also hold closed wreath-laying ceremonies and photos from those events will be posted to the administration Facebook page and other social media, according to information on the administration's national website.

Like others, the cemetery in Chattanooga will still be open "but visitors are urged to follow the governor's executive order" for COVID-19 preventative measures, Sachse said. The Chattanooga National Cemetery is open from dawn till dusk.

Visitors should expect that certain portions of a national cemetery typically open to the public may be closed, like public information centers and chapels, officials said.

BY THE NUMBERS

142: Number of U.S. Veterans Affairs National cemeteries

21,345: Acreage of national cemeteries

1,045: Acreage of the largest national cemetery in Calverton, N.Y

0.03: Acreage of the smallest national cemetery at the Hampton Veterans Administration Medical Center, Hampton, Va.

120.9: Acreage of the Chattanooga National Cemetery

Source: National Cemetery Administration

Chattanooga's Cherokee Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America on its website noted the Memorial Day cancellations in Chattanooga as well as Flag Placement Day in the Ocoee District.

"We're disappointed — we are — but we understand completely," Cherokee Area Council Boy Scouts of America CEO Scott Fosse said Monday. "Safety is the No. 1 priority."

The event each year is one of the biggest for scouts and an unmatched learning opportunity, Fosse said.

"The kids gather around and they hear a veteran talk about being on sacred ground and what it means to serve your country," he said.

"The little guys I always notice that at first they're a little apprehensive and they just want to get the flags out, but boy once they start listening to the veterans, they're just in awe. In most cases, they could listen for a half-an-hour or 45 minutes to the individuals we've had talk in the past," Fosse said. "With that age group that means they're very interested in it."

Fosse hopes to replace the experience for scouts.

"We have mentioned to them that we'd like to do something like this for Veterans Day in November," he said.

In place of the flag placement event, scouts are encouraged to visit a cemetery near their home and pay their respects to a fallen soldier, with COVID-19-related additions to rules regarding social distancing and hygiene, officials said.

"Examples of this can be finding a soldier's tombstone, saluting the soldier while saying the Pledge of Allegiance, Scout Oath and Scout Law," the Boy Scouts of America website suggests. "A scout can also place a flag on the soldier's tombstone and say a small prayer for them and their family. While doing this, please observe the Scout Oath and Law and maintain social distancing guidelines."

The Chattanooga National Cemetery was established Dec. 25, 1863, when Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, "The Rock of Chickamauga," issued orders creating a national cemetery in commemoration of the Battles of Chattanooga, Nov. 23-27, 1863. Thomas selected the site during the assault of his troops and the first 75 acres of the hill with a view of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain was purchased from local residents Joseph Ruohs, Robert M. Hooke and J.R. Slayton, according to administration history accounts.

Medal of Honor recipients interred at Chattanooga National Cemetery

The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the armed services of the United States. Recipients receive the Medal of Honor from the president on behalf of Congress. It was first awarded during the Civil War and eligibility criteria for the Medal of Honor have changed over time. Chattanooga is home to the new Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. Tennessee boasts 32 of the medal's 3,525 honorees, so far.

Congressional Medal Honor recipients buried in Chattanooga include:

Master Sergeant Ray E. Duke (Korea). He received the Medal of Honor posthumously for service in the U.S. Army, Company C, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, in recognition of conspicuous gallantry and outstanding courage near Mugok, Korea, April 26, 1951. He was last seen firing into the ranks of onrushing assailants. Duke is buried in Section Z, Site 373.

Corporal Desmond T. Doss (World War II). Desmond Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1919. He was working in the Newport News shipyard when he was drafted into World War II. Based on his religious beliefs, Doss refused to carry a weapon or kill an enemy soldier so he served in the U.S. Army as a medic in the Pacific Theater: Guam, the Philippines, and Japan. He received two Bronze Stars, and the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 75 comrades during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, despite being severely wounded. Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, which was presented by President Harry Truman. Doss contracted tuberculosis in 1946, died from respiratory complications in 2006 and is buried in Section P, Site 6399-A.

Private Samuel Robertson (Civil War). Robertson was one of the first recipients of the Medal of Honor for actions during "The Great Locomotive Chase" at Big Shanty, Georgia, in April 1862. He served in the U.S. Army, Company G, 33rd Ohio Infantry, and died June 18, 1862. His award was posthumous. Private Robertson is buried in Section H, Site 11177.

Sergeant Major Marion A. Ross (Civil War). Ross was one of the first recipients of the Medal of Honor for actions during "The Great Locomotive Chase" at Big Shanty, Georgia, in April 1862. He served in the U.S. Army, 2nd Ohio Infantry, and died June 18, 1862. His award was posthumous. Sergeant Major Ross is buried in Section H, Site 11179.

Sergeant John M. Scott (Civil War). Scott was one of the first recipients of the Medal of Honor for actions during "The Great Locomotive Chase" at Big Shanty, Georgia, in April 1862. He served in the U.S. Army, Company F, 21st Ohio Infantry, and died June 18, 1862. His award was posthumous. Sergeant Scott is buried in Section H, Site 11182.

Sergeant Samuel Slavens (Civil War). Slavens was one of the first recipients of the Medal of Honor for actions during "The Great Locomotive Chase" at Big Shanty, Georgia, in April 1862. He served in the U.S. Army, Company E, 33rd Ohio Infantry, and died June 18, 1862. He was the last participant in the 1862 raid so recognized, posthumously, in 1883. Slavens is buried in Section H, Site 11176.

Private William F. Zion (Boxer Rebellion). Zion received the Medal of Honor while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for actions during the Boxer Rebellion, Peking, China, from July 21 - August 17, 1900. He also served in the U.S. Army, attaining the rank of First Lieutenant. Zion died in 1919 and is buried in Section U, Site 40 South Side.

Source: Chattanooga National Cemetery

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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