Honoring my family's fallen warriors on Memorial Day

May 29, 2016

Paper flowers began blooming in late February in the front room of the farmhouse where my mother grew up. By April, it could be difficult to find a place to set down a drink … or yourself. My grandmother, Leona Wilson, lovingly crafted paper flowers by the dozens so that on Memorial Day, they could be placed on the graves of dead veterans, many of whom the family barely knew or did not know at all.

 

Their commemorations were solemn and lasted hours. The family loaded their vehicle with the flowers early in the morning, so that they could arrive at the cemetery by 8 a.m. They stayed all day, adorning graves, picnicking and reflecting on the sacrifices of those who secured their good fortune.

 

On my dad’s side of the family, Memorial Day is an observance that still requires exertion. As recently as two years ago, my 86-year-old Uncle Elvis Kidd, who served in the U.S. Army during the post-World War II occupation of Japan, made the four-hour drive from Springfield, Ohio, to his hometown in Rowan County, Ky., to visit service members’ graves. He’s made the trip for years with his daughter, Charlotte, and his sister, my Aunt Bernice. They stay a few hours and are back in Springfield by dark.

 

Many of my relatives have served. Elvis’ brother, my late Uncle Pat, also was in the Army. Dad was drafted during Vietnam, only to get sent home because he is legally blind in his left eye. Leona’s husband, Oliver, and all five of her brothers served in the military. Most avoided combat; all survived to return to civilian life.

 

Nonetheless, several men in my family tree gave the ultimate sacrifice. This is my paper flower:

 

COLLIN TRENT THOMAS

 

Military branch: U.S. Navy

Rank: Chief petty officer

Conflict: Afghanistan (Global War on Terror)

Date of death: Aug. 18, 2010

 

My second cousin was a Navy SEAL, killed at age 33 by small-arms fire during a combat operation in eastern Afghanistan. Collin had been forward deployed with a SEAL team based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek. As is typical regarding SEAL missions, the Navy has released few details about the circumstances of his death.

 

Collin’s mother, Jean Trent Thomas, is my mother’s first cousin. His father is retired Marine Lt. Col. Clayton Thomas. As a boy, Collin lived on several military bases. When his father retired, the family moved back to Morehead, Ky., where Jean was raised. Collin enlisted in the Navy in 1997, two years after graduating from Rowan County High School. He served in both Afghanistan and Iraq and received more than two dozen citations during a 13-year Navy career. Among the honors he earned are two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. 

 

Collin was not the first in the Thomas family lost during the War on Terror. Navy meterologist Edward Thomas Earhart, Collin’s second cousin on his father’s side, was one of the passengers on American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. He and Collin were close friends.

 

“The loss of this brave young man is just overwhelming,” Clyde Thomas, Collin’s uncle, told the Morehead News shortly after his nephew’s death. “Our family was so proud of Collin's willingness to go wherever he was needed to serve our country. He was in a dangerous profession but he accepted those risks. Sadly, the odds finally worked against him."

 

 

JOSEPH RALPH WILLIAMS

 

 

Military branch: U.S. Navy

Rank: Seaman 1st class

Conflict: World War II

Date of death: June 19, 1943

 

My first cousin twice removed served and died aboard LST-523, which was sunk during the Allies’ Normandy invasion, about two weeks after D-Day.

 

Assigned to the Western Task Force, Follow-up Force B at Falmouth, the LST-523 and her crew made two round trips to the Normandy beachhead, each time delivering supplies and removing wounded, according to a Navy report on the sinking. On her third trip, while trying to maneuver around another ship that that had become hung up, the LST-523 struck a land mine. The blast split the ship in half. Aboard were a load of Sherman tanks, the ship’s crew, 195 men of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion and a 40-man medical staff. Ninety-four men of the 300th and 41 of the ship’s crew were carried down with her.

 

I have no details about Joe’s death, but the Navy report describes the aftermath of the explosion aft of the ship’s center.

 

The ship was bent at the point of blast, with the deck acting as a hinge. The stern piece was completely underwater within 15 minutes of the explosion. The front section with the open end away from the direction of motion, settled gradually and did not come to a complete halt until the bow grounded on a bar. 

 

Survivors told Navy investigators that many onboard were either in the mess line, in the mess hall or in the mess kit washing line, activity that was near the point of the explosion. Apparently most of the persons in this area were instantly killed or so severely shocked that they were unable to escape from the incoming water. About 10 minutes after the explosion, unidentified members of the crew gave verbal instructions to abandon ship. Panic ensued and abandonment was disorderly, with “most individuals acting without thought or reason, simply following the crowd,” according to the report. Nonetheless, most of those from the 300th who survived the initial blast were able to make it off the ship alive.

 

There were four lifeboats on the ship, one of which was probably lowered to the water successfully. The other lifeboats were damaged by the blast or the upheaval of the ship and were of no use. All sailors had been issued pneumatic life belts before leaving England for the invasion, however about half were damaged on the voyage across the British Channel or lost in the excitement of the explosion.

 

Survivors were rescued by small craft, lifeboats, motor driven launches and various types of landing craft that appeared on the scene from unknown sources, the Navy report said. Rescue boats appeared on the scene about 10 minutes after the explosion and searched for survivors for at least an hour. Wind and waves made it difficult for rescue craft to approach survivors in the water. Nonetheless, only three men seen alive after the explosion perished before they could be picked up alive, the report states.

 

Presumably, then, Joe died in the blast. He was 26. Joe left behind a wife, Elizabeth Pearl Jenkins Williams, with whom he is pictured above, and a son, who was about 4 at the time. 

 

AARON KIDD

 

Military branch: CSA Army; First Kentucky Brigade; 5th Regiment, Kentucky Mounted Infantry

Rank: Private

Conflict: American Civil War

Date of death: Aug. 31, 1864

 

My 2G uncle served the Confederacy in Kentucky’s famed Orphan Brigade during Civil War. Kentucky was a slave-holding state that did not secede from the Union but nonetheless tried to remain neutral at the Civil War’s outset. (Stars representing Kentucky appeared on both the Union and Confederate flags.) Many of its citizens pledged allegiance to one side or another, and the First Kentucky was the largest collection of military units pledged to the South.

 

Aaron enlisted in the 5th Regiment in Aug. 24, 1862, in Piketon, Ky., along Kentucky’s border with West Virginia and a short distance from Aaron’s native Morgan County, Ky. The 5th Regiment became part of the Orphan Brigade after the Battle of Chickamauga, fought Sept. 19-20, 1863. The next May, the brigade joined the Atlanta Campaign, leaving winter camp near Dalton, Ga., to become part of the fighting retreating force as Union Gen. William Sherman pushed the Confederates toward Atlanta. 

 

Aaron died on the first day of the Battle of Jonesboro, fought Aug. 31 to Sept. 1, 1864. There, two Union armies led by Sherman maneuvered to draw the Army of Tennessee away from Atlanta. The city was abandoned and occupied by Union troops for the rest of the war.

 

According to “The History of the Orphan Brigade," an 1868 book by Ed Porter Thompson, Aaron “fought at Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, Rocky Face Gap, Resaca and Dalls; from Dallas to Atlanta; at Peachtree, Intrenchment, Utoy Creeks and at Jonesboro. He was mortally wounded in the latter place, Aug. 31, 1864, and died the same day." He was 22.

 

JESSE KENDALL

 

Military branch: CSA Army; First Kentucky Brigade; 5th Regiment, Kentucky Mounted Infantry

Rank: Private

Conflict: American Civil War

Date of death: 1863

 

I have only sketchy details about Jessee, my 3G grandfather. On Oct. 2, 1861, two years before Aaron Kidd, he also enlisted in the 5th Regiment. A post on Ancestry.com states that, according to Jesse’s brother, he died in a prison camp in Virginia. It’s not clear to me why a Confederate soldier would be held in a prison in Virginia. Indeed, the Union did not operate a major prison camp in Virginia. Possibly, the research is altogether inaccurate, Jesse died at a prison camp elsewhere, or he worked while stationed at one of the three prisons the Confederacy operated in Virginia.

 

The last option seems particularly unlikely. I have found records for a J.W. Kendall that indicates he was a deserter. This does not appear to be the same person as my great-great-great grandfather, but I suppose it is possible a Rebel deserter might have been imprisoned, then executed in a Confederate prison. Again, this seems unlikely and there is no direct evidence to suggest this is the case.

 

I include Jesse here because I'm confident he enlisted, and it seems likely he died while serving. If the dates I have for him are accurate, he would have died at about age 36.

 

WILLIAM WILSON

 

Military branch: U.S. Army

Rank: Unknown

Conflict: War of 1812

Date of death: 1812

 

This entry also is a bit foggy. William is my 5G uncle from a maternal branch that emigrated from Virginia to Greene and Madison counties in Ohio at about the turn of the 19th century. I know few details of his life, death or service. However, according to a 1915 history of Madison County that includes biographies of many of the Wilsons, William died during (not “in”) the War of 1812, at Fairfield, Ohio, of "cold plague" or cerebrospinal meningitis. He left three children, Susannah, Elizabeth and William. I’m not entirely sure of the accuracy of this report, however. An enlistment record for a William Wilson corresponding to his place and date of birth indicates he entered the Army at age 25, but that would have been in 1813, a year after the date of death I have for him.

 

A family tree discovered on Ancestry.com indicates he died in July 1812; the war started June 18 of that year. Some types of meningitis are contagious, so it’s possible William could have contracted the disease while in contact with other soldiers, assuming he was enlisted. Whatever the case, it seems unlikely that his death was directly related to his military service.

 

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