Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day 2010: Keokuk National Cemetery

Iowa's only designated national cemetery is located in Keokuk, at the extreme southeastern tip of the state, on the Mississippi River. The town served as a staging point for upper Midwest Union soldiers massing for transportation south during the Civil War. During that era, Keokuk hospitals were built to serve the wounded from the Union and prisoners from the Confederate States of America (CSA.)

When soldiers of either side died at the medical facilities their bodies were interred at what became the Keokuk National Cemetery - one of twelve original national cemeteries designated by the U.S. Congress.

During this Memorial Day weekend US flags and a couple dozen or so CSA flags were placed at Civil War era soldiers' graves. The cemetery serves as the final resting place for some 4000 soldiers, sailors and air force personnel from other military conflicts (Spanish American War, World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War and Iraq) and peacetime service. Each grave received a US flag also. 

A ceremony honoring all veterans was held yesterday near the Civil War area of the cemetery. Sunday was the original Decoration Day meant to honor Civil War dead, then later changed to a Monday and called Memorial Day to honor the American military fallen from all eras.

Today's warm weather brought people to pay respects to their military family members and friends.

Many visitors walked to a particular grave or along the long rows of identical white marble markers to get a sense of who fought for this country's freedom. 

While the Keokuk National Cemetery represents a formal resting place for the nation's military dead and their spouses there was yet another location nearby that brought the idea of sacrifice and service into immediate focus.

Just a couple of miles to the east of the cemetery is the Mississippi River. A massive bridge spans the river connecting Iowa to Illinois. Under the bridge on the Iowa side is the George M Verity River Museum just a few feet from the mighty Mississippi. Along the rip-rap rocky shore are places where people fish or sit to watch the river.

By the museum I spotted a small vinyl American flag and went to investigate. Anchoring the flag is a square wooden piece of driftwood. On the board, was a message written in pencil from a daughter to her father, who passed away ten days ago on May 21st in Utah.

The daughter's father was a three time World War II ace pilot who served in Europe flying P-51 (Mustang) against Germany. He was shot down twice and was rescued by the French and
Belgium underground. He returned to the States following the war, completed college, and went on to invent and improve processes in the commercial sector of construction. He will be buried in Utah.

Whether a grave marker is made of white marble and is part of a dedicated military cemetery or a memorial tribute constructed of simple materials, the sentiment is the same - honor those who protected this country. Know that.