For Over a Century, We’ve Honored the Dead

Laying one flag at a time as the sun rises.

On Saturday, May 25th, at about 7:15 a.m., when most of Chapel Hill will be just rolling over in their bed or racing to the kitchen before the kids start “cooking” breakfast, many of our veterans will arrive at Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery on Legion Rd.  It will be their annual tribute to deceased veterans.  Over 500 graves there belong to a veteran.  That does not even come close to the total number of veterans buried there.  Many do not have a government-provided grave marker.

It has been a tradition to decorate the graves of soldiers since the Civil War.  Memorial Day is a relatively new holiday designation.  It was known as Decoration Day until 1971 when it was renamed as the government was building several three-day weekend holidays.  More about that later.

But, let’s share our Post’s history.  We were one of the earliest posts established in 1919.  We built our first home on Rosemary St. in Chapel Hill and moved to our “new” Post Home just outside of town on what was reported as “dairy pasture.”  That home served us for about 70 years and the town grew larger and expanded along 15-501 toward Durham County.  Our isolated Post in the country was soon surrounded by post-war housing.  Then came a new cemetery, just up the hill on what is now Legion Road.  The local veterans began their custom of decorating graves for Memorial Day.

We invite you to visit Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery over the Memorial Day Weekend.  It is a short detour en route to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Lowe’s, or Walmart.  It is a sight to see.  Hundreds of graves will have a flag on them.  That is what we do–place the flags, one by one. 

Robert Patton and a local scout

We are joined by some local citizens, their children and grandchildren.  Scouts from Troops 835 and 505 also join us.  Each person takes a few handfuls of flags, walks slowly and carefully through a section, and locates a veteran’s marked grave.  A flag is pressed into the hard soil, tested for stability, and then the flag bearer stands up straight, reads the name of the buried veteran out loud, and salutes the grave.  This act of honor and respect is repeated at each and every marked grave.

Their mission will be completed in about half an hour.  So, if you want to place a flag, you best arrive at 7:15 a.m.  And, if you have a family member needing a flag on an unmarked grave, see us.  We’ll give you one and share how you can get a special grave marker at no cost from the VA.  

The emotions felt by visitors and flag bearers are indescribable.  Bring a handkerchief.

At about 8:00 a.m. we will all gather at the grave of Robert Patton.  He is the honoree this year.  The American Legion will share some history about the origins of Decoration Day, and host a small ceremony to honor Robert Patton and his patriotic contributions to the U.S. Third Army, Holocaust survivors, our Country, and Orange County.  There are 500+ like stories that are soon to be forgotten as families move away, and they and their individual stories are forgotten.  That is why each year we select another forgotten hero.  Maybe a World War I veteran, a Tuskegee Airman, a U.S. Marine who fought in almost all island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific and then survived the Korean War, a D-Day survivor, or a just a plain ordinary GI Joe who served somewhere around the world.  Every veteran was called upon or joined the military because it was their duty.  This weekend, we salute them all.

For a list of American Legion and Orange County Veterans Memorial events on Memorial Day weekend, click here.

Chapel Hill, NC, May 17, 2024 – Lee Heavlin
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