Cemetery traditions, stories of local soldiers honor fallen service members for Memorial Day
BRECKENRIDGE — Memorial Day in Summit County typically involves events that pay tribute to fallen soldiers as speeches are made, and flags are raised and placed on the graves of those buried in the local cemeteries who served in the military. This year, some adjustments have had to be made due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are still ways to honor the day virtually and symbolically around Summit County.
The town of Breckenridge and the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance are hosting a virtual ceremony that will include the traditional flag raising done by the Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District and the Breckenridge Police Department as well as patriotic songs, prayers and a keynote address from Lt. Gen. Rod Bishop. In addition to the virtual element, June Walters, historical tour guide for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, will be placing flags on the gravesites of all veterans around the Valley Brook Cemetery.
Walters has volunteered to place the flags for Memorial Day since 2015. She said that the day was first called Decoration Day and was associated with red poppies as after World War I, a poem was written about poppies growing along the veteran’s graves in the Flanders region of Belgium. Walters said that while there aren’t any red poppies that grow in Valley Brook, people coming to honor grave sites will bring flowers along with flags.
“In Valley Brook Cemetery, which used to be an old placer mine site, … there were mine ditches and the gates were open to let the water flow through the mine ditches in order to water Memorial Day flowers,” Walters said. “The ditches still exist but they are cut off from water supply.”
According to Walters there are 62 veterans in Valley Brook Cemetery ranging from veterans of the Civil War to those of the Vietnam War. Walters places flags the same way they do at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, with a flag in the center of the gravesite a foot away from the gravestone. The flags usually stay at the cemetery until after Veterans Day.
“The placement of flags for Memorial Day actually has been official, if you would call it that, since 1868 and it is something, an honor, that came out of honoring our Civil War soldiers,” Walters said. “It was an official proclamation made by a general of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868 … and we have buried our veterans in a Grand Army of the Republic section of Valley Brook Cemetery.”
Walters said that around this time she typically is not alone in the cemetery.
“There are several families that come and it’s about the time that the snow is gone from the cemetery and so when I do place the flags on Saturday I do see people driving in and they come and they clean family sites and then they stop and talk and ask questions about the cemetery and then I see them again on Monday when we have the actual ceremony,” Walters said of previous years.
One of the men buried in Valley Brook is Leslie Thomas McMacken Jr., who, according to according to Honor States, which provides information on fallen service members, may be the only Summit County native to have died in combat in the Vietnam War. Other fallen soldiers listed from Summit County served in World War I and II. According to records compiled by John (Jack) Craig, who lived in the area during the Vietnam War era, McMacken was a lance corporal and was awarded with a Purple Heart. He had a military occupational specialty of 0311, the code for infantry riflemen, and was from Frisco.
McMacken enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, entering via the regular military and began his tour on Jan. 3, 1969. About five months later, McMacken was in the Quang Nam province of South Vietnam and was involved in Operation Pipestone Canyon when he died at the age of 18 on May 31, 1969. His death was attributed to “hostile action, small arms fire,” according to Honor States.
Bruce Queen, who served 26 years in the U.S. Air Force beginning during the Vietnam War, now works for the Summit Historical Society. Queen was stationed in the Philippines from 1973-74 as the war was coming to a close. Queen is an ROTC graduate from the University of Arkansas. In the Philippines he worked with missiles, shooting live missiles at drone targets, the idea being to provide realistic training in a cost effective way and to collect data. Queen said the most interesting thing about being in the military at this time was the sporadic communication men on the base had with loved ones.
“The most no-kidding kind of factoid is we wrote letters and once a month, if you were really lucky, you could make a phone call,” Queen said.
Queen also talked about the draft system that was in place at the time. He was in college at the height of the draft and was deferred until he enlisted upon graduation. Queen said he had friends from high school that were drafted, but said the process was not like World War II and it didn’t feel like the majority of young men were drafted.
Queen said he would be surprised if 75 men out of the 950 people in his high school graduating class were drafted. He said that many who were draft eligible and had a low number in the lottery system chose to enlist before being drafted so they could pick their branch and career field. Queen said that the biggest change he saw over his 26 years of service was the integration of women into the military.
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