Men Of Honor

At Post 194 in Rising Sun, veterans know the toll that time is taking -- and the importance of a 21-gun salute.

Cover Story

May 27, 2001|By Story by Larry Bingham

So this is how a war ends.

The honor guard of American Legion Mason-Dixon Post No. 194 last year buried 95 veterans, most of them survivors of World War II.

The year before that, 105.

So far this year: 36.

That's nearly two funerals a week for the honor guard in the town of Rising Sun.

So this is how a war ends.

On the final front, injuries come from age. The wounded wear hearing aids and can't see without their glasses. On this battlefield, a winter wind can threaten an old soldier's life.

At least 572,000 veterans are expected to die this year nationwide, so many that Congress passed a law to make available two servicemen regionally to perform graveside military honors. But in this town near the Pennsylvania border, other veterans do the honors.

Because in their minds, two men is not honor enough.

The military is downsizing. Bases are closing. Younger men aren't joining veteran groups. And all the while, World War II veterans are slipping away -- an average of 1,100 a day.

Imagine what kind of man will be lost when the last World War II veteran is gone. Think not only of all he saw, but of the clarity he brought to the battlefield, and the burden he carried away.

Imagine what life means to him now. Or death, for that matter. Or time.

Here, ask this tall, broad-shouldered fellow in the front seat of a Crown Victoria, his arm thrown over the back of the seat like he's out for a Sunday drive instead of on his way to a funeral.

Charles "Chik" Smith is the honor guard chaplain. He's like Walter Matthau, the ornery one who calls himself "a sentimental old bastard." At 20, he invaded Italy on a bloody beach south of Salerno, dodging German bullets that whizzed by like darting birds. At 78, he hasn't missed a funeral in two years.

Like all the veterans in this procession, Chik has reasons for going to the cemetery.

Here, ask this man sitting in the back seat of a Cadillac.

This is Billy Davis, who at 81 is the third-oldest man in the honor guard. Billy's from Kentucky. He says things like "by gosh" and "back home." Billy survived a torpedoed aircraft carrier in the Battle of the Coral Sea and has lived for a half century more. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the early 1990s and has lived for a decade more.

Imagine what time means to him.

Or ask this man sitting beside Billy.

Francis Auvan Smith is 87, veteran of the Second World War, hero of his 1939 baseball team, the man they call Little Smitty. He has just become the oldest member in the honor guard, so look at him closely. Note the way he laughs with his shoulders; the way he walks on shuffling feet; the glint in his one good eye.

Commit him to memory because the day will come, and soon, when Staff Sergeant Smith disappears from these ranks.

This is how a war ends.

With a procession of old men in Cadillacs and Crown Victorias leaving the funeral home, idling at the only stoplight in town.

The casualties mount, and the living take one step closer to the grave.

It is only a matter of time.

The time is 2 p.m., Jan. 15.

When the light changes, the men turn onto Main Street and don't say much.

Their journey takes them past the police station, the National Bank of Rising Sun, the doughnut shop, the pet store, the insurance agent, the diner, the Western Auto where lawnmowers are set on the sidewalk when the weather is nice.

On this winter day, they bury a founding member, Charlie Earl Owen, a World War II veteran who was just five months older than Little Smitty.

They are in the country when they drive by Owen's house; passing empty fields, gray barns, silver silos, frozen ponds, flocks of Canada geese on their own journey.

Another WWII veteran, a fellow who served in the British Isles, says he can remember when funerals in northern Maryland were postponed until spring. But "no siree Bob," says 81-year-old Raymond Jones. "There are too many to do that now."

At the cemetery, they park where they always do: near the road, so they can be first to leave.

A few sit in their cars while the younger men, Korea and Vietnam veterans, gather the ceremonial flags and rifles from the guard commander's truck.

It is cold and foggy, and no man is in a hurry to get to the grave.

To bury one of their own, the commander jabs an M-1 rifle into the mud, then sets a helmet atop the gun. It is a symbol from the battlefield: Soldiers marked the place where their comrades died. Now it is a rare honor reserved for post presidents -- or brothers in the guard.

To bury one of their own, they stood in pairs at the funeral home, at the head and foot of the casket, for 15 minutes without talking or moving, each holding a 10-pound M-1 rifle. "Standing watch," as it is called, is hard on arthritic legs, replaced knees and degenerative hips. Harder yet on an old man's heart.

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