John Newport recently stood at attention atop a hill overlooking the funeral for a U.S. Army veteran at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton, shielded from a stubborn rainfall by his clear poncho and his bright red Marine Corps League cap.
The 78-year-old Vietnam War veteran waited for just the right moment to give the command to fire. Three colleagues aimed their rifles high, readying to shoot three volleys for a paratrooper from Marietta who served in World War II.
A retired flight attendant from Woodstock, Newport is preparing for a similar — though much bigger — event at the same cemetery Tuesday. That is when he and many others will honor seven WWII-era veterans whose cremated remains were never claimed by their loved ones. With full military honors, their ashes will be placed in a columbarium at the cemetery. The public is invited to attend the event, the result of exhaustive research by Newport and four Atlanta-area funeral homes.
Their work is part of a national effort by the Missing in America Project. Since it was founded in 2007, the nonprofit has helped inter the unclaimed remains of more than 4,000 veterans — some from as far back as the Civil War — at state and federal cemeteries nationwide. Of those, 35 were laid to rest in Georgia.
“Every veteran deserves their full honors. That is the bottom line,” Newport said. “They served their country, for God’s sake. And now they have been sitting on a shelf for 28 or 29 years. And that is not right.”
The planning for Tuesday’s event was sparked by conversations between Newport and the Dignity Memorial network of funeral homes, which had been holding on to seven sets of veterans’ remains. Newport and Dignity Memorial collected information about the seven men and sent it to the Veterans Affairs Department, which confirmed they were indeed U.S. military veterans eligible to be interred at the Georgia National Cemetery. Most have been dead for decades. Still, details of their lives emerged from research done by Newport, the funeral homes and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Tech. Sgt. John Francis Campbell Jr.: Originally from Essex County, N.J., he lived in Alpharetta and was 85 when he died in 1996. He was married and had a daughter and three grandchildren. Campbell worked as a federal government manager and served in the military between 1942-1945.
Technician Fifth Grade John Embert: From Canonsburg, Pa., he served in the U.S. Army from 1943-1945. He died at 86 in 1984. His military enlistment records show he was a metal worker.
Sgt. Robert Erwood Forrest Sr.: Born in Los Angeles, he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps between 1944-1946 and the U.S. Air Force between 1952-1953. He worked as a commercial airline pilot and was 71 when he died in 1998 at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. He was married and lived in Roswell.
Pfc. Robert Lee Green: Born in Polk County, Ga., he served in the Army between 1942-1946. He died at age 61 in 1984.
Spc. 1st Class James Sheridan: Born in Hudson County, N.J., he served in U.S. Navy Reserve on active duty from 1942-1945. He died in 2000 at age 81.
Capt. Frank Shortley Teasley: He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps between 1941-1946 and the U.S. Air Force between 1946-1949. He served in “all areas, including Europe, Africa, India and all of the Far East,” according to a funeral notice. Teasley received an Air Medal, which is awarded for heroism or meritorious achievements. He was also the recipient of the European-African-Middle Eastern and Asiatic-Pacific campaign medals. Teasley lived in Woodstock, was never married and was 79 when he died in 1999.
Sgt. William H. Wallengren: Born in Hartford, Conn., he served in the U.S. Army from 1945-1946. His military records show he served in the Philippines and received the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal. He died at age 56 in 1983.
Their remains were found at the Georgia Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery in Marietta, Roswell Funeral Home and Green Lawn Cemetery and Mausoleum, Sandy Spring Chapel and the Horis A. Ward-Fairview Chapel and Fairview Memorial Gardens in Stockbridge.
It’s unknown why their loved ones did not claim their ashes, said Greg Free, general manager of the Marietta funeral home. But he pointed to other situations in which surviving relatives were estranged, too overcome with grief or unaware of where to retrieve their loved ones’ remains.
There are at least between 50,000 and 75,000 more sets of veterans’ unclaimed remains at funeral homes across the country, estimated Linda Smith, the national director and CEO of the Missing in America Project.
“We have been doing this all these years,” said Smith, a Navy veteran from Missouri, “and we have barely touched the surface.”
Dignity Memorial and Newport sent letters about Tuesday’s ceremony to surviving relatives. Newport said he has received only one response: a voice-mail message from a woman he suspects is the daughter-in-law of one of veterans. He has repeatedly tried to reach her by phone and mail but has been unsuccessful.
The work is personal for Newport, a retired Marine Corp master sergeant who did two tours in Vietnam in the 1960s. He founded a Marine Corps League detachment in Woodstock and volunteers with the Missing in America Project. On a wall in his home office hangs pencil rubbings of three names from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. — names of troops with whom he served in Vietnam.
Newport also founded a ceremonial rifle team, which has performed at more than 200 military funerals at veterans cemeteries, private graveyards, churches and farms across Georgia.
The day before Halloween, Newport prepared for a ceremony much like the one that will happen on Tuesday. He slid his poncho over his honor guard uniform and headed out into the steady rain at Georgia National Cemetery. Newport brought his fellow riflemen to attention as a convoy of mourners arrived at an outdoor shelter. Moments later, the service began for William Harris, a paratrooper from Marietta who served in North Africa, France, Italy and Germany during WWII. He was 95 when he died Oct. 19. A poster board displaying photos of him sat next to the urn carrying his ashes.
As rainwater trickled around him, a military chaplain quoted the English poet John Donne: “No man is an island entire of itself… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” He led the group in prayer.
Then Newport gave the command, “Ready! Aim! Fire!” Three volleys pierced the silence. A solitary bugler sounded taps as Harris’ loved ones wiped away tears.
Two uniformed troops ceremoniously unfolded and then folded an American flag for everyone to see. One presented it to Harris’ son, Phil, telling him: “On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
A rifleman from Newport’s team presented Phil Harris with three shell casings from the volleys, telling him they represent: Duty, honor, country. As he prepared to depart, Phil Harris, a retired paramedic from Marietta, called the salute “absolutely wonderful,” adding about Newport and his colleagues: “It was an honor to have them here.”
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