Durham County

Memories, prayers of thanks at Bennett Place for Memorial Day

The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas Union soldier Chris Williams (left) plays checkers with Confederate soldier Aaron Moses (right) during the Memorial Day military timeline at Bennett Place.
The Herald-Sun | Bernard Thomas Union soldier Chris Williams (left) plays checkers with Confederate soldier Aaron Moses (right) during the Memorial Day military timeline at Bennett Place. The Herald-Sun

Bill Sofield reverently kneeled down, and gingerly planted five miniature American flags with remembrance tags into a green bed of grass at the foot of the twin-pillared Unity Monument at Bennett Place State Historic Site on Saturday.

With his head bowed, and his wife Tammy’s arm wrapped around him, they offered silent prayers as the annual Memorial Day Military Timeline living history re-enactments played out around them.

It was a prayer of thanks for the men who answered the country’s call, Sofield said, “that they gave the sacrifice and never came home.”

He was honoring his grandfather, Jack Sofield, a medic in World War II, and his wife’s grandfather, William Harold Smith, a World War II Army Air Corps flying ace and Purple Heart recipient who saw action in Pearl Harbor, the European and Pacific theaters.

“And the others are shipmates that I lost,” Sofield said.

“For me it’s a tough day, a tough weekend, because I tried to save some of my shipmates. I tried. The things we had to do sometimes,” he said, his voice transforming into audible gasps as his lips began to quiver and his hands to tremble.

“All gave some, but some gave all,” he said as he regained his composure.

“Sometimes I tell people the stories, and they don’t want to hear it. They want to walk away from it. Some of it’s graphic,” said Sofield, who served aboard the aircraft carriers USS Roosevelt and USS Saratoga.

He witnessed his buddy pop onto the flight deck and run straight into a fighter jet prop.

“I was about five feet away from him, and I just couldn’t grab him in time. From the bellybutton down, that was the only thing left. He ran for another 10 feet,” Sofield said, momentarily wandering off again to a dark place.

Sofield said he saw action in Turkey and Libya, where they disabled ships in Tripoli Harbor and bombed Muammar Gaddafi’s palace. The Saratoga helped to capture the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985.

“I go to the VA once a week now for [PTSD] stuff,” Sofield said.

“This helps him towards dealing with the PTSD from some of the losses that he remembers still to this day,” Tammy Sofield said of his attending veterans events and allowing his emotions to flow. He’s working with various medications and therapies to cope.

“It’s a long road, and it just takes a lot of time and patience,” she said.

“We want to make sure that visitors appreciate and understand that our freedom came at the sacrifice of others, that these men laid down their lives for generations they would never meet, never know,” said Diane Smith, site manager at Bennett Place. “We think that it’s important to remember that.”

By putting on live displays and re-enactments “it brings history to light in a way that a book or a magazine can’t do,” Smith said.

“You can’t smell and hear in a book,” she said, as if on cue, as the wind shifted and the sweet smell of wood campfires drifted towards the museum, and World War I doughboy re-enactors fired off a series of gun rounds.

“So for people to come out and meet these guys, and see a little bit more about the equipment, and what they went through, I think it gives a better appreciation for our military, and our military present day,” Smith said.

People dressed in period garb or organization representatives manning booths covered the entire range of military veterans in U.S. history, except one — the Korean War, which is the most difficult conflict from which to find re-enactors, Smith said.

Bennett Place, where Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered 89,270 troops from the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida to Union Gen. William T. Sherman on April 26, 1865, marked the last day of the Civil War.

Smith said since Memorial Day arose from the Civil War, when Union soldiers saw Southern women placing flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers from both sides, Bennett Place seemed a natural historic site to hold the Military Timeline event.

George Lassiter of Edenton was among the re-enactors, portraying a Civil War medical doctor. His son Kelly portrayed a hospital steward, his wife was dressed in period attire, and his other son Shenandoah was in historically accurate clothes, showing moms and sons how to make a candle with a cotton string and beeswax bubbling over an open wood fire.

The family often goes to historic re-enactments together. Lassiter said recently he and his wife attended an event. “She talks about women’s clothes, and I talk about cutting off arms and legs,” he said with a chuckle.

Lassiter retired from the Marine Corps after serving from 1965-88. He drove an ambulance and was in an artillery unit. He saw combat in Da Nang and other hot spots in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.

“When you feel bullets fly by your head, and you feel mortars fall from here to that table,” he said, pointing to furniture 30 feet away, “you learn to appreciate a good mound of sand” to burrow into for protection.

“I’ve got a couple of people on the wall,” Lassiter said of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., recalling fallen comrades with whom he had shared drinks and jokes. He’s traced friends' names on the wall onto paper, and in one instance gave it to the elderly mother of a friend killed in action who was too old to travel there herself.

“Tears do come to my eyes when I see the wall,” he said.

Memorial Day is likewise an emotionally challenging time, he said. When he gets away from the crowds and is left alone with his thoughts at night, he succumbs to the 1,000-yard stare back into the abyss of combat and fallen friends.

“I realize it could have been me instead of him,” Lassiter said.