Jackson Cooke was a 22-year-old private with the 9th Infantry when he was killed on April 27, 1953 – just a few months before the end of the Korean War.
His body was returned to Durham, to the World War Veteran’s Plot at Maplewood Cemetery, where flat stones mark the graves of veterans from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Among them were officers and fighting men, but also cooks, laundry workers and medical personnel.
Others include Private 1st Class Otho Merritt, 19, and 3rd Class Musician Ludwig Edwards, 53, both of whom died on June 14, 1944 – about a week into the Allied invasion of Western Europe that pushed the Nazis out of France.
The plot established by Durham’s American Legion Post 7 in 1932 holds only some of the hundreds of veterans scattered among the 120-acre cemetery. Many more, including soldiers who fought in the Civil War, rest in its oldest sections.
The holiday – originally known as Decoration Day – actually started in 1868 as a way to honor Confederate and Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. It did not become an official federal holiday honoring all service members until 1971.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans has done a good job replacing damaged stones and marking the Confederate graves, said Don Murray, a U.S. Navy veteran who served from 1968 to 1972. Union soldiers also are buried there, but he’s not sure where, Murray said.
“A lot of these you can’t even read, so you have no idea (who they are),” he said.
Veterans, family members and volunteers planted about 600 flags in just over an hour Sunday. The veterans noted how good it was to see a group of JROTC members from Riverside High School among the volunteers.
It’s important to continue the tradition of planting flags on the graves, they said.
“It’s about showing respect and honor for those who gave all,” Murray said. “Most people are cooking hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill tomorrow. They ain’t got a clue what Memorial Day is about.”
It’s not about glorifying war, Army veteran Ken Yow said in response to a question.
“A lot of these guys were drafted,” said Yow, who served 17 years in the Special Forces. “They didn’t have choice. They weren’t looking forward to going to war. They got drafted and served. They got killed.”
The veterans will return at 10 a.m. Monday for a ceremony, before sharing lunch and fellowship in the Post 7 Legion Hall at 406 E. Trinity Ave. The ceremony will be moved to the Legion Hall if it rains, officials said.
Another observance held by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2740 starts at 11 a.m. in Oak Grove Memorial Gardens, 3712 Cheek Road.
In Chapel Hill, Memorial Day commemorations will be held to honor service men and women, along with immigrants and refugees as victims of war.
The events begin at 2 p.m. at the Chapel Hill Public Library, with Lori Khamala, director of the N.C. Immigrant Rights Program for American Friends Service Committee, speaking at a service held by the Orange County Peace Coalition. At 3 p.m. Orange County will break ground on a new Veterans Memorial next to the Southern Human Services Center, 2501 Homestead Road.
At a time when American Legion and VFW membership is declining nationwide, Murray said Post 7’s membership sits at about 300, including Sons of the Legion and the Ladies Auxiliary. Less than half of 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military – the lowest number since World War II.
Roughly 80 percent have a parent or sibling who also served in the military, national surveys show. Murray and Yow said they don’t think most people who saw them planting the flags Sunday had any idea what they were doing.
“People who are fighting the war now are such a small, small percentage of the population,” Murray said. “A lot of people don’t know we’re at war and have been at war for years and years. They live in their own little world.”