Durham County

‘Boys Town’ Marine tells war stories in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery

The color guard recovers colors during the Memorial Day ceremony in Maplewood Cemetery.
The color guard recovers colors during the Memorial Day ceremony in Maplewood Cemetery. The Herald-Sun

The origin of Memorial Day stems from Reconstruction.

On May 30, 1868, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first “Declaration Day” ceremonies honoring Civil War dead at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Civil War ended in May of 1865. Between 1865 and 1968’s Declaration Day, springtime ceremonies honoring Civil War casualties took place in hamlets, parishes, metropolises and localities across both southern and northern states. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 25 places share a connection with the origin of Memorial Day.

But it was the town of Waterloo, New York, that President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966, and in 1971 Congress made Memorial Day an official federal holiday, recognized on the last Monday of May.

On Monday, Capt. Bill Bagley, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who retired from the Military Police and his career in military corrections currently living in Raleigh, spoke at Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery as the keynote speaker for American Legion Post No. 7’s Memorial Day commemorations.

Bagley was born in 1953, orphaned in December of 1966 after his father died in a train accident and, at 13 years old, arrived at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town home for orphans outside of Omaha, Nebraska, in January 1967.

The famous Boys Town – Spencer Tracy won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Father Flanagan in the 1938 film “Boys Town” – shaped Bagley’s life. He spoke to a gathering of veterans at Maplewood in front of a half-massed flag, about Boys Town boys’ roles in American wars.

“No matter what part of the world they’re in, the people who fought for this country and their memory should always be treated with a level of respect that is beyond gracious,” he said.

Pearl Harbor

Bagley, 63, graduated from Boys Town in 1976 but remembers well the war-stories of those who graduated before him.

In 1942, he said, the entire senior class fought for space – each trying to be the boy closest to their shared radio – as news reports broadcast the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Every single one enlisted to fight the Japanese, Bagley said.

“It was estimated that over 200 boys had listed Father Flanagan as their ‘Next of Kin’ for emergency notification,” in World War II, Bagley said.

Three Boys Town boys died at Pearl Harbor. One had been stationed on the USS Arizona.

One Boys Town boy, Walter Clark, survived the attack on the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor, later survived the sinking of the USS Lexington at the Battle of the Coral Sea and after several narrow escapes aboard the USS Edsall, received a medical discharge after his “nerves went bad.”

Attack on castle

Boys Town boy U.S. Army First Lt. Vernon Baker, Bagley said, was one of the few black officers serving in the segregated 92nd Infantry Division near the northern Italian village of Viareggio when he and 25 men attacked Castle Aghinolfi.

On Monday, Bagley told his fellow veterans, after Baker spotted a German machine-gun emplacement, the lieutenant “emptied the clip of his M-1 rifle into the observation post, killing two sentries.”

Next, “Baker spotted a machine-gun nest occupied by two soldiers, who were distracted by their breakfast. He shot and killed them both.”

“A German soldier then hurled a grenade that landed at Lt. Baker’s feet,” he continued. “Undeterred, he fired two fatal rounds at the fleeing German, while the grenade by Lt. Baker’s boots failed to explode. ... A wounded German soldier stumbled out in confusion, and Lt. Baker shot him ... he raided the bunker with a submachine gun blazing, killing two more Germans.”

Baker received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1997.

“I want to leave you with this homework assignment,” Bagley said. “Take the first opportunity you have to tell your loved ones that you do, in fact, love them. Do it out of the clear blue, not over an expensive dinner, or a traditional family special occasion. It’ll be therapeutic for all involved.”

God bless America, he said.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks