CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Ruth and Charlie Babcock recently walked the southeast portion of Lincoln Memorial Park cemetery.
Most of the headstones in that section of the cemetery are low to the ground and at least partially covered by grass.
In the middle of them, Ruth ran her shoe over a loose patch of grass between two gravesites. Doing so, she revealed a stone embedded into the ground and shaped a like doorknob. The number 6 is etched into it.
If someone weren’t looking for it, the stone could easily be missed. And even if someone did see the stone, they’d likely dismiss it as a place marker for a future grave, not one already used.
But buried 6 feet beneath the number is J.T. Smith, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps who died days after taking a North Vietnamese bullet to the stomach in 1966.
“That’s all there is,” Ruth said, still standing over the stone.
There’s no name, no date of birth or death. There’s nothing telling visitors how he died — only a number representing his order in the row of graves.
The Sterling Heights couple came across the unmarked grave about three weeks ago, and through their research, they found a 3-inch obituary, which included a grainy photo of the Marine wearing his tan cap.
From that article, the Babcocks discovered he had nine siblings and grew up on the southwest side of Detroit on Omaha Street. He graduated from Northeastern High School, and like many Detroiters, he went directly from school to work for an auto plant. But instead of making a career of it, J.T. Smith enlisted in the military in 1965. He was 20 when he was killed.
To the Babcock’s surprise and dismay, Smith is one of three black Vietnam veterans buried inside Lincoln Memorial without a grave marker of any kind.
Like J.T. Smith, Marine PFC Martin Luther Rimson and Army PFC Willie James Smith are buried in the same anonymous fashion.
The Babcocks, who for seven years have made it their personal goal to find and clean the headstones of all those with ties to Michigan killed in Vietnam, are now looking for the families of the three veterans.
During their search for the graves, Ruth turned over a list a list of black veterans killed in action who she could not find to the Clinton Township cemetery. The cemetery was able to confirm that 17 of them were buried in Lincoln Memorial.
When Ruth came across the plot of land where J.T. Smith was supposed to be buried according to the cemetery’s directory, there was only grass. She came back the next day with an employee of the cemetery. He peeled back grass and dirt, and exposed the stone.
“We’ve done thousands of them, and this is the first really three that do not have markers,” Ruth said.
The Babcocks called on the help of Pat Daniels, from the local 154 Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America and chairman of the Macomb County Veterans Services Commission, and Kermit Harris, the director of Macomb County Department of Veterans Services.
“They deserve a headstone,” said Daniels, himself a Vietnam veteran. “Those are my brothers.”
There are several theories as to why the three were buried without one. Daniels believes the families, perhaps not having much money, were not informed that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for the headstones of those killed in action.
Charles, who was in the U.S. Navy before the Vietnam War began, said it is possible that the family felt bitter toward the government that sent their son to die. “So they may not have wanted to order something from the government at that time,” Charles said.
Daniels doesn’t think it had anything to do with the men’s race. “It’s not about whether they were black or white,” Daniels said. “It’s about red, white and blue.”
Regardless, they want to get a hold of the next-of-kin to ensure that they are OK with the soldiers having a stone placed where they are buried and to fill out the needed paperwork.
If all attempts to reach family are exhausted with no result, Daniels promises to find funding for the three headstones regardless — even if that means paying out of his pocket.
Right now, Daniels said, the search is in the beginning stages, and they do have some clues to work with.
Willie James Smith, 19 years old when he was killed in 1965, left behind a wife and two kids, according to records compiled by the Babcocks. J.T. Smith has the nine siblings he left behind when he was killed. Rimson, 20 when killed in 1968, was a different story.
Records revealed that only his parents, who would likely be dead by now, survived him.
Charlie said there are 2,654 people with Michigan ties that were killed in Vietnam. They have yet to find 132 of them. Their search has taken them to cemeteries in Canada and as far as San Diego. Yet, they both agree providing headstones for J.T. Smith, Rimson and Willie James Smith is their greatest mission so far. Their reasoning can be summed into three words.
“They deserve it,” they both said.
Those with information on how to contact the three veterans’ families can contact Pat Daniels at (586) 246-0876 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.