Relatives of veterans without headstones found

By: Robert Guttersohn | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published October 31, 2012

METRO DETROIT — Derrick Smith, 48, has no memory of his father.

Willie James Smith, a private first class in the U.S. Army, was killed in Vietnam in 1965, when he was only 19 and when Derrick was just an infant. Derrick has built his visualization of Willie from photographs and the memories of others who knew him.

“I’ve heard a lot of different things about him,” Derrick said in a phone interview from his home in Newport News, Va. “I’ve heard he was a really good guy who cared about his family and his children.”

Derrick has known since April that his father was buried without a headstone in Lincoln Memorial Park, a traditionally black cemetery in Clinton Township. Since then, he has tried unsuccessfully to have one placed at his grave. But it wasn’t until after Macomb County Veterans Services Commission Chairman Pat Daniels sent him a video from the cemetery that he actually saw his father’s burial site.

“I thought it was horrible,” Derrick said and then paused before continuing. “It kind of shook me up a little bit.”

Willie, along with two other black Vietnam veterans, is buried in Lincoln Memorial without a headstone. There, time has played a cruel trick; grass has overgrown the small, knob-shaped stones that represent the deceased veterans’ order in the row of graves.

Meanwhile, a Detroit reverend who knew Willie as a teenager saw, on TV news, a group of people seeking the three veterans’ relatives. He recognized Willie’s name, called Derrick and told him about the group’s endeavor.

Derrick contacted Daniels, who was searching for relatives of the three with the help of Macomb County and Ruth and Charlie Babcock, a married couple who originally came across the unmarked graves. Since September, they have also found the family of U.S. Marine PFC Martin Luther Rimson. Rimson’s 85-year-old father still lives in the same Detroit home in which the veteran grew up, Daniels said.

They still are searching for those who survived Marine PFC J.T. Smith.

“We thought he’d be the easiest because he had nine brothers and sisters,” Daniels said of J.T. “We’re working on it,” Ruth said. “We got clues.”

Ruth said she and her husband looked at the 1940 census and found that J.T.’s father had moved from Mississippi to Detroit. The next step is going through records at the Detroit Public Library and finding where the father’s last known address was in the city.

“It’s just a matter of one step at a time,” Ruth said.

Daniels has said that, regardless if he finds the surviving relatives, he will find a way to get J.T. a headstone. He is planning to set the headstones during a special ceremony for the three men around Memorial Day next year.

“People need to know there are heroes out there,” Daniels said.

In the meantime, Derrick is trying not to blame himself for the condition of his father’s burial site.

“I wish I had done something earlier,” Derrick said.

His feeling of guilt is compounded by the fact that Derrick,  a retired veteran from the Air Force, understands the sacrifice made by people choosing to serve. And seeing his father remembered only by a number etched into a stone was hard to take.

But Derrick thinks the very public ceremony that Daniels is planning will be fitting for Willie and provide healing to a family who knows the memories of their father only through stories of others.

“That will be good for our family,” he said.