Tuesday, October 7, 2003

National Guard saves cemetery from disrepair

Hallowed ground: Rededication ceremony

By John Nolan
The Associated Press

U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, presents a U.S. flag that flew over the Capitol, Sept. 11, 2002, to Brig. General Robin C. Timmons, center, and Adj. General John Smith, during dedication ceremonies Monday.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
ANDERSON TWP. - At a hillside cemetery where soldiers from the Civil War through the Vietnam War are buried, the gravestones now stand straight and are no longer hidden by overgrown grass and shrubs.

Ohio Army National Guard officials and politicians gathered at Hillcrest Cemetery in suburban Anderson Township on Monday to rededicate the site, marking the end of a three-year restoration paid for with $685,000 from the Guard, as well as numerous private contributions.

National Guard volunteers rerouted a creek that had eroded the hillside, installed drainage pipes, brought in loads of dirt to make the site less steep and hacked away chest-high vegetation.

"A lot of the tombstones were setting on their sides," said Sgt. Maj. Tim Grys, who spent months directing rotating crews of Guard soldiers at the site.

About two-thirds of the 14.5-acre cemetery's nearly 1,400 occupants are black soldiers who had been denied burial elsewhere because of their race, National Guard officials said. Along with the Civil and Vietnam wars, they served in World Wars I and II and the Spanish-American and Korean wars. There are also about 700 nonmilitary graves at the cemetery.

Guardsmen worked with civilian officials who examined Hamilton County and state records to find the locations of some graves and establish who was buried in them. Once that research was done, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs provided 237 markers to identify previously unmarked graves.

The restoration was one of the Guard's largest-ever community projects and attracted soldiers from around the state to help, said Maj. Gen. John Smith, Ohio's adjutant general. Smith said he felt a particular poignance upon seeing overgrown graves of Vietnam veterans, since he had served during that war in 1967.

"Certainly, it's our deepest wish and desire that this remain hallowed ground," Smith said.

The overgrown cemetery had been known only to immediate neighbors until 1994 when sheriff's deputies caught people stealing remains from graves that had been exposed by erosion, said Russ Jackson of the Anderson Township Board of Trustees. That prompted an investigation that revealed a much larger burial site and started lengthy efforts to restore the cemetery.

The land had been privately owned when it was incorporated in 1926 as a cemetery and was dedicated then as a burial ground for black soldiers. The land was later overseen by a church, then fell into neglect, officials said. The restoration's start was delayed for an investigation to determine who owned and was responsible for the property. Eventually, lawyers obtained court permission to put the land in custody of a nonprofit entity, the Coalition to Save Hillcrest Cemetery, which is to maintain the site, Jackson said.

Civilian volunteers donated topsoil, grass seed and straw, brought in lunches and drinks for the workers and even sharpened mower blades.

"It's wonderful," said Diane Nelson, 57, of West Chester, who visited the site Monday with her 2-year-old granddaughter, Reagan Gargac. "We have to honor our fallen soldiers. To let their graves fall into disrepair is disrespectful."

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