Memorial Day holds a special significance to our family as we remember my wife Lori's great uncle, John Gilbert Woodward. Gilbert was killed in May of 1944 during World War II on a training flight in the Gulf of Mexico. He was the son of Henry and Mamie Woodward of Stilson. His sister Edith Hutchison, who turned 90 this week, explained that he was two weeks away from getting his "wings" when the plane went down. He was only 22.
The accident involved Gilbert and his flight instructor, who miraculously survived the crash. Surprisingly, Gilbert's funeral was open casket. The only visible injury was a bruise on his temple, Edith recalled. She was his only sibling and was pregnant with her second child at the time.
Her husband Harold was from Pennsylvania and New York. Edith and Harold met when he was stationed in Savannah. After Gilbert's death, Harold decided to stay in the south and not take Edith back north where his family was. He always said that he couldn't leave Mr. and Mrs. Woodward all alone after Gilbert's death.
Gilbert attended the University of Georgia. He was one quarter shy of graduating. Like most brave men back then, he enlisted with a group of his friends. Edith said he made that decision while he was home on Christmas break in 1942.
After Gilbert's death, his dad Henry put in a well at the grave site at Old Fellowship Baptist Church in Stilson so his mother Maimie could water the flowers that she planted there. The pipe is still there today, but after their deaths the hand pump was removed. When we visit the grave and see the pipe, we can imagine this heartbroken mother pumping water for the flowers. What a loving act honoring the death of her only son.
One of Gilbert's most cherished possessions was his UGA class ring. He wore it everywhere. In fact, the day he was killed he was wearing it. When they returned his body and possessions the ring was gone. They predicted it was knocked off his hand during the impact. It was thought to be lost forever.
That was until his parents received a phone call in the mid-eighties from the University of Georgia. A group of scuba divers were diving at the crash site and found Gilbert's class ring at the bottom of the ocean.
They contacted UGA and using the fraternity letters, graduation year and his initials that were etched inside the ring, they were able to identify him and find his parents. Over 40 years after her son's death, his mother was given back one of her son's most prized possessions. Once they received it, they were amazed at how incredibly preserved it was after being on the floor of the ocean for over 40 years.
His mother, Mamie gave the ring to Edith's son, Rick Hutchison, (Lori's dad). It fit him perfectly. He wore it daily until, one day while doing yard work, he took it off and put it into his pocket for "safe keeping." Later, when he went to put it back on, it was gone!
After a full-out search the ring was nowhere to be found. They called a relative with a metal detector and miraculously located the ring again. When they found it, it was totally buried in the dirt. Rick was so relieved that he didn't have to tell his grandmother that he had re-lost the ring! We now keep the ring in a display case at our home.
For years, on Memorial Day, someone placed wooden crosses on the courthouse lawn honoring our fallen soldiers. We are not sure why this was discontinued. Our family and so many others who lost loved ones in wars, looked forward to seeing these beautiful wooden cross with the fallen soldiers names. It was a powerful statement to the sacrifice our community made to ensure the freedoms we enjoy today. Hopefully this tradition will be restored again for next Memorial Day.
Regardless, it is with pride again on this Memorial Day that we pause to remember John Gilbert Woodward and all of his comrades from our community and the incredible sacrifices so many members of this "greatest generation" made for us.
DeWayne Grice is a business columnist for the Statesboro Herald, a local business owner and a licensed insurance agent.