Around 15 years ago, beautiful crosses appeared on Memorial Day. The white wooden crosses listed soldier’s names who were killed in the line of duty and the war they fought. They lined North and East Main Streets and each one had a small American flag.
It was a powerful tribute to so many who had died so valiantly defending our freedom. I remember being moved by the beauty of this tribute and the sheer number of crosses. I had no idea who originally came up with this idea and went to all of this trouble and expense to compile the list of fallen soldiers, construct the crosses and then place them so beautifully.
This was especially special to our family, because one of the crosses was in memory of my wife Lori’s great uncle, John Gilbert Woodward, who was killed in May 1944 on a training flight during World War II.
Like many wonderful things in our community, the crosses just appeared. Most of us give little thought to why, how or who took on this massive project. Every Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day until 2008 the crosses were placed.
Then, it stopped.
For seven years, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day observances came and went, without the crosses. We began asking around to see if anyone knew who did this and why they stopped. We learned that the project was led by then Statesboro Fire Chief Joe Beasley and the late Deputy Chief Herman Akins. The Statesboro firefighters took this project on with honor and pride. They made all the crosses by hand, lettered them and dutifully installed them, removed them and stored them.
As time marched on, all of the leaders involved in the project moved on. Chief Beasley and Deputy Chief Akins retired. With the change of leadership, the installation of the crosses failed to become a priority.
Once we discovered the history, we began making calls to see if anyone knew where the crosses were stored. We couldn’t imagine they were thrown away. We reached out to everyone in the city that we thought ma have knowledge about the crosses. Even the local veteran’s organizations had no idea what had happened to the crosses. No one seemed to know anything about them. The search continued for nearly three years.
On Memorial Day, in 2014, a story was printed in the Statesboro Herald seeking information on the crosses. Still nothing. Then last year, I took to social media with a plea for the crosses. It was shared hundreds of times. Late one evening, I received a message from Bobby Duggar, division chief with the Statesboro Fire Department. Duggar remembered the crosses and had been involved in the project. He had left the fire department for several years and had rejoined the department a few years ago.
This became a personal mission for Duggar. He began reaching out to former firemen and through them, in the very back of a city warehouse, they rediscovered the crosses a little before Memorial Day last year. They crosses returned on Memorial Day last year and Veterans Day in November.
However, there were several soldiers that had died in service who did not have crosses and many of the crosses were in very bad shape.
Duggar reached out for help in getting an updated complete list of fallen soldiers and to see if there was interest in the community to help them rebuild the crosses. We reached out to Virginia Ann Waters with the Bulloch Historical Society and Dr. Brent Tharp with the Georgia Southern Museum for support. Both enthusiastically agreed to help. Brent provided an accurate and current list of fallen soldiers from WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Global War on Terror.
The Bulloch County Historical Society provided financial support for the project to purchase materials to rebuild the crosses. In addition, Whitfield Signs agreed to letter each cross as a donation and Woodman of the World donated new American flags to go on top of each cross.
“This has been a wonderful project and a perfect way for the Statesboro Fire Department to give back to the community,” Duggar said. “It has been great seeing how the community has rallied around us to support this effort. Every firefighter has taken great pride in this project and we have enjoyed being part of this. Training Captain Parker Johnson helped oversee the project and has really taken the lead on seeing this through. I am proud that we have all worked together to restore the crosses.”
Restoring to past glory
The firefighters didn’t just bring the crosses back. They have remade each cross by hand and installed the crosses so they are now displayed alphabetically, by war. They also are working on future ideas to recognize all veterans.
It is so wonderful that all the families who lost loved ones, will again see their ultimate sacrifice honored and memorialized in such respectful way.
When you see one of our local firefighters out in the community thank them for their efforts in restoring this special project with dignity and pride. More importantly, take this time to thank the men and women in our community who have served and continue to serve our country through the armed forces.
These crosses and this holiday remind us all that freedom isn’t free.
DeWayne Grice is business editor of the Statesboro Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.