One Saturday morning last November, Leland Riggs, 97, a veteran of the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, was surprised and saddened to find his American flag and its 20-foot pole missing from his front yard. A landmark to neighbors, Riggs' lighted flag is flying again through the efforts of Boy Scouts of Troop 342.
The previous flagpole's destruction was part of a torrent of overnight vandalism in the area around Gentilly Road. The pole was found down the street, broken into three pieces. Statesboro Police Officer Justin Gawthrop returned the remains to Riggs and called Troop 342 Scoutmaster Lovett Bennett Jr. about the possibility of a replacement.
The Scouts obtained donations from members of Statesboro Primitive Baptist Church, which sponsors Troop 342, and members of the Statesboro Kiwanis Club. The pole, flag and electrical work to restore the spotlight, also damaged, cost about $300.
"Part of what we teach these guys is patriotism, they learn about it through scouting, and Mr. Riggs is a World War II Guadalcanal survivor, and he was awakened to find out that his flag was torn down," Bennett noted.
Riggs, who had joined the National Guard in 1939, became part of the Army through the Guard's mobilization in 1940 and remained in active service through the war. He served in the Guadalcanal Campaign in the South Pacific in 1942-43, leader of a 90 mm antiaircraft gun crew. Returning to the states a sergeant, he went to Officer Candidate School, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and then trained recruits. Called to active service again in 1950 for the Korean War, he served in the States and at a base in Germany. He eventually retired with the rank of major after 26 years combined service in the National Guard and on active duty.
The flagpole destroyed last year had been a Christmas gift from Riggs' first wife, Cleatus, about 35 years ago. They were married from 1943 until her death in 2002. Riggs and his current wife, Pearl, have been married since 2004.
He walked out that Saturday morning in November to get the newspaper and realized his flag had vanished, pole and all.
"It was a sad feeling to think that somebody could do that," Riggs said.
He wasn't the only victim of the preceding night's vandalism. The Statesboro Police Department reported 13 separate complaints.
The ceramic eagle sculpture in front of Howard Lumber, part of the Eagle Nation on Parade series of sculptures in front of businesses across Statesboro, was smashed. Six mailboxes, lighting fixtures at two professional offices, two vehicles, and one road sign were also damaged.
Statesboro police in January arrested Justin Nasworthy, 18, of Swainsboro, and Jeffery Tanner, 19, of Granade Street, in connection with the incidents, charging with them with felony criminal damage to property and several counts of criminal trespass.
Meanwhile, Troop 342 had actually restored the flag in December. In addition to the flag the Scouts purchased, U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., visited Riggs and presented him one that had flown over the U.S. Capitol. Scouts dug the hole, poured the concrete, and set the pole straight. But with this winter's weather, a dedication ceremony didn't happen until Wednesday.
Veterans from American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90 gathered with the Boy Scouts on Riggs' lawn. Post 90 Commander Terry Preslar noted the mutual support of Scouts and Legionnaires for one another.
"We support the Boy Scouts," Preslar said. "That's one of our children and youth programs that we're heavily involved in, and also, the Boy Scouts on Memorial Day, we put out flags on veterans' graves in Bulloch County, and the Boy Scouts always help us do two of the major cemeteries."
Scout Michael Klumpp, 15, led the Boy Scout Oath, and Scout Durden Gagel, 14, recited the Scout Law.
Scouts Cole Johnson, 13, James Nevil, 17, and Addison McGuire, 11, held the flag, attached to the lanyard, while American Legion Post 90 member Tom McElwee, made prepared remarks.
McElwee cited words that Gen. Douglas MacArthur spoke in 1944 when the U.S. flag was restored at Fortress Corregidor after the hard-fought recovery of the Philippines from the Japanese:
"I see the flagpole still stands. So hoist the colors to the top of the pole, and let no one bring it down!"
At McElwee's instruction, Johnson raised the flag.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9431.