Fort Polk honors Heritage Families after discovery of 32 unknown graves
May 7, 2012
FORT POLK, La. (May 7, 2012) -- April 28 will be remembered by some living near Fort Polk as a day of discovery, reuniting 32 of their own.
When members of the Fort Polk Heritage Project, with the help of Soldiers from Warrior Transition Unit, honored the recently identified graves of 32 previously unknown local family members buried at Holly Springs Cemetery, they also revealed relatives.
"It surprised me to find out I had three aunts and uncles I didn't know anything about," said Bertis Brown, as he wiped tears from his eyes.
With leaders from Fort Polk and the U.S. Forest Service flanking them, two Army chaplains led the ceremony with prayer, Old and New Testament passages from the Bible and an impromptu a cappella version of "Amazing Grace." During the formal portion of the memorial service, each name was read, followed by a soft bell. After each toll, a Soldier standing in front of the corresponding grave came to attention, slowly marched to the head of the grave, and laid a pink flower next to the marker.
After the ceremony, family members fanned out to see the markers and meet the Soldiers.
Brown squatted in front of three small graves where four-by-four wooden posts at the head and feet of each identified three babies. His wife and three Soldiers stood behind him, offering assistance and encouragement. A metal placard in front of each grave read, "Infant of Emerson Johnson."
"I just found out when they were naming off the names," he said. "I didn't know my grandparents had more children. No one has ever mentioned it. I've always seen those graves beside them but it never crossed my mind that they might be our relatives too."
The U.S. War Department displaced Brown's and others' relatives between 1940 and 1945, according to the Fort Polk Cultural Resources website, to develop Camp Polk and Peason Ridge as a massive training facility to prepare Soldiers for War World II. Today, the cemetery sits on federal forestry land.
In an effort to reconnect their descendants to their heritage in what one family member described as "a living, breathing program with all the emotions," leaders at Fort Polk established the Fort Polk Heritage Family Project in April 2007. Since then, members of the project have conducted countless hours of oral history interviews with descendents of family members buried at the cemetery in the hopes of identifying the 100-plus unmarked graves.
Ted Hammerschmidt, a consultant with the Heritage Foundation, said they have focused on non-invasive techniques to respectfully reconnect Heritage Families to their past. One of those techniques involves the use of a "ground penetrating radar," similar to a metal detector.
The most effective technique, however, has come from the memories of family members during interviews, said Hammerschmidt. "This is all about oral histories. We are beginning to put the pieces, the mosaic, back together, so this is an exciting day."
Five years after the project began, some who attended the special ceremony in honor of the Heritage Families wrestled with tears after the conclusion, while others smiled and chatted with Soldiers about their new-found discoveries, or just to tell somebody their family stories.
"This is a special day; a very, very positive day for these people," said Skip Cryer, one of the historians conducting the interviews. Cryer is also a descendant of one of the families displaced by the War Department. "Orderly and patriotic, that's what these people are. They went through a lot and they still love this country."