We brought our two kids to the annual Memorial Day weekend airshow yesterday, so they could squeal at low-flying planes, aerial acrobatics and parachute teams. But I’ll admit I’m not above getting juiced by the machinery of war: The vintage P-51 Mustang streaking vertically into the sky looked way more fun than driving a high-end sports car, and the parked C-130 cargo plane left the same feeling in my gut as staring up at an imposing skyscraper. I’m pretty predictably sentimental on these occasions, too: If I don’t breathe slowly and deeply, I choke up at the sound of taps or bagpipes and the sight of wrinkled old veterans.
But the memory of the day that I haven’t been able to shake came later, at an old rural cemetery, where a headstone near the entrance marked the grave of a WWII casualty I’d never heard of.
Pearl B. Wilkerson was a 37-year-old corporal, according to the marker, who died in April 1945. I couldn’t quite make out the wording and I wasn’t taking notes, but if I read it right he served in the 4th Armored Division. As I’ve learned today, by April 1945 that division had pushed into Germany and on April 4 became the first U.S. troops to liberate a concentration camp, a Buchenwald subcamp called Ohrdruf, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here’s video of Eisenhower inspecting the camp shortly after its liberation. (I may have misread the headstone, and Wilkerson may have served in the 2nd Armored Division, which had also pushed into Germany by April 1945 and on April 11 became the first American division to reach the Elbe.)
There’s very little about Cpl. Wilkerson online, but he is described as “killed in action” in a list of war dead for Callaway County, Missouri.
We stumbled across the cemetery on one of our occasional Sunday drives through the abandoned Midwestern countryside. It’s near what little remains of a small 19th century village called Shamrock. Off a remote but paved county road, the cemetery was so obscured by trees that we’d passed it before I realized what it was and had to turn around and go back. Adjacent to the cemetery were the remnants of the foundation of what I presumed to be a church (a Presbyterian one, it turns out, pictured here in 1904), including a partially exposed stone-lined well that I had to make sure the kids didn’t tumble into.
At first the most poignant thing about Cpl. Wilkerson was his date of death: April 1945 was just one month before V-E Day and Germany’s unconditional surrender, reminiscent of the plight of Remarque’s protagonist in All Quiet on the Western Front.
But what lingers for me about Wilkerson is how Memorial Day — for all the somber remembrances and displays of military hardware — is a small strike against the inevitable forgetting. Poor Wilkerson got a head start on being forgotten: buried in a now-churchless cemetery with headstones knocked over and steadily sinking into the ground, near a briefly prosperous village of Irish immigrants that was long past its prime when Wilkerson died and will eventually be a nameless crossroads. His is the same fate as that of the overwhelming majority of men who ever fought and died for their clan, tribe or country. Today we acknowledge how much we’ve forgotten by paying homage to what we have managed to remember.