LA Daily News: Scouts honor war veterans at Los Angeles National Cemetery

May 27, 2017
In The News

LOS ANGELES >> The drill at Los Angeles National Cemetery was simple: approach a grave, recite the name of its veteran, plant a U.S. flag firmly before the stone, taking care that it stands straight and true. Pause. And salute.

The exercise was repeated 88,887 times on Saturday by thousands of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from across Los Angeles. Their mission: to honor American warriors for Memorial Day

“Pvt. Hosie Johnson,” said Cub Scout Benji Bendezu, 8, of Pack 91 in West Los Angeles, stooped before the marble gravestone of a World War II veteran from Tennessee. “Thank you for your service.”

With a crisp, two-finger salute, he moved on to the next grave. Then to the next. In just over an hour, and army of Scouts had turned the national graveyard off Wilshire Boulevard into a garden of flags flying beneath a solemn sky.

The Los Angeles National Flag Placement, which began more than four decades ago, drew more than 5,000 Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and their families for what may have been the largest Memorial Day weekend turnout ever, officials said.

The flag ceremony and placement, organized by the Boy Scouts’ Western Los Angeles County Council of Van Nuys, marked the largest Scouting event in the state.

And one of the largest Scout-sponsored flag tributes outside the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

“When I started doing this 15 years ago, there was no honorable way to plant the flags. It was a madhouse,” said Keith Smith, chairman of the council’s flag placement program. “Now they walk up to the gravestone, read the name, place a flag, then salute.

“It’s about honor. It’s a way to acknowledge the identity of each fallen service member.”

The Scouts, each in full uniform, honored the sacrifice of Los Angeles military veterans dating back to the Civil War, including 14 Medal of Honor recipients.

Their graves, each marked by flags posted beneath eucalyptus, magnolia and camphor trees, stretched in seeming endless rows of knee-high marble stone across the 114-acre cemetery.

“Couldn’t be prouder,” said Tom Ruck, director of the 128-year-old cemetery. “This is our Super Bowl. This is a chance to honor America’s truest heroes.”

The day began with a procession of nearly 200 Scout troops and their families from across Los Angeles County and beyond, who came streaming through cemetery gates flanked by a Theodore O’Hara poem.

“The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat the soldier’s last tattoo,” began his “Bivouac of the Dead.” “No more on life’s parade shall meet that brave and fallen few.”

During a half-hour ceremony, World War II veteran Jimmy Weldon, a TV pioneer known for playing the voice of Yakky Doodle the duck in Hanna-Barbera’s Yogi Bear cartoon series, reprised another voice on behalf of the U.S. flag.

“History will never write my obituary, for I am the Stars and Stripes forever,” he said. “I am Old Glory. I am you.”

A lone trumpeter played taps.”

The Scouts then fanned out across the cemetery — Tigers, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Daisies, Brownies, Girl Scouts, Venture Scouts, Life Scouts, Explorers and more — trodding the thick grass between each marble stone.

They knelt before Civil War gunners choked by the smoke of their cannon. They planted flags before doughboys shocked by the shells of World War I. They recited the names of sailors who had fallen beneath oil-slick waves during World War II.

“I feel good that I’m doing this,” said 11-year-old Lucas Goodwin of Sherman Oaks and a member of Boy Scout Troop 191, whose grandfathers both served, staring at a plaque honoring Air Force veteran Joseph Wilson, a Vietnam War vet. “I’m thanking them for what they did.”

Twelve-year-old Paul Zweigle stared down at a horizontal gravestone of Sgt. John Stim, born in 1896, who likely entered a Great War battlefield a century ago this year.

“I’m just imaging how his friends died in war — getting shot, blown up, poisoned, slaughtered,” said Zweigle of Mission Viejo’s Boy Scout Troop 1602.

Local veterans were grateful.

“It warms my heart so much it brings me to tears,” said David Nenkervis, 75, of Westlake, wearing a U.S. Marine Corps cap of his former service, who will sing “God Bless the U.S.A” during a Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery. “You can feel the energy, just being here. The respect for the servicemen like myself. And others who gave much more than I did.”

Jarrett White has met the last surviving airmen from the Doolittle air raid on Tokyo, for which he’s written a school report. He knows about his great-great-grandfather, Joseph Hoerter, who served in the Army during the Battle for the Argonne during World War I.

On Saturday, he reached down to decorate the grave of Navy veteran Leis J. Vosburgh, whom he knew nothing about. He read his name. Snapped a Cub Scout two-finger salute.

“Thank you for your service,” said White, 8, of West L.A, adding, “I’m excited. I just like planting flags. I like giving respect to those who died in war.”

A Memorial Day program will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday at the Los Angeles National Cemetery, including keynote speaker Congressman Ted Lieu, the 300th Army Band and mounted New Buffalo Soldiers, at 950 S. Sepulveda Blvd.