TONTOGANY – Each year, the Lybarger-Grimm Post 441 of the American Legion, located in the village, places flags at the graves of more than 820 veterans at eight rural cemeteries in Wood County.
|A bronze military marker at Tontogany's cemetery. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
"It's a labor of love," said Post Commander Dick Conrad, who also works to research graves in the cemeteries to ensure as many of the veterans as possible are recognized with a bronze plaque.
A group of about four to five each year decorate graves at the cemeteries, which include Plain Township, Union Hill, Tontogany Cemetery, Washington Township, Otsego, Miltonville, Dunlap, and Sunset Acres. Among the veterans of more recent conflicts, those sites hold the remains of approximately 225 Civil War veterans, two War of 1812 veterans, and a single Revolutionary War veteran.
Of the Civil War veterans, Conrad estimated that about a fourth of their graves have either broken or unreadable tombstones, or they are simply unmarked.
"There's a few, even up to Vietnam, current era, that have no tombstones," said Conrad.
To locate the graves in order to place the flags, the group uses a master list of every veteran buried in each cemetery, including their name, section, row, and location in that row.
"They call out a name, I check it off," Conrad said.
Over the past decade, the post has been working to obtain bronze markers from the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs to upgrade the grave sites. Under current government regulations, the markers are provided for any veteran who died on or after Nov. 1, 1990; veterans who died prior to that date will not receive a marker unless the grave itself is unmarked. The bronze markers measure about 15 inches by 24 inches, and can cost approximately $600.
About 40 of the markers have already been obtained by the post, and the paperwork for a similar number was ready to submit - until a change in the regulations came through.
|Don Mears with American Legion Post 441 Tontogany places American flags on veterans' graves, Tuesday, May 20, 2014, at Tontogany Cemetery. Mears, along with other members, placed 830 flags throughout eight different cemeteries in preparation for Memorial Day.
|Post Commander Dick Conrad holds a list of names of veterans' grave markers.
"Up until two years ago, I would send in a form... and we'd get the bronze marker," Conrad said.
"Now, I have to be a genealogical expert."
Formerly, information including the veterans' dates of birth, death and service, military rank and other such information was needed - certainly no mean feat, but not too difficult to come by.
The new regulations, however, also require the signature of the next-of-kin - which can be a tall order to locate for veterans who died before the turn of the century.
To find them, Conrad essentially must do historical detective work, and he has turned to a variety of resources, including the library at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, online databases, and newspaper archives.
"You have to use all these sources to try to find living relatives," he said.
Luckily, Conrad found that in the case of some of the veterans, the next of kin ended up being people he'd known for a number of years.
In other cases, however, he said it can feel awkward trying to contact someone out of the blue about a relative they may never have heard of.
"It's difficult for me to call people cold" and talk to them about the subject, Conrad said.
"You don't know me, and I'm talking to you about people you didn't know."
Still, he said, he hasn't had any difficulty with relatives agreeing to sign the forms for their ancestor's plaques.
And Conrad's research is paying dividends. The Lybarger-Grimm post recently received a bronze marker for Napoleon Plotner, a Civil War veteran buried at Union Hill Cemetery, and the marker for a veteran of the Spanish-American War, John Benginan Freed, buried in Tontogany Cemetery, is reportedly on its way. The paperwork for two other Civil War veterans in Union Hill Cemetery is also completed.
For Conrad, interest in the subject runs deep. Himself a veteran of the Air Force, Conrad's father served in the U.S. Army during World War II and saw action in a number of engagements, including the Battle of the Bulge.
"That man went through Hell," said Conrad of his father's experiences, noting he was wounded and bore the scars on his hand, and, among other incidents, found himself cut off behind German lines for three days, having to crawl slowly back to where he thought the American lines were. His father was a previous commander of the Lybarger-Grimm post and heavily involved in the American Legion.
Additionally, relatives on his mother's side and his wife's side were killed in action in the South Pacific, and Conrad's son is shortly to retire from the Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He said he has been reading any book he can find on battles that his father participated in, and about the conflict in the South Pacific.
"That's part of what motivates me," said Conrad.