As the years passed, the overgrowth buried Cpl. Eddie Lee Hill again.
Visiting the gravesite of the Vietnam soldier killed in action on Nov. 4, 1975, was “heartbreaking,” his sister Janie Ligon said. Until recently, that is.
“I love it,” Ligon said, as she stood in the center of Oaklawn Cemetery serenaded by the buzz of mowers, edgers and trimmers. “It’s just, I wish I could get out here and dig in it like the rest of them, but ‘Arthur’ is my best friend right now; arthritis, you know. I come out here and do what I can. Sweep something up and put it in the bag.”
Ligon was referring to an effort led by activist Eddie Irby, president and founder of the 92nd Infantry Division of Buffalo Soldiers to clean up and document the gravesites of veterans buried in Oaklawn Cemetery on the north side of the city.
The work began the week before Thanksgiving in 2017, and although the group has made great progress, there’s still about two-thirds of the cemetery remaining to uncover. Irby and a group of local veterans were recently honored by the Mobile City Council and Councilman Levon Manzie for their work cleaning up a notoriously overgrown final resting place.
“The ultimate goal is to clean [and] identify each veteran here and each Veterans’ Day, [or] any day that pertains to a military day, is to place flags on that particular gravesite,” Irby said, before pointing to a large American flag on a flagpole at the cemetery entrance. “[We’re] going to put six more flags up to represent Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, everybody. We’re going to do it for each one of the service flags on May 8.”
Last week a group of Coast Guard personnel helped Irby and others clear more brush from Oaklawn. The effort last week, Irby said, was to get the gravesites ready for Easter.
“So, what we’re going to do with this part is just get it to 2 inches above the ground so they can walk up there and bring an Easter lily or flower after Easter Sunday services,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of people who’ve come out here since we’ve started — particularly seniors — who have loved ones out here. We found some people who had three or four relatives who were in the military who are buried out here and have never been able to get to them and now they can get to them.”
A volunteer in Irby’s effort and a veteran himself, Neil Bruyn said the group has found roughly 600 graves belonging to servicemen and women at the cemetery already.
“We came out here and walked around with grass up to our waists,” Bruyn said. “We just walked around and found 50 to 75 veterans. Then we cut the grass and found another 100. Then we weedeated [sic] and found another 100.”
At last count, he and his wife, Fran Barber, have documented 570 graves, Bruyn said. He said they expect to find more with more than half the cemetery left to document.
“Oh, we are [finding more],” he said. “You can drive through it and you can see the veterans’ headstones — the tops of them. Veterans’ headstones are very distinct.”
As they find the veterans’ gravesites, Bruyn said they are using GPS from their phones to upload the location to findagrave.com.
“When we find them my wife takes pictures of them,” Bruyn said.” Her daughter uploads them to findagrave[.com] and then my wife and her grandchild comes out here with their phones and they GPS them. We haven’t done it for everybody else because there are so many veterans.”
The documentation of the gravesites will be very helpful for friends and family of the deceased trying to find the gravesites, Bruyn said. For instance, he said a man from Texas comes out to visit every once in a while to see the gravesite of a soldier with whom he shared a foxhole.
“He came out here looking for him and couldn’t even find the cemetery it was so grown up,” Bruyn said. “He’s in Texas and he comes out on a regular basis. We’ve found them and we’ve GPS’d them.”
While Irby and Bruyn said they were happy to clean up the cemetery and find veterans’ graves, they would not being doing it on a regular basis.
“We’d love for the community to get involved and start taking care of the civilians out here,” Bruyn said. “Given that we haven’t even done a third of this and we’ve got almost 600 veterans, we’re asking any military people out there or any families of military if they would like to adopt a veteran out here and just take care of his one.”
In addition, Irby called on not just the community, but others as well to help out.
“You don’t have to stay in the community,” Irby said. “If you stay on the Mississippi line and want to adopt a veteran, you can. Come over on Easter weekend, on the Fourth of July, on Veterans’ Day — you know, on Memorial Day, and clean that veteran’s gravesite off and put a flag there.”
Bruyn said he feels a sense of duty to take care of other veterans, after 13 years in the Air Force and another six in Army Reserves, “because these guys died for our country.”
“We’re talking World War I and World War II,” he said. “World War II is the greatest generation. They saved this world. They saved the United States.
“We’ve got Vietnam vets out here,” Bruyn continued. “We’ve got over 600 of them. They’re veterans. They fought for this country.”
For Ligon, the work is about honoring veterans buried at the cemetery.
“It’s honoring my brother’s memory, it’s honoring all these veterans,” she said. “On Veterans’ Day 2017, looking at TV, they’re putting wreaths down for the veterans at Arlington. They put flags. They’re putting them over in Baldwin County at the veterans’ cemetery and I’m over here; I see veterans with no flags, no wreaths,” Ligon added. “I feel like these veterans out here need to be honored, too.”