The Faces Behind the Flags

Local vets explain why they plant flags and why plant sale support needed

“Without memories, there is no honor.” Strong words from Paul Brown, chosen to help decorate veterans’ graves in Newton with miniature American flags.

Brown, a Vietnam War veteran and a ranking member of Newton American Legion Post 111, was at Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery in Newton on Monday, along with his fellow veterans and Legion members Wallace Schermerhorn and Dick Couch.

The trio were placing the flags as a way of honoring their fellow veterans. This was Brown and Couch’s first year helping place the flags, and this is something Schermerhorn began doing around six or seven years ago.

“It’s rewarding. We’re paying back the men and women here in these graves. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we have today,” Schermerhorn said.

Every year, for Memorial Day, Schermerhorn said he has been placing around 1,600 flags at four cemeteries in Newton — Sacred Heart, Palo Alto, Newton Union and Memorial Park — and considers it an honor and history lesson.

“I grew up in town. I see names on here that I remember as a child, you know 65, 66 years ago,” Schermerhorn, who is 71, said. “We’ve walked among these men. A lot of these men, in these graves, have been in Honor Guard (or) American Legion members — friends of ours.”

“We’ve buried a lot of these guys,” Brown added.

Schermerhorn estimated that the American Legion Honor Guard attends around 50 funerals a year and that over the last 60 years, the organization has buried a number of the men whose graves they plant flags on.

When they plant the flags, they take the time to read each persons gravestone to find out more about them, estimate when they served and if they knew the person, recall a vivid memory of that person Schermerhorn said.

“I remember Joe Rung over there,” Brown said pointing towards a grave south of his position. “That guy was about this tall,” he said, indicating Rung was short, “a skinny little thing, but that man’s voice was taller than that flag pole over there. We always had him (read) the names of the vets that died the year before (during ceremonies).”

Another example Schermerhorn gave, as a history lesson, was the grave of former Legion member Joe Huggins, who he estimated was buried at Sacred Heart around five years ago.

“He was a quiet, big broad-shouldered fellow and never said much,” Schmerhorn said. “He would smile, love to play poker and have a drink. We buried him, and I just walked by (his grave) today and saw he was awarded the Bronze Star in World War II.”

“He never said anything about it,” Brown chimed in.

“He was just this quiet and unassuming gentleman — and he was a gentleman — and I’ve noticed this about a lot of those (WWII) and Korea veterans especially. They don’t tell you about their exploits,” Schermerhorn continued.

To support this annual event, the Legion is hosting its annual flag sale this Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hy-Vee, located at 1501 First Ave. E. in Newton. Schermerhorn said all of the flags are competitively priced, American made, very durable and range from grave marker size to very large flags.

All flag purchases are considered a donation and are tax-deductible.

Saturday, May 17, Schermerhorn has enlisted the help of local boy and cub scout troops and a number of others to help plant flags at Newton Union, which is the largest cemetery they cover.

“Anybody that wants to help, is more than welcome to show up. But it’s not a party, it’s a solemn occasion,” Schermerhorn said.

Besides the grave marker flags, they will also use around 200 flags to line the main entrance of Newton Union on Saturday May 24. He indicated they could also use more volunteers for that entire project.

Freewill donations will be accepted and may be mailed to American Legion Post 111, Attn: Flag Fund, 1101 W. Fourth St. S., Newton, IA 50208. Contact Schermerhorn at (515) 423-2275 for more information.

“You know what? (The flags) are not just there for the veteran that’s there — it’s for the families as well,” Schermerhorn said. “When they see that flag there, they know that somebody has shown respect. It doesn’t matter who, just that somebody showed respect.”

Senior staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at trushing@newtondailynews.com.