Before dawn on Memorial Day, volunteers meet in Evergreen Cemetery, Red Oak, Iowa to get the flags up before dawn. They have perfected this operation over the years with volunteers of all ages working together to fly the flags of Red Oak veterans.
This enterprise started in 1938 when Roy (Percy) Breese visited friends in Fullerton, California. While on a tour of the community, his hosts drove him past a Fullerton cemetery with an avenue of American flags on display. They were the casket flags of the veterans buried in the cemetery. Mr. Breese was awed by the sight and it made an impression. When he moved back to Red Oak more than 20 years later, Mr. Breese remembered this memorial and told his local Veterans of Foreign Wars post what he had seen and convinced them that they should have a similar tribute here. Fifty-two flags were on display in Fountain Square Park on Veterans Day, 1961.
From those 52 flags, the Montgomery County Veterans Court of Honor has grown to 1,529 flags. While the family maintains ownership of their veteran’s casket flag, the Court of Honor has its own building where the flags and the poles are stored every day of the year, except one.
The Court of Honor doesn’t have a lot of costs but what it does have are covered through sales of new American flags. Oh, and an annual soup & pie supper. That’s Iowa.
Maintaining the building, the flags, and the work involved for their display on Memorial Day is a true labor of love and deep respect.
Montgomery County, Iowa paid a costly price for war. Company F from Villisca and Company M from Red Oak were part of the 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Red Bull Infantry Division. They were fighting in north Africa, in Tunisia in a place known as Kasserine Pass. German troops under the leadership of Erwin Rommel, otherwise known as The Desert Fox, ambushed the regiment.
“War Hits Red Oak: A small prairie town gets word that 23 of its boys are missing in action after a battle in North Africa,” was the headline in a Life Magazine article. On that day in early March 1943, the telegrams arrived in Red Oak’s Western Union office in the lobby of the Johnson Hotel and that day, 15-year-old Rex Holmes was there.
Des Moines, they signaled that they had traffic for Red Oak. Well, I knew how to operate the machine, so I turned around and flipped the switch and told them to go ahead. And all of a sudden it dawned on me that damn machine is still running. It’s been running quite a while. I went over there and picked up—the tape had run into a waste basket, and I picked up the tape and started looking at it. And I read two of them. And I knew right then and there we was in trouble. I thought they never would stop.Rex Holmes, interviewed for “World War II and the Home Front” for Iowa Public Television
The article in Life included a sobering aerial photo of the town and identified the homes where Rex Holmes delivered a telegram that day. Red Oak lost 55 men in World War II, almost half of them in this battle. Montgomery County had one of the highest number of casualties per capita of any county in America.
A writer for The Saturday Evening Post wrote in an August 1946 article, “If New York City had lost as many sons as this Iowa town, the dead would have numbered 70,000.”
It continued: “Red Oak, Iowa looks like the home town we dreamed of overseas; rich and contented, with chicken and blueberry pie on Sundays, for whose sake some said we were fighting the war. It is the kind of town we wanted to be the same when we came home, at the same time it would somehow know what the war was about.”
Red Oak is my hometown. I was raised here, left, and came back. My children were born here. I did not learn of any of this history until I was a college student in the early ’80s. The story may have still been too painful when I was growing up.
There is also the sense of getting on with life. No one was doing this for fame, fortune, or glory. They did what they were asked to do. It was their duty and proud to serve. When they returned, if they returned, the counted themselves as blessed because they had seen and experienced things that no one should. Their next duty was to go back to their lives and make things right again. And they did. Quietly, they put these days behind them and moved on with their everyday lives.
Monday’s forecast calls for morning showers, which will likely keep the flags safely stored for another year. The annual Memorial Day program will be moved indoors and additional flags will be dedicated to the Court of Honor. There’ll be other years when volunteers, and scouts, and 4-H kids, and pickup trucks meet before dawn to put up 1,529 memorials to men and women from Red Oak who served the country in war and in peacetime.
In memory of my family members with flags in the Court of Honor:
- Philip C. Armknecht, 2001, Korea, Army.
- Riley C. Nelson, 1958, World War I, Army
- Riley R. Nelson, 1996, World War II Navy