FERNLEY — A lone bagpiper playing a dirge led a procession to include 27 men and women, each carrying a custom-made wooden urn with remains of a veteran who served from one the United States’ previous wars.
Large flags flapped before them from the gentle breeze of autumn’s first day, the sun peering from between the fast-moving storm clouds. The solemn precession walked slowly to the final resting place for their brothers in arms. Charles Montanaro, who joined the U.S. Merchant Marines during World War II, wore a blue hat and jacket both indicating his service as a seaman Marines more than 70 years ago. In the procession, the Carson City resident held close to his chest an urn containing the remains of Knox Moore, a fellow mariner who died in 1989.
“All of those guys were forgotten,” said the 96-year-old Montanaro, who was born in Cleveland. His voice trembled, his eyes welling up with tears. “I asked to carry him. I saw his name on a list.”
The journey home
Knox and other veterans received military honors Friday in a ceremony that began with a motorcade from Reno, through downtown Fernley and finally to the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery to their resting place — their final home. The Nevada Veterans Coalition, along with the Missing in America Project, many state and federal agencies, Walton’s Funeral Home and other mortuaries, had a significant role in conducting the identification process and arranging for a fitting funeral.
The veterans’ remains sat unnoticed on a shelf for more than three decades until they were identified and certified to be interred at a veterans’ cemetery. The 27 veterans grew up in different parts of the country, but their final home of record ended in Nevada. Montanaro and Knox readily enlisted in the Merchant Marines after the United States entered World War II in December 1941, but eventually found their way to the Silver State sometime after the war.
“We were all volunteers,” Montanaro recalled of his time as a mariner. “Nobody would take me because I was colorblind.”
During the war, mariners died at a much higher rate than servicemen and women from the other branches of the armed forces. Merchant ships hauled supplies for the Allies, but German and Japanese submarines sunk more than 700 vessels at an alarming rate. Out of the 215,000 mariners who served from 1942-1945, 8,651 lost their lives.
Mariners weren’t considered veterans, however, until the Department of Defense granted them that status in 1988 after four decades of pressure from military service organizations and veterans’ groups. Mariners’ missions were just as dangerous and harrowing as those conducted by the U.S. Navy in both theaters of the war.
“It was a misfortune to be all over, and I sailed on any ship that was loaded with ammunition,” said Montanaro, who was on several mariners recognized at a Memorial Day ceremony this year at the NNVMC. “After the war, we anchored off the coast of Iwo Jima, and we were loaded with ammunition and ready to go to Japan.”
The call to sail further northwest from the island never came.
A process in the making
Coming to their final resting place began months ago, said Eric Grimes of Fallon, NNVMC’s superintendent.
“It was a very long process,” he explained. “It takes about three months to verify somebody. It requires the assistance and help of the Nevada Veterans Coalition, ancestry.com and other groups who were able to speed the process up and help identify the veterans who were sitting on a shelf. Then we verified to see if they were eligible to be interred here.”
Brett Palmer, president of the NVC and commander of the honor guard, said the 27 veterans were essentially abandoned until the various agencies pooled together their expertise.
“We started with this one list, and 1,400 names needed identification,” he said.
Palmer said the research then began with 147 individuals with 27 initially being identified. He said another 16 veterans were processed several days ago. Palmer said ideally the NVC would like to inter all 1,400 veterans, but he added the identification process is time consuming.
He also credited Jennifer Kandt, executive director of the State of Nevada’s Funeral and Cemetery Services Board, and volunteer Lynda Freeman for their assistance. Kandt said the process has been a daunting task to identify the veterans, but it was something that had to be done. She said it took the state Legislature to change the law so the identification of remains and ceremonies like this could occur.
Home with brothers and sisters
Tom Draughon of the NVC, who delivered heartfelt opening remarks and a prayer during the service, solemnly put the event into perspective when he said the 27 forgotten veterans were waiting for someone to remember them.
“The Nevada Veterans Coalition heard those cries, and we brought them home to be home with their brothers and sisters to this beautiful cemetery where they so rightly belong,” Draughon said.
Likewise, Blake Howe, funeral director for Walton’s Funeral Home, said Friday was an opportunity to honor the 27 veterans whose remains had been unclaimed for years. Howe also said he was humbled to see the large number of people lined up on Main Street, waving miniature U.S. flags as the motorcade wound its way to the cemetery. Law enforcement officers from Lyon and Washoe counties and the Nevada Highway Patrol led the two-block long procession shortly after noon.
Misty Mullholland, whose husband served in the U.S. Marine Corps and was riding in the procession with the Combat Veterans of America, used Facebook to ask for volunteers to line Main Street near the fire station. She and several others handed out flags, while a North Lyon County Fire District engine hoisted a huge U.S. flag on its ladder to fly over the street.
“This is special because of the number,” she said of the deceased veterans.
A final tribute
During the ceremony’s opening, an honor guard of sailors from Naval Air Station Fallon, soldiers from the Nevada Army National Guard and members of the NVC, carried the wooden urns to a table placed in front of guests.
Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, reflected on the servicemen including two who had served during World War I. Until the first announcement of the ceremony, Miller said she had thought all veterans from the “War to end all wars” had been properly buried with honors.
She told the story of Charles Beckerman, a WWI vet who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1899 with his parents. He joined the military months after the United States entered the war.
“In 1918 the 21-year-old enlisted in the Navy and served aboard a ship in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Miller, whose grandfather also served during World War I in the Navy.
Like most young sailors of his time, Miller said, he was hardworking but had a swagger that young sailors possessed.
After the war ended, Beckerman moved to Las Vegas and worked as an ironworker. Miller said Beckerman married but later divorced. He started his own business, though, but in 1945, Miller said he traveled to Saudi Arabia to use his skills as an ironworker and manager. After leaving the Middle East, he remarried and moved to Reno.
“He died in 1984 at the age of 87,” Miller said. “He sat on a shelf in a nondescript box.”
Miller said his life was vibrant, exciting with family and friends whom he loved. Her remarks then reflected on the other forgotten veterans.
“Some of us will outlive those we love,” she said, adding the honored veterans may not have family here does not mean they were not loved.
After the speakers concluded their remarks, the NVC conducted a rifle volley, “Taps” and a flag-folding ceremony and presentation. Lyon County Sheriff Al McNeil played the bagpipe. The Patriot Guard and Combat Veterans of America — with each member carrying a flag —then escorted the procession to the veterans’ final resting place overlooking the manicured grounds of the cemetery.
“We are grateful all 27 people are all here,” Kandt said, “but we have much more work to do.”