In only four years, the Wreaths Across America remembrance at the Churchill County Cemetery has gone from a few dozen wreaths to almost a thousand.
A cadre of volunteers including both Boys and Girls scouts and sailors from Naval Air Station Fallon placed 936 wreaths next to the graves of local veterans who served from the American Civil War to Vietnam. More than 1,200 veterans are interred at the Churchill County Cemetery.
“We are so close,” said organizer Lisa Devall, who spent countless hours raising donations for the annual remembrance. “I know we will be honored to place a beautiful wreath on every single veteran in Churchill County.”
Before volunteers placed wreaths at the gravesites, Churchill County Commissioner Bus Scharmann told the story of duty, sacrifice and camaraderie in the military. His uncle, Navy electrician’s mate second class Richard Judd Hinkson, served on a Tambor-class submarine, the USS Grenadier (SS-210), during World War II in the South Pacific. On one of their missions between Australia and Indonesia, Scharmann said the Grenadier successfully sunk Japanese merchant and war ships before their luck turned in April 1943. The crew became engaged in a very difficult fight with the enemy, causing the submarine to suffer severe damage.
“Their captain — Capt. (John) Fitzgerald — took the sub down, all the way to the bottom in the Straits of Indonesia, 270 feet down,” Scharmann recounted. “Somehow, he was able to bring it back to surface.”
After the Grenadier reached the surface, a Japanese pilot spotted the submarine and its crew, but before an enemy ship could reach them, Scharmann said Fitzgerald scuttled the sub and sent it to the bottom of the sea. The crew evacuated the Grenadier by climbing into life boats, but soon afterward, the Japanese took the sailors as prisoners and remained in that status for the rest of the war, which officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945, with the formal signing to end the costly war.
“My uncle was in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Pacific and in Japan,” Scharmann said. “He didn’t talk very much (after the war), but talked more to my father. He talked about his camaraderie with the people he was with not only on the sub but the men he was with in the POW camp. He talked about how they would work for hours and hours and hours in a train yard in Japan.”
During the POW ordeal, Scharmann said Fitzgerald secretly kept a journal detailing the ill treatment the sailors endured; consequently, Scharmann said the captain wrote justice was served after the war against their captors who administered the harsh treatment. Remarkably, Scharmann said, only four sailors didn’t survive the harsh conditions of a POW camp.
Scharmann also described his uncle as a mean, tough, gruff man who was a hard drinker and smoker but who also had a softer side to him.
“He would sit down with my mom — his sister — and my father — and talk about those old times,” Scharmann said. “He would cry because he remembered his crewmates. The crew of the Grenadier got together every 4 to 5 years in Las Vegas to talk about old times and to be together.”
Scharmann said some of the happiest times for his uncle, who died in 1991 and is buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery 12 miles south of San Francisco, were being with his Navy friends whom he called his brothers.
Those who helped place wreaths also talked of remembering veterans. Volunteers Chelsea and Jesse Jackson of Fallon began helping Devall this year to raise money for wreaths. Chelsea Jackson and Devall first met because of their common ties of being caregivers for veterans.
“We have never done it (placing wreaths) before, but it means a lot to me having a lot of veterans in the family,” Jackson said, adding she has family members who have served in the Army and Air Force.
Jesse Jackson spent eight years in the Army, deploying for two tours in Iraq.
“When veterans pass away, they should never be forgotten,” he said. “We try to help as much as we can.”