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Local resident Whittle trying to get proper headstone for grave of World War II veteran uncle

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 7/1/20

Dozens of African-American veterans from the Middletown area are buried in the East Middletown Cemetery along Iron Mine Road in Londonderry Township.

Some fought in the Civil War. Others fought in …

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Local resident Whittle trying to get proper headstone for grave of World War II veteran uncle

Posted

Dozens of African-American veterans from the Middletown area are buried in the East Middletown Cemetery along Iron Mine Road in Londonderry Township.

Some fought in the Civil War. Others fought in the nation’s other major conflicts since then, such as World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War.

It’s easy to find the graves of most of these veterans. They are marked by a small U.S. flag, and by a headstone that the Veterans Administration provides for free to the next of kin of veterans who are honorably discharged.

But look for the grave of William Howard Hunter, a Middletown native who served in World War II in North Africa, and you can’t find it without the help of Hunter’s nephew, Lewis Whittle, who is caretaker of the cemetery, and among a small group of volunteers who keep the cemetery going. 

Whittle knows where Hunter is buried, because he buried him there when Hunter died in April 1991 at age 75.

But all Whittle has to mark the spot is a small American flag placed in a flag holder, next to a marker in the ground about the size of a compact disc.

The marker is a generic small stone that simply indicates that the person buried there served in World War II. There’s no name or dates of service for the person. The stone is too small for that.

You can’t see what’s on the stone from a distance. You have to be standing on top of it to even see that the person served in the war.

Whittle has been trying to change that for the last five years. He wants the VA to provide Hunter with the standard military headstone to which Whittle believes his uncle is entitled.

It seems like a simple thing, cut and dry, but in this case, it’s anything but.

Whittle has been unable to track down a copy of the official record that would document Hunter’s military service and that he was honorably discharged, referred to as a DD 214. That record would have been kept at the U.S. military’s National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. 

According to an undated letter Whittle received from the center, the center has no records of William Howard Hunter’s military service, most likely due to a fire that took place at the center July 12, 1973.

The fire destroyed 80 percent of the records for soldiers  discharged from the U.S. Army between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan. 1, 1960, according to information about the fire posted on the center’s website.

Hunter was discharged on Oct. 26, 1945, according to Whittle.

The center website describes a process by which the center can reconstruct the records for a soldier whose original records were destroyed in the fire.

But here’s the rub, perhaps even a bigger challenge to Whittle than not having a copy of Hunter’s DD 214 — only a soldier’s next of kin can request those records, according to an email Whittle received from a center customer service representative in November 2019.

Next of kin means spouse, father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter, according to the email. 

Whittle isn’t any of those. All the people Whittle knows who would qualify as Hunter’s next of kin are dead — with the possible exception of a woman who lives in Slidell, Louisiana.

William and Edith Hunter had no children of their own, but  raised Sarah Price as their own daughter, Whittle said. 

However, Whittle doesn’t know for certain that the Hunters ever formally adopted her, and he is unaware of any documentation attesting to that.

But when Hunter died in 1991, Whittle said he was able to track down Sarah — with the help of a Louisiana State Police officer.

She came up and was able to receive proceeds from Hunter’s estate and from his insurance policy, suggesting she may indeed qualify as Hunter’s next of kin.

But Whittle said he hasn’t been able to obtain any of Hunter’s military records from the woman, such as the copy of his honorable discharge that would satisfy the VA’s requirements for providing the free headstone.

Whittle acknowledges the woman could be the key to getting the VA to provide the headstone, if she qualifies as Hunter’s next of kin. But Whittle at this point said he doesn’t even know where she is, and his efforts so far to track her down again have come to nothing.

That leaves Whittle back to square one — not being Hunter’s next of kin, but being the only family member left who cares enough to get a headstone for his uncle. 

Whittle doesn’t know much about his uncle’s time in the military. From records Whittle has obtained through state archives, Hunter enlisted in the Army in April 1941.

His time in North Africa during the war dates from May 1943. The records Whittle has been able to obtain don’t say how long Hunter was overseas before he was discharged in October 1945.

Whittle doesn’t know exactly where in North Africa that Hunter served or even what his job was. The family photo that Whittle has of Hunter shows him in uniform and holding the rank of E-7 sergeant first class — just two rungs below E-9, which is the highest enlisted rank a U.S. Army soldier can attain.

“He moved up in rank pretty quickly,” said Whittle, himself a veteran from 1966 to 1970 who served in Vietnam. “So whatever he did, he must have known his job.”

Hunter had five other brothers and sisters, among them George Hunter, who also served during World War II. A sergeant in an engineer battalion who was discharged in December 1944, George Hunter is also buried in East Middletown Cemetery.

After leaving the military, William Howard Hunter worked as a mail clerk at Olmsted Air Force Base. After Olmsted closed in the late 1960s, Hunter transferred to New Cumberland Army Depot, from where he retired.

Hunter and Edith lived on North 13th Street in Harrisburg. 

“He was a pretty nice guy,” Whittle recalls of his uncle. “He frequented the VFW or the Legion when he came to (Middletown).”

Whittle said that the staff of state Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Lower Swatara Township, helped him obtain what records of Hunter’s service Whittle has been able to get through the state archives.

He’s also worked with Dauphin County Veterans Affairs Director Tony DiFrancesco.

DiFrancesco in an email said his office tried to help Whittle by sending his information to the VA’s National Cemetery division, and by setting Whittle up with a representative of the VA.

“I believe that he had the appropriate documents to apply and receive a headstone, although the request is past the two year date of death deadline. As of this time, I have not heard any more about the claim,” DiFrancesco said.

Whittle said he has not reached out to federal elected officials such as U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, or U.S. Sens. Robert Casey and Pat Toomey.

Whittle sees his obligation to getting a headstone for his uncle as part of a broader obligation he owes to all veterans buried in the East Middletown Cemetery.

“I do this because I’m a veteran. I’m taking care of everybody out here but I do it because I feel obligated. I was obligated to this country, to serve my country as best I knew how in 1966 when I left high school and got out in 1970, and this is what I do.”

The cemetery dates to 1927, when a group of residents purchased the land in Londonderry Township because black people could not be buried in Middletown Cemetery on North Union Street.

The cemetery has two tracts, one known as “A” being the smaller graveyard along Route 230 next to Star-Lite Motel, and “B,” the larger tract along Iron Mine Road where Hunter is buried, along with many other members of Lew Whittle’s family.

The graveyard along 230 was condemned because it is in a flood plain and no one has been buried there since 1950, Whittle said.

A little more than 10 years ago, a few women who were in charge of both tracts approached Whittle to ask if he would help maintain the cemetery. Whittle has been at it ever since, along with a group of fellow volunteers, all men who grew up with Whittle in the same Middletown neighborhood.

Whittle rattled off their names — Vance Reeves, Lew’s brother Barry Whittle, Franklin Gantz, Darnell Nolen and Ronald Anderson. Lew is the youngest of the group. He’ll be 72 in August.

“I call them a few good guys,” he said. “Some of them served in the military. Others have not, but they sacrifice their time to come out and do whatever needs to be done,” like mowing the grass once a week from April through early November.

They also assist with the burials. There have been three  so far this year after two in 2019. The Iron Mine graveyard has plenty of room for more plots to sell.

The cemetery relies on donations from relatives. Middletown VFW Post 1620 has been very gracious in its donations over the past several years, Whittle said.

His biggest fear is that the time is coming soon when he and the others will no longer be able to take care of the cemetery. It isn’t just about finding someone to cut the grass.

“Right now I’m the only individual who knows this cemetery, who owns what, the plots where people are to be placed at burial. Unless somebody steps up and decides to come in and get inside my head and understand what I understand, to be able to come out and do what I do — if that doesn’t happen, like so many other cemeteries, they go by the wayside,” Whittle said.

Along with that, a great deal of history and heritage will be lost.