WAKEFIELD, Neb. | A small pot of artificial flowers rests in front of the black granite marker that stands by itself in the Wakefield Cemetery.

The marker features three bronze plaques, each bearing the name of a young man who served his country and never returned home.

Wakefield makes sure they'll never be forgotten.

"Every once in a while I see fresh flowers out there," said Gary Salmon, who, along with fellow Vietnam War veteran Jim Clark, helped make sure that John Paul Hart, Allen Keagle and Willie Stark will be remembered.

Salmon and Clark spearheaded a fundraising effort nearly 20 years ago to memorialize two native sons and one the town has adopted who remain missing in action.

The memorial was dedicated in 2000, on the edge of what's known as the dedication area, where Wakefield's annual Memorial Day service is conducted. The memorial was placed there purposely, in an area that will never be filled in with other graves and stones. Clark said the seating arrangement during the Memorial Day service ensures that nearly everyone attending can see the monument.

"We wanted it near the program," Clark said. "We didn't want it in the middle (of the cemetery). You can't miss it."

Family members live with the memories of those who have been lost in military service every day.

Each year at Memorial Day, the rest of us are reminded of those sacrifices. We see cemeteries filled with flowers and decorations placed lovingly at graves.

Wakefield's memorial reminds us that not everyone who gave the ultimate sacrifice has a grave that families and friends can visit.

"They really don't have anything. It's just something to recognize them where they're at," Salmon said of the memorial.

It seems unlikely that remains of any of the three will ever make it home.

Hart, a 25-year-old Navy pilot, was killed Jan. 30, 1942, when his plane crashed during a training flight in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

Keagle, also a Navy pilot, was killed at age 26 on April 2, 1945, when he crashed in a training flight off the coast of Hawaii.

Stark was 36 when he went missing Dec. 2, 1966. A green beret on a reconnaissance mission with his team, Stark was mistakenly dropped just across the Vietnamese border in Laos and immediately came under fire. Witnesses saw him wounded and being led away with a fellow team member by Vietnamese troops.

Sometime in 1998, Salmon was reading "Six Silent Men," a book about special forces groups in Vietnam. A paragraph in the book mentioned Stark.

For years, Salmon and Clark have read the names of Wakefield's veterans at Memorial Day. The final names read are always Hart, Keagle and Stark.

The circumstances of Stark's disappearance had always been unknown, so Salmon wondered if the Willie Stark mentioned in the book was the same man whose name he read at Memorial Day each year. He and Clark called the book's author, who didn't know much about Stark. They were referred to another veteran. It led to more phone calls before Clark and Salmon were put in touch with John Flanagan, a forward air controller who had been flying above the short battle in a spotter plane and witnessed the failed attempt to rescue Stark. He wrote about it in his book, "Vietnam Above the Treetops."

Stark grew up in nearby Martinsburg, Nebraska, but his mother and sisters were living in Wakefield when he went missing. With that family connection, members of the American Legion Anton Bokemper Post 81 considered Stark one of their own who they would honor each year.

During their research on Stark, Clark and Salmon decided there should be a memorial to him.

"Then we thought, wait a minute, there are three names we read every year as missing, so we should incorporate all of them," Clark said. "Gary and I thought it would be good to honor the three that have no resting place. It seemed like the right thing to do."

It was the right thing to do, of course, and money was raised for the memorial. Family members present at the dedication 17 years ago expressed their gratitude for it. Salmon suspects the flowers that appear at the site are placed by relatives who still live in the area.

Then again, those flowers could be placed by anyone who takes notice of the memorial.

"People missing, you forget about them," Clark said.

Not here.

It's a safe assumption that their families never forgot them. Thanks to a solemn block of granite, no one else who enters the cemetery here will, either.


Court reporter

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