Remembering an East Greenwich Memorial Day

by | May 21, 2020

Above: The Kentish Guards atop a Middle Road hill on a Memorial Day more than a half-century ago.

An afternoon more than a half-century ago left its mark

By Mark Thompson

My brothers and I were thunderstruck. Soldiers were climbing up a hill from Middle Road, next to Tanglewood Drive. They were marching just outside our house, where we had moved in only a week or two before. Amid the frenzy of unpacking and putting-awaying, the soldiers were a welcome diversion.

Plus, they had guns.

We had no idea why. But it might be important. So I grabbed my Kodak Brownie Starmite camera. We boys, 12, 10, 9 and 6, scampered up behind them, preteen camp followers. Some of the troops were going into the forest behind the neighbor’s house. But after a few minutes, they came out. What was going on?

We had no idea.

Later we learned they had gone not far into the woods to decorate the burial sites of East Greenwich heroes. We had just moved in to a house across the street from an old graveyard. It was chilling, and thrilling, at the same time; equal parts Halloween and the Fourth of July.

But this was a third holiday. Memorial Day, May 30, 1965. Fifty-five years ago.

The soldiers stood silently at attention.

Suddenly they lifted their guns.

Then they locked and loaded.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Six men fired three rounds each in a deafening cascade (only this week did I learn why there weren’t seven, for the traditional 21-gun salute: The front lawn of the Kent County Court House, as today’s town hall was known at the time, only has room for six shooters, so that was the number they used for ceremonies). It was the most memorable salvo of all those I’ve heard during more than 40 years of reporting on the U.S. military, at home and abroad.

Our ears rattled and noses filled with the acrid scent of cordite. Smoke filled the air. We scrambled for the brass casings as souvenirs.

We’d later learn that this was an annual East Greenwich rite, with members of the Kentish Guards and American Legion Post 15 honoring the town’s veterans. It had been happening since 1868 . . .  97 years! They’d travel in caravans to some two dozen smaller historical cemeteries across town to honor scores of veterans, according to various accounts in the Rhode Island Pendulum over the years. They’d break into two groups; a smaller band would trek deep into the woods for cemeteries well off the beaten path, while a larger contingent would visit those closer to the roads.

East Greenwich historian Alan Clarke says this particular Middle Road cemetery is the final resting place for more than a dozen members of the Spencer clan. “I always say that you can’t step into an East Greenwich cemetery without stepping by a Spencer,” he told me awhile back.

Faded flags would be pulled from the spring-warming ground and replaced with new and bright red, white and blue banners, to flutter, far from view, for the coming year. Corroded metal markers would be replaced, if needed: an eight-pointed emblem for those who served in the Revolutionary War; a star for Civil War veterans; round ones, for World War I; and “Ruptured Ducks” for World War II. They too would stand as silent sentinels through the coming hot summer and the bitter winter to follow.

Larger East Greenwich cemeteries would be decorated on another day, with the respectful hoopla they deserved. Yet watching these townsfolk tramp to the smaller, hidden final resting places to honor yesterday’s patriots was moving in a way that the bigger ceremonies, in bigger cemeteries, could never be.

The Kentish Guards won’t be making these formal hometown treks this year, because of the coronavirus. “This year it will be individual members doing what they can, given the circumstances,” Kentish Guards Colonel Warren Kaye says. Those still living in town – I left in 1978 – should try to do the same. Even the traditional East Greenwich Memorial Day parade has been cancelled (thank God Navy vet and longtime E.G. parade pooh-bah Carl Hoyer isn’t around to miss it).

Back on that hillside more than a half-century ago, Taps followed the volleys. It was that contrast, between the guns’ brash blasts and then the mournful sorrow of Taps, that seared that afternoon into my brain.

All told, back in 1965, East Greenwich would decorate the graves of 30 Revolutionary War veterans, one from the War of 1812, 209 Civil War veterans, five Spanish-American War vets, 67 World War I doughboys and 23 from World War II.

Alas, our little town wasn’t quite done.

Mark Mellor, was an East Greenwich townie, through and through. His dad was an East Greenwich cop, for Pete’s sake. A 1967 graduate of East Greenwich High School, he worked at the East Greenwich Dairy, Browne & Sharpe, and the Shell gas station where Middle Road crosses South County Trail. He was killed in action in Vietnam on May 30, 1968. He was 19 years old.

He died on Memorial Day. Exactly three years after I witnessed my first salute to the wars’ dead.

Charles “Larry” Callahan, a Warwick Vets grad, lived in East Greenwich for five years before joining the Army as a helicopter pilot. He died July 25, 1968, two months after Mark, when his UH-1 was shot down in Vietnam. He was 25.

His daughter would be born four months later.

The two young men, who I never met, have remained in my heart for years. I recall tracking down their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the day it opened in 1982. Unfortunately, they were the first in a long string of heroes I came to know during my reporting career who made the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of us.

Neither rests in a tiny East Greenwich historic cemetery. Larry is buried in North Kingstown’s Quidnessett Memorial Cemetery, along with his wife and parents. I fondly remember covering his mother, Millie, as a young reporter at the Pendulum in the mid-1970s. Mark rests alongside his parents in East Greenwich’s Glenwood Cemetery. I warmly recall his mother, Ruth, as the nurse in the East Greenwich school system, where she tended to sick kids, and those pretending to be sick, for 31 years.

But the town remembers their sacrifice. The Frenchtown Road bridge over Route 4 is named in Larry’s honor. And the Middle Road bridge over that same highway is named for Mark.

Given the forward march of time, it’s somehow fitting that Route 4 wasn’t even built when they died. But Mark would know the location well. After all, it was about 700 yards east from that Shell station where he worked as a teenager. And about 700 yards west from where I witnessed that solemn ceremony 55 years ago.

Mark Thompson grew up in East Greenwich and worked at the Pendulum, after college, from 1975 to 1978. He now lives in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C.


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14 Comments

  1. Bruce R. Mastracchio

    Great story, Mark !

    Reply
    • Chris Feisthamel

      Thanks Mark, I am newer to EG, but have gotten into the spirit as president of the varnums and a historic cemetery commissioner (and a friend of ur brother Bob). I live right next to and take care of EG62, on wine st overlooking the harbor. The KG start here at 9am Sat morn, but as u say, not this year. Too bad the grass is all cut and the flags clean. We will have our own little ceremony I guess. Thanks for the great writing

      Reply
  2. Lynn Krim

    Thanks Mark. Brought tears to my eyes. I remember Mark Mellor so well and the day I heard he had died. His parents were close friends with mine and his big sister Ann was my buddy. My brother, John Reisert, and I marched with the Scouts and a couple of years, I remember, we marched in front carrying a flag along with a couple of others from Quonset Naval Base. Those were great days in East Greenwich!

    Reply
  3. Joyce (Wilson) Williams

    Thank you Mark for the memories of our friends, neighbors and ancestors and for those familiar rituals that helped us remember.

    Reply
  4. Mary Welch

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for the story with familiar names and memories.
    We lived across from the Callahan’s, moving in in 1969, just after Larry was killed.
    Hope you and your family are well.
    Mary Welch

    Reply
  5. MaryAnne Gorman Carpenter

    Thank you for such an informative and great story. Marched in many a parade with the Girl Scouts and wondered why there were only six shooters each time. My mom, Ruth Gorman was best friends with Ruth Mellor and worked as an RN with her in EG. So good to hear that the bridges have been dedicated to two deserving men!

    Reply
  6. Judi McCullough Sheldon

    Thanks for the smiles and tears and memories. In years past at the culmination of the town parade all would gather at the cemetery next to Eldredge for a formal ceremony honoring the veterans. As I recall the 21 gun salute was given then. There was also a very special tradition practiced at the time which gave the school children active participation in the ceremony. It was the honor of the student who won the speech contest at Eldredge to give the Gettysburg address at that ceremony. It was a tradition that held for many years. I was one of those honored to deliver that address my eighth grade year

    Reply
  7. Roert N Sheldon

    I enlisted in the KENTISH GUARDS RIM in April 1957. I was 19 years old. This was
    my first Memorial Day Parade and the rural cemetery detail the day before.

    Years later, I served as commander for six years.

    Now at 83 years old, i was looking forward to marching in the
    Memorial Day Parade but it has been canceled.

    Colonel Robert N. Sheldon

    Reply
    • Carole O'Brien Pomaski

      Thank you, Mark.
      My memories of EG and Memorial Day became extra special when I was living in Alaska.
      I remember that I always loved walking from one end of Main Street to the other with my Dad as the parade marched past. He’d stop every few feet to talk with one friend or another. Year after year I couldn’t wait for Memorial Day to come so I could learn more and more about our town as the men would reminesce.
      My sons grew up in town as have two of my grandkids. I’m thankful for the wonderful memories we all have of EG and the warmth of the many generations of townies.
      God bless everyone and all our special memories.

      Reply
  8. M. Tom Mezs

    The photos and article bring back many memories. I began marching with the Kentish Guards while in high school and before I was technically too young to join. I remained a member while on active duty in Vietnam and for many years afterwards. Many, fine, dedicated members who provided me, especially as a young man, with numerous great adventures. Excellent article! Thank you. (In the photos, I am the tall, thin fellow, second from the left.) M. Mezs, Colonel (retired), Special Forces, USAR

    Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      So glad to have the ID! If you have the names of the others, we’d love to have them. Thanks.

      Reply
      • M. Tom Mezs

        Elizabeth,
        With the help of another long-time member of the Kentish Guards (who deserves credit for getting me interested in the KGs while in high school), Ronald Sullman, here is a list of the firing detail members and the officer-in-charge (the list is from left to right as if one is facing the detail): Earle Mitchell (guidon/flag bearer), Ronald Sullman, Arthur Bentley, Michael Sullman, Maris Mezs, George Allen. OIC (off the side): James W. Tingley, Jr (he was also commanding officer of the KGs at the time). The firing detail performed their annual firing salutes the Sunday before Memorial Day.
        Best regards,
        M. Mezs
        Lakewood, WA

        Reply
        • Elizabeth McNamara

          This is terrific! Thank you.

          Reply
  9. Bruce Roberts

    As a EG Townie have countless nostalgia and life long memories of our historical town, fortunate to have had a founding family, most no longer with us🙌🇺🇸

    Reply

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