Tiny Flags on Memorial Day

A little before 9 a.m. on a holiday morning, a white pick up truck pulls into the Cruz Bay Cemetery at Gallows Point. There’s no fanfare as a white-haired man in a white tee shirt and jeans climbs out to begin his mission.

In his hand, a cluster of small American flags. It’s Memorial Day and St. John resident Victor Johannson is honoring the dead. It’s solitary work. He walks from tomb to tomb of those whose nameplates note their service in the U.S. military.

He visits each grave in May and November, for Memorial Day which honors those fallen in service to their country. He also comes on Veterans Day, a day to remember the armistice signed at the end of World War I.

Last year there were 67 flags to plant. Johannson complains that some of the flags he left the last time are missing. “Somebody keeps taking the flags down. I don’t understand it because we are the beneficiaries of service,” he said.

Born in Sweden, Johannson shared with a neighbor his first recollections of World War II, being taken as a child into a nearby field as enemy bombers flew over the town where he lived. As he got older, he moved to the United States and enlisted in the Navy.

Victor Johannson. (Judi Shimel photo)

“I was a kid in World War II, in Europe. It was horrible,” he said.

His first duty was that of a radar operator on board the U.S.S. Mark Mitcher. Around that time, he said, he and his crew sailed into the Caribbean. “We were sent to the Caribbean because the Russians were here,” Johannson said.

About 50 Russian ships, he said, patrolling the area. The crew of the Mark Mitcher was sent to keep an eye on them. It was also on board that ship that the young Swede got to know African American service men.

So now, in his older days as a retired contractor, Johannson remembers friends and neighbors and some he never met on Memorial Day. Longtime friend and companion Moriah Jacobs-Redden, an accountant at the University of the Virgin Islands, keeps his company during the visits.

“Last year the group planted 67 flags. This year there are about 70,” Redden said, referring to herself, Johannson and Aubrey Sewer with American Legion Post 131. Sewer’s routine is to plant new flags on the graves of servicemen at the Moravian Cemetery in Coral Bay and at Calabash Boom.

That is not to say there was no help at all. Emmanuel Boyd, a security guard at nearby Gallows Point Resort brought his trumpet and three companions — Anna Thomas, Phillip Lee Brown and resort guest Pete Farrell.

Emmanuel Boyd. (Judi Shimel photo)

“I was on a ship in the Mediterranean, I was on destroyers. My jobs were gunnery officer, assistant navigator and auxiliary officer,” Farrell said.

Farrell, a former Navy Lieutenant, said he’s met Johannson before as he routinely cleans and preens the cemetery at Gallows Point.

Thomas, a close friend of Boyd’s, also works at Gallows and has two daughters in the military.

Brown, a guitarist, is the son of Sgt. Charles Leonard Brown who served at Guadalcanal in World War II. It was soldiers from his unit that raised the flag at Iwo Jima on Mount Sirabachi.

Six thousand U.S. Marines died at Iwo Jima in 1945. Another 17,000 were wounded. “I keep Memorial Day in my own way but this year Mano reminded me,” Brown said.

Then it was time for a brief, informal ceremony. Boyd raised his
horn and played the Star Spangled Banner.

Then he blew Taps.