The three newest additions to Pembroke’s patriotic holiday display of waving flags and white crosses represent men who were different from one another and those who came before, but also much the same.
Each served his country, and each was honored in Pembroke on Monday as part of the city and American Legion Post 164’s Memorial Day observance, which also paid tribute to all American servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Retired Navy veteran B.J. Clark, a longtime member of Post 164, called Monday’s gathering an honor and privilege.
“One half of 1 percent of the American people wear the uniform of their country at present,” said Clark, who served 20 years and was in naval aviation during the Vietnam War. “These people and their families make so many sacrifices. Some of them have made the final and fatal sacrifice. I would like to see our country always remember those people at this time of year, and their families every day.”
The men honored posthumously for their service on Monday were:
Jim Sullivan Sr., who enlisted so his older brother wouldn’t have to and wound up spending much of World War II fighting in Europe.
Wallace Wiggins Sr., who entered the Marines as a reservist, only to be called up weeks later and sent to fight under 1st Marine Division commander Col. Chesty Puller in the bloody and frozen Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.
Merrill Bacon, who guarded Hilton Head as a member of the Coast Guard during World War II, then came home to start a newspaper, the Bryan Countian.
All three men were special, family members said, and all would have been honored to be recognized on Memorial Day. The families certainly were.
Sullivan was born in South Carolina, and his family was in the logging business until World War II began. He signed up when his older brother, who already had a family, was about to get drafted, according to Jim Sullivan Jr.
“Dad spent the majority of his time in Europe, and liked one point of coming home at the end of war there,” Sullivan Jr. said. “They shipped him to the Pacific, and he spent a little while there. Then he came home, went back to work in the logging business until he got to get a chance to go in the Georgia National Guard. He worked there until he retired in 1978 as a warrant officer, a W4.”
The family moved to North Bryan in 1978, and Sullivan Sr. served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Ellabell for 18 years. His son is pastor of Pembroke First Christian Church now.
Wiggins was born in Pembroke, then worked as a roofer in Savannah and drove a wrecker at night when he decided to enlist in the Marine Reserve in 1950, according to his son, Wallace Wiggins Jr.
“Eight weeks later they called his unit up, he ended up going to Parris Island for six weeks, then to Camp Pendleton for six weeks, then landed at Inchon in Korea,” Wiggins Jr. said.
Wiggins Sr. was a BAR gunner — short for Browning Automatic Rifle — who wound up with shrapnel wounds and a busted ear drum.
He got the Purple Heart and other decorations during the battle in the bitterly cold Chosin Reservoir mountains, where temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero.
The division of roughly 18,000 Marines was pitted against a massive Chinese force of some 120,000.
“They were outnumbered 8 to 1, 9 to 1, but it was an honor to him to go fight for his country,” Wiggins Jr. said. “He was one of the people who, if there was a drop of water still left in a glass, there was still a chance to do something. My father will always be my hero. He was a diehard Marine, and he worked that way, too. You work for what you get.”
Wiggins survived “Frozen Chosin” and went on to found a successful business in Statesboro. When he died, an estimated 800 people attended his funeral, including the president of then-Georgia Southern College and a number of state legislators, Wiggins Jr. said.
“My father gave to the community, and he always put others first his entire life,” he said. “I just want to thank (Pembroke and the American Legion). He would be proud of this day.”
Bacon’s military service came during World War II, when he joined the Coast Guard and “served on horseback guarding the coast near Hilton Head,” according to his daughter, Jerry Bacon Beard.
He also was a family man in a family that believes in military service. He was married to Florence Gill Bacon for 35 years, and they had four children — Beard; Phillip Bacon, now a doctor in California who served in the Air Force; daughter Bea Bacon Betsworth, whose husband, Mike Betsworth, served in Army; and Flo Bacon Lee, whose husband was a lieutenant colonel in the Army.
Beard’s son-in-law, Trey Thrower, served in Iraq, she said, and the family’s ties to the military meant Monday’s honor on Memorial Day had an added resonance.
“It means a great deal to me, and to my mother, who was thrilled she was able to see it,” Beard said, noting that her father “was a very social man. He loved Pembroke and Bryan County, and lived here all his life.”
During Monday’s observance, Pembroke Mayor Judy Cook spoke briefly but movingly about the importance of Memorial Day.
“As you know, I am not a veteran, but I have no difficulty understanding the importance of Memorial Day, and why this band of brothers and sisters comes together each year to honor those who have gone before,” Cook said. “I hear it when your voices catch as you describe an act of bravery. I see it when your eyes fill at the thought of a serviceman’s sacrifice. And I feel it when you look away and silently remember stories you may never wish to tell.”
She concluded her remarks by noting that Memorial Day should reassure all who serve that such sacrifices will be remembered.
“But today, today, America remembers with you as we participate in a ceremony that binds us together and reminds those serving that if the time comes, those who sacrifice for our country will never be forgotten.”
Afterward, members of the American Legion and Boy Scout Troop 141, along with volunteers, went to Northside Cemetery to place flags on the graves of veterans.
In all, they placed 139 flags.
As for the Memorial Day Observance, American Legion Post 164 Adjutant Ernie Mitchell said it was one of the best in recent memory.
“Some of the families came all the way down from Atlanta,” Mitchell said, “Three or four generations of their families were there, and they were extremely grateful for this. It’s good to see.”
To find out more about the program or to have a veteran honored, contact Mitchell through the American Legion Post 164 Facebook page.