American flags sitting atop white crosses have graced McEachin Square in Pembroke on patriotic holidays as far back as Pembroke Fire Chief Peter Waters can remember.
He wasn’t going to let this July 4 go by without them. “It’s a tradition for the flags to be up in the town,” Waters, who is 34, said Wednesday. “When we found out they weren’t going to be up for the Fourth of July because (organizers) didn’t have help, we decided to step up and do it.”
Putting in place the 180 flags and their crosses, each of which bears the name of a late veteran from North Bryan, took about four hours Tuesday, Waters said.
It was an effort that included help from the Pembroke Police Department, city employees, and handful of volunteers, as well as members of Pembroke American Legion Post 164.
“They really saved the day,” said American Legion Post 164 member Ernie Mitchell, a Vietnam war veteran. “Peter and his department really stepped up.” Also on hand to help was Pembroke City Administrator Alex Floyd, who grew up just outside of the city limits and can’t remember a time when there wasn’t such a display.
He said Pembroke is well known statewide as “the town where the flags are,” but it’s about more than that. Floyd said the display serves as a show of support for those who do the heavy lifting in wartime. “We’re the first city soldiers on Fort Stewart see when they get off post and they’re traveling in this direction,” Floyd said. “I think it’s important we do this ... for that reason and to honor those in our community who served.”
But it’s getting more difficult to get the flags up. Where once volunteers ranging from boy scouts to the American Legion Auxiliary handled the displays, these days are different.
That the July 4, 2020 display took a last minute rescue from first responders shows how hard the tradition is getting to maintain, organizers say, mostly because those who in the past did much of the volunteering are getting on in years or no longer here.
Mitchell said the Legion got involved in helping with the display roughly six years ago, and he and Post 164 members such as B.J. Clark, also a Vietnam veteran, reached out to the city, and as a result the nonprofit Pembroke Flag Committee was formed.
Donations were sought to help maintain the display, but Mitchell said the committee still finds itself needing to replace dozens of flags without adequate funding.
In that regard, the committee is setting up a Gofundme account, Mitchell said, and Liberty Auction is going to help with a fundraiser. Pembroke Advanced Communications is also traditionally a strong backer of the flag displays, he said.
It seemed a solution was found in recent years, when the city’s contracts with the Department of Corrections for work crews of prison inmates also meant labor to help put up the flag displays.
For the Flag Committee, it was a win-win deal.
“It was a good experience for them,” Mitchell said. “They got to learn some history, and a lot of them didn’t know one war from the other. And we got help putting the flags up.”
But with COVID-19 changing the way people gather to celebrate and the DOC terminating its inmate labor contracts with cities such as Pembroke, and without volunteers, the Flag Committee was left without adequate manpower to get the flags up this year. What’s more, the importance of the display in Pembroke was brought home after an abbreviated display of only a handful of flags and crosses for Memorial Day due to the COVID-19 pandemic drew complaints and criticism.
That sparked a response at June’s city council meeting from City Clerk Sharroll Fanslau, who said those who put up the flags need a helping hand.
“Our guys are getting up there in age,” said Fanslau, a member of the Flag Committee whose husband is a veteran and member of Legion Post 164. “We could use volunteers.”
Mitchell said he would like to see the work that goes into placing the flags become a community wide event each patriotic holiday.
“I’d like to see us maybe have a cookout, grill some hamburgers and hotdogs and put up the flags,” he said. “If you want to show patriotism, rather than getting on Facebook and bragging about what a patriot you are, how about get on out and do something to help.”
The next patriotic holiday on the calendar is Nov. 11.