Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Stranger among us: Fred B. Sanders

So there I was sitting cross-legged in front of Fred Berton Sanders' G.I. tombstone atop the embankment overlooking Highway 14 Tuesday evening --- a curiosity for anyone driving by --- with a half-gallon milk jug of warm water, a scrub brush and Great-uncle Al Love's keyhole saw.

The goal was to make that tombstone look as good as possible when I took this picture: scrubbing off and rinsing away the bird crap, then sawing off and removing remains of a flag that had gotten jammed into the World War II graveside holder so many years ago that only a frayed scrap of fabric maybe an inch wide remained.

Both the late Fred and I were in the Grand Army of the Republic section, a small area sandwiched between the Chariton Cemetery's most easterly north-south drive and the highway embankment. You recognize it by the flag pole squarely in the middle and a big cast concrete urn on a plinth that, in the photo header of this blog right now, is holding a bouquet of flags.


Cemetery records tell us that Daniel Iseminger Post No. 18, Grand Army of the Republic, purchased these six double lots from the Chariton Cemetery Co., then owned by the Stanton family, on Sept. 15, 1893. The old soldiers had two motives --- first, to provide an honorable burial place for Civil War veterans who had no other place to be interred; second, to provide a permanent staging ground for the organization's annual Memorial Day service at the cemetery.

As the years passed, 11 Civil War veterans and the wife of another were buried here. And as time marched on, Lucas County's last two surviving Civil War veterans, William Humphreys and Robert Killen, died --- in an odd quirk of timing, both on Jan. 25, 1941, both age 96. They were buried respectively at Mount Zion and Graceland cemeteries.

Three years later, on July 12, 1944, the six G.A.R. lots were deeded to the city of Chariton with the restriction that they be set aside for the burial of "any active or retired serviceman from any branch of service who can't afford a burial place elsewhere." Lucas County supervisors paid the perpetual maintenance surcharge.

As of today, there are 20 burials in the G.A.R. section, including eight from later wars. The first to be buried here was Jacob Willoughby, on March 5, 1899; the latest, Larry Gene Cain, on Jan. 22, 1983. Alexander Van Meter's 1863 tombstone, now sadly broken, is located here, too --- but that's a story for another day.


I thought for a while that I should tell first the story of a veteran buried here who might be considered more worthy by some than Fred Sanders, stranger among us and a Lucas Countyan by default. But that would miss the point.

Those buried here range from honorable fathers through loners and free spirits to vagabond rascals --- and Fred may have been the latter. But they are united by the fact all served their country honorably and, in death, were accorded roughly the same military honors.


The death date on Fred Sanders' tombstone --- October 1, 1966 --- is guess. No one knows exactly when he died, alone, down along the Chariton River south of town some time most likely during September or early October of that year.

Richard Thorne, then a young man, found the remains on November 11. Thorne had set out to go hunting from his folks' home up along the Blue Grass Road, walked west across their fields, then followed the Rock Island Tracks south to the river, gun in hand.

He chanced upon the body in a brushy area on the railroad right-of-way under the big viaduct that carries the Rock Island (now Union Pacific) tracks across the river, according to a report in The Chariton Leader of Nov. 15, 1966.

I've heard this story from Thorne family members a couple of times --- how Richard returned to his parents' home after the disconcerting find, sat down, exchanged a few words and then said almost casually something like, "Oh, by the way ...."

Sheriff Wayne Swanson was called; he and others examined the scene more carefully before the badly decomposed remains were removed to the Miley undertaking parlors.

The body was dressed in a U.S. Army khaki shirt and green fatigue trousers. A pair of shoes appeared to have been placed with some care about 10 feet from where the remains were found.

The body was X-rayed, but no injuries other than a fractured wrist were discovered. So death eventually was attributed to exposure. Speculation was that the man had been riding the Rock Island rails and had fallen off, perhaps sustaining internal injuries that several weeks after death occurred were not evident.

A billfold was found and it contained documents related to a Fred Berton Sanders, age 43 --- a California drivers license as well as papers that showed honorable discharge from U.S. Army service during World War II --- and a certificate stating that its bearer had been released from the Oregon State Penitentiary on March 19, 1966.

Enough flesh remained on one hand to allow finger prints to be lifted. These were forwarded to Oregon and a positive identification made.

As it turned out, Fred Sanders was the divorced father of six and had spent time in prison after conviction for failure to pay support. His mother, a brother and two sisters also were located --- but no one was inclined (or financially able) to claim the body.

As a result, Fred's remains were interred at county expense on Dec. 1 in the G.A.R. section of the Chariton Cemetery with the Rev. Eldon Jandebeur, of First Christian Church, officiating at graveside rites. Some time later, a G.I. tombstone was ordered --- and I don't know by whom --- to mark his grave.

Stranger among us, perhaps something of a rascal --- it makes no difference. He'll be honored with all the rest on Memorial Day, when a small U.S. flag will fly at his grave.

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