Thursday, January 11, 2018

The vanishing Fort Des Moines Post Cemetery

One hundred and seventy-eight tombstones were deployed with military precision at the Fort Des Moines Post Cemetery, intersection of Army Post Road and Southeast 5th Street, in late May 1945 when WAC Cpl. Ethel McIntosh played "Taps" as a Memorial Day tribute.

The cutline for this photo, published in The Des Moines Tribune of May 30, reads: "WAC Cpl. Ethel McIntosh of Beloit, Kans., blows taps for veterans of four wars who are laid to rest in the small, neat Fort Des Moines cemetery. Few people know of this graveyard beside the highway east of Fort Des Moines where 178 headstones mark the burial place of colored, Indian and white men who died for America in the civil war, Spanish American war, World War I, and World War II. As in most military cemeteries, the headstones bear only names without dates or inscriptions to interest the curious."

The final burial in the small cemetery was made two years later, during late April or early May of 1947 when the unclaimed remains of Utley Erickson, age 47, were interred here.

Little more than a year later, as spring turned to summer, the cemetery vanished. Remains were disinterred, empty graves filled and the surface smoothed, grass planted and signage removed. Today, the cemetery site forms part of the grounds of the Des Moines Police Academy. A majority of those once buried here --- 156 souls --- rest beneath the manicured sod of Iowa's Keokuk National Cemetery.


Fort Des Moines, the last of three to bear that name in Iowa, was established during 1901 and built up commencing in 1903 on what then was farmland south of the Iowa capital's city limits. It was intended --- and used --- as a mounted cavalry base.

In 1917, it became the site of the United States' first officer training candidate school for black Americans, including Chariton's own Maceo Richmond. After that, the fort was used for various purposes until 1942, when it was taken over by the Women's Army Corps as a training center.

Following World War II, as the need for military installations diminished, so did it's usefulness. By the 1960s and 1970s, ownership of significant chunks of the old fort had been transferred to private and public owners, but it remained a processing center for draftees, most of us bound for Vietnam. My parents delivered me there early one morning back in 1969 to be inducted and processed, then shipped off late in the day to beautiful Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The post cemetery was developed and opened during 1906. The Des Moines Register of Nov. 5, 1905, reported that, "Uncle Sam's Eleventh cavalry soldiers who die in times of peace will be buried by the side of their comrades in a special burying ground which the government is now providing at Fort Des Moines. And those who die in times of war will be brought back to their own cemetery if it is possible.

"Within a few years, another city of the dead will be added to the burying places about Des Moines and another soldiers' resting place will receive its decorations on the nation's memorial day."


U.S. Army Pvt. William B. Case, age 22 and native to Brooklyn, New York, was the first to be buried in the new cemetery --- in March of 1906 --- and the novelty of a full-scale cavalry funeral caught a reporter's attention. The following report was published in several Iowa newspapers, this version in The Waterloo Courier:

"Des Moines, Iowa, March 6 --- Private Case of Troop K was buried with military honors in the Ft. Des Moines cemetery yesterday. Case came to the fort a recruit from New York City not long ago and two weeks ago was stricken with rheumatism and placed in the hospital. Day before yesterday he died. Word was sent to his people in New York, but no answer was received.

"Case was said to be one of the handsomest privates at the fort and popular with his comrades. An air of gloom hung over the post yesterday. This was one of the first cavalry funerals held at the post. The mounted cavalry band played slow dirges on the way to the little graveyard, about half a mile east of the post. Behind the hospital ambulance in which the body was carried came the riderless horse of the dead man draped in black with the late rider's sabre hanging reversed from the saddle. Behind were mounted troop K and a number of other soldiers.

"After an impressive service at the grave by the chaplain, the stirring call of "taps" was sounded, several of the dead soldier's comrades threw in a few handfuls of earth and left the rest for the little knot of prisoners to do. Then the cavalcade whirled about and swept back over the hill. The band played a lively air and the riderless horse draped in black pranced gaily in time to the music, ready for the man who will take his master's place in a few days."

Enlistment records show that Case was born and raised in Brooklyn and enlisted there on Oct. 4, 1905. There are no surviving photos to let us decide if he was indeed as handsome as his comrades thought, only a physical description: Blue eyes, dark brown hair, fair complexion, 5-feet 8-inches in height. His death was attributed to acute endocarditis. Now, 112 years later, he rests beneath a new government-issue stone in the Keokuk National Cemetery, placed after he was re-interred there during June of 1948. The death date inscribed on his tombstone, however, is incorrect.


The vision of the post cemetery as a final home for veterans of the 11th Cavalry failed to materialize, but the graveyard continued in use for military personnel stationed at the fort when they died, some of their dependents and active-duty soldiers and veterans who simply had no other place to be buried.

Many years later, The Des Moines Register --- attempting to put finally to rest false rumors of a mass grave at Camp Dodge --- proved that at least 33 of those buried in the post cemetery had died at Camp Dodge during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and, their remains unclaimed, had been buried at Fort Des Moines.

Not long after Cpl. McIntosh honored those buried here with "Taps" on Memorial Day 1945, proposals began to circulate in Des Moines, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that the post cemetery become the nucleus for a new national cemetery that would occupy a portion --- or all --- of the old fort grounds. Iowa already had one of the nation's oldest national cemeteries, at Keokuk, but space there was at a premium and its location in the extreme southeast corner of the state seemed too remote for many Iowans and others from adjoining states.

Nothing came of those dreams of a Des Moines national cemetery, but it would seem that no one in Des Moines anticipated closure of the Fort Des Moines Post Cemetery when the final burial occurred there during late April or early May of 1947. PFC Utley Erickson, age 47 and recently discharged from the U.S. Army was another of those strangers who died among us whose remains remained unclaimed by loved ones.

The circumstances of his death were reported as follows in The Des Moines Tribune of April 23, 1947, under the headline, "Identify G.I. Killed Here."

"A soldier who was killed here shortly after midnight Tuesday when run over by a train was identified Wednesday as Utley Erickson of Los Angeles, Cal. Identification was made from army discharge papers found in his pockets.

"Police said the papers indicated he was "more than 35 years old" and that he had been discharged at Camp Kilmer, N.J., last Friday.

"Police said the soldier apparently fell beneath a freight train which he tried to board.

"His Los Angeles address was given as 541 E. Fifth St., and police Wednesday were attempting to locate relatives there. The body is at Dahlstrom's funeral home.

"The accident occurred on the Rock Island track between Third and Fourth streets."

Erickson, who gave his status upon enlistment as single with no dependents, was a native of Weymouth, Massachusetts, who had moved to California during the 1920s. He apparently had worked in a defense-related industry there prior to enlistment on Dec. 13, 1945. He probably was riding the rails home to California when his death occurred. As with William Case's tombstone, the date of death inscribed upon Erickson's stone is inaccurate.


We don't know exactly when the decision was made to close and evacuate the Fort Des Moines Post Cemetery and although it seems a little odd today, it was standard operating procedure for the government at the time if a military post were to be abandoned. The motivation was honorable --- the government had committed itself to caring for the remains of those entrusted to its burial places; what better place than a national cemetery to do that.

About twenty of those buried at Fort Des Moines apparently were reburied, probably at the behest of family members, elsewhere. But by early June, 1948, the remains of the rest had arrived at Keokuk National Cemetery, where they were reinterred, all during the first 10 days of that month.

No comments: