Just inside Woodlawn Cemetery off busy Eighth Street, across from an AutoNation Nissan dealership, a granite monument marks the final resting place of 79 U.S. soldiers buried in a mass grave after one of the worst hurricanes to ever strike U.S. shores.
The marker, erected by a Miami American Legion Post, is dedicated to “our comrades ... lest we forget.”
Yet that’s what has happened in the nearly 80 years since the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane struck the Florida Keys. No marker names the fallen, buried in five narrow trenches overlooking a road and a trailer park. Only five have headstones. More flags fly over the AutoNation than at the vets’ grave.
At the time, their deaths were a national humiliation — soldiers sent to a mosquito-infested rock during hurricane season to work for the government only to be abandoned once the inevitable storm arrived.
“Ignorance has never been accepted as an excuse for murder or for manslaughter,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in the days after the storm, when no one could explain why American soldiers on American soil were left waiting for a rescue that never occurred.
With yet another hurricane season starting Monday, the Labor Day storm serves as a reminder of the nightmare power of a Category 5 storm. The looming anniversary may be the last significant milepost for the storm’s few remaining survivors. And for two aging vets wrestling with Washington and military bureaucracy to recognize the dead, it might also finally mark the end of a frustrating effort to honor men mistreated not once, but twice, by the country they served.
“To me it’s a scandal,” said Richard Bareford, a retired U.S. Army major who lives in New Jersey and joined Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson in the fight to obtain individual grave markers. “This was a great tragedy. But the story isn’t over yet.”
Photo credit: Walter Michot, Miami Herald staff