By Ed Kemmick
It is difficult not to be impressed with the enthusiasm Ed Saunders shows for his subject, the creation of the Yellowstone National Cemetery in Laurel.
Saunders, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and lives in Laurel, seems to have approached his task as a duty owed to the veterans who would be buried in the cemetery, and he went at it with a dogged, soldierly thoroughness.
In a letter he sent along with a review copy of the book, Saunders acknowledged that “Getting people interested in a cemetery is challenging.” He also said that if, after three years of research and writing, his book ends up “one some dusty shelf, then so be it. But I chose not to let a remarkable story pass into history unrecorded.”
It’s true that the scope of this book is limited and its audience is probably small, but it is a valuable work of local history. From the perspective of someone who has written dozens, maybe hundreds, of stories touching on the history of people, places and events in Montana, I can only say that I wish more subjects had been treated this comprehensively.
There are some rough patches in this self-published book, and sentences I would have loved to rewrite, but there are fine, moving passages, too, as in this excerpt from the preface:
“I’ve hiked the windswept ridges overlooking the Little Bighorn River in Montana, where gallant soldiers of the US Seventh Cavalry and equally courageous warriors of the Plains Indian tribes fought and died for what they believed was right. I’ve walked respectfully the blood-stained World War II beaches of Normandy, and among precision white crosses at the US cemetery overlooking that frightful place. I’ve stood at military attention at the American Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg.
“My western boots have reverently bent grass at national cemeteries at Gettysburg, Antietam, Alexandria, Fort McPherson, Fort Logan, Black Hills, Crow Agency, and Arlington. My namesake, Edward J. Hoff, a World War II veteran, lies in Fort McPherson National Cemetery, Nebraska, close to his home; that’s where he wanted to be buried, close to his home.”
A similar desire—to provide a final resting place close to home for veterans in this area and Eastern Montana in general—motivated Saunders and others to push for the creation of a veterans cemetery in Yellowstone County.
But before getting to that story, Saunders provides a big-picture history of American military cemeteries, and this might be the most interesting, accessible part of the book for regular readers.
I wouldn’t have guessed the subject would be as compelling as Saunders makes it.
He tells how the Civil War, which went on far longer and involved far more deaths than almost anyone then could have imagined, led to the creation of the first large-scale, regular military cemeteries.
Until then, Saunders writes, there was no systematic means of “accounting for, identifying, burying, and recording the graves of the dead from battles of this magnitude.” The War Department ordered commanding generals to establish burial grounds “near every battlefield,” to erect headboards for the dead and to keep records of burials.
To tell the complicated story, Saunders draws on dozens of governmental documents—annual reports of the Secretary of War, congressional reports and acts, proclamations, audits and regulations, and the official records of the Civil War, in addition to books, newspaper and magazine articles, manuscripts and numerous interviews.
It was obviously an obsession for Saunders, though a healthy one. From the Civil War he moves into a discussion of Army burials on the frontier, going into the history of cemeteries at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Fort Missoula and Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming, among others.
Only then does he turn to a chronicle of efforts to establish a veterans cemetery in Yellowstone County. Because our population was too small for the Veterans Administration itself to build a national cemetery, a group of veterans came up with a long-shot idea: to “construct, maintain, and operate a county veterans cemetery to national VA standards and then petition the VA to designate the cemetery a national cemetery.”
And that is what they did. Funding for what would be a $1.7 million cemetery came from a special mill levy approved by Yellowstone County voters in 2006. The cemetery was built on 10 acres just north of the Laurel city cemetery, and the county also bought 37 adjacent acres for eventual expansion.
Much of the book is devoted to photographs Saunders took of the site, chronicling its transition from open prairie to a beautifully designed cemetery. There are photos from every season and of numerous different occasions, from the groundbreaking and funerals to the dedication and gatherings of dignitaries.
Saunders also tells the story of the first man to be buried there—World War II veteran Glenn Butz, whose Purple Heart was stolen in a burglary a few years before he died. Another veteran, George Kimmett, gave his own Purple Heart to Butz’s widow at the burial service.
Largely through the efforts of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the VA finally accepted the cemetery—the first-ever county cemetery built to VA standards—and designated it a national cemetery. When the County Commission asked the public for help in naming the cemetery, more than 50 suggestions poured in and the commission ultimately chose the name suggested by Saunders himself—Yellowstone National Cemetery.
Saunders was a driving force throughout the whole process, but he refers to himself only in passing and makes no effort to take any of the credit. But he deserves our thanks for his work on the cemetery and now for publishing this account of its creation.
This article originally appeared on Last Best News.