Wreaths that will be laid at headstones in the Beaufort National Cemetery Saturday would have looked like the Rockefeller Center tree to Bob Waldrop on Christmas Day 1944.
He was a prisoner of war, in Stalag Luft 6 in Lithuania.
His daughter, Mary Ann Waldrop of Beaufort, told me that late in his life her father opened up to tell how the prisoners somehow bribed a German guard to bring in what was little more than a twig. They decorated it with the crimped-over lids of salmon cans, holes punched in them so the POWs wouldn't stash the food away for an escape. The fishy ornaments were hung with Red Cross thread, dangling beneath a star of cardboard colored with chalk. Wood shavings from the paper bags that served as mattresses were sprinkled on the "tree" to look like snow. And on Christmas Eve, prisoners far from home and the freedom they were dying for sang "Silent Night."
Now almost 90, Waldrop will join bikers, Daughters of the American Revolution, Civil Air Patrol Cadets, the Beaufort Council of Garden Clubs and many others in laying 1,288 wreaths with big red bows at graves in Beaufort's historic cemetery.
In a ceremony that begins at noon, Waldrop will help lay one of seven wreaths to be placed beneath the flag pole to honor each branch of service and the POW/MIAs.
"The worst thing you could ever do to a veteran is forget," said Theresa Raley Trillo of Charleston, who has coordinated the wreath-laying program here since it began seven years ago. Her father was in the service. Her husband is a retired naval officer. Her son served in Afghanistan. "The worst thing is not to die in a war. The worst thing is to be forgotten."
Wreaths will be laid at Six Oaks Cemetery on Hilton Head Island, and in hundreds of cemeteries nationwide on Saturday. It's part of the Wreaths Across America program begun by Maine businessman Morrill Worcester in 1992 to honor the fallen at Arlington National Cemetery.
Volunteer truckers now haul the wreaths from sea to sea. Individuals, corporations and private groups buy wreaths for $15, and volunteers weather the cold, snow and sleet of the second Saturday in December to place them on individual headstones.
John "Cockroach" Spencer of Beaufort, president of the local chapter of the U.S. Military Vets Motorcycle Club, said 30 to 70 bikes will escort the seven ceremonial wreaths from Charleston. When they hit the county line, they'll follow a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office escort. Spencer's club donated 130 wreaths this year. The goal is to someday have a wreath for all 18,000 headstones at Beaufort National Cemetery.
Spencer was in the Marine Corps for 23 years. He was away for Christmas so much that he still can't let his heart dance like a child on the holiday. To him, the wreaths also are a sign of respect to the living, especially the military wives and children who suffer silently while their loved ones may huddle by a decorated twig.
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.