By TOM HENRY
As published in the Blytheville Courier News on October 29, 2016.
Try to image what it would be like to look down upon your own tombstone years after you have passed on. Or perhaps you should think about what kind of respect you’d like shown to your loved ones, such as your mother and father or sons and daughters. What about the honor that deservedly should be given to heroes of war, veterans that have laid their lives on the line for this country? I believe, if you are honest with yourself, you would agree that they all deserve at least a clean, maintained, respectable cemetery with a (again at least) a marker showing their name and years of life.
I’m realistic. I understand that over time, families more away or die off. I know that many “regular Joes” simply disappear from the memory of the living. But that isn’t an excuse for disrespecting them. Now just imagine that there is a place within our community where 5,000 people are going through that exact injustice. Add to that the fact that they have been uprooted multiple times in the past. I, of course, am speaking of a well-hidden landmark of our heritage known as North Sawba Cemetery. Just because there isn’t much traffic at that location, doesn’t mean that 5,000 people and their memory should be repeatedly disrespected. It’s a complete sacrilege!
I was out there a couple weeks ago and the grass is almost as tall as the 8-foot monuments and there is no way to walk off the road out to the monuments, much less to walk the cemetery!
My limited research regarding the cemetery shows that North Sawba Cemetery can trace its beginning to October 10, 1875, when a parcel of land was given to the New Hope Church of the Methodist Episcopal Church-South for the purpose of dedicating a final resting place for area residents.
The cemetery was build on “high ground” and was used as a “free cemetery” for the poor from Armorel, Huffman, Dell, Blytheville, Yarbro, Gosnell and even a few persons from the Bootheel of Missouri.
It is believed that the cemetery might even contain a few Civil War causalities from the skirmishes that took place on Pemiscot Bayou. Word of mouth says that there are Civil War and World War I veterans buried out there for sure, even if their specific location is not known.
In April 1942, the U.S. War Department authorized the U.S. Army to purchase 2,670 acres of land, including North Sawba Cemetery, to establish a twin-engine flying field. On June 10, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Force Advanced Flying School was activated on the site.
As a result, the military surveyed, recorded and made a grid showing the location of monuments and numerous markers (made of various materials). There were, at the time, a total of 1,806 “pieces” and 339 “monuments and markers” removed. In 1945 the U.S. Army Air Field was deactivated and the cemetery was reverted back to the City of Blytheville.
A great push was made by the leaders of our area to convince the military to return and reactivate the airfield. As a result, in 1955, North Sawba Cemetery once again came under federal ownership when the government activated Blytheville Air Force Base. At that time, only 125 tombstones remained. It was discovered that the grid to the cemetery was missing and the tombstones were replaced in no certain order.
Estimates are that approximately 5,000 people are buried in the cemetery, but this is hard to prove since there are no existing records for the years prior to 1920. The injustice of how those buried in the cemetery have been disrespected has been repeated more than once. In 1998 a North Sawba Cemetery Committee attempted to right the wrong. For a time, it was much better out there. But that is not the case now.
I have talked with officials from the Aeroplex and with officials from the City of Blytheville. There obviously is some complexity to this story regarding who is responsible for the upkeep due to an earlier Blytheville city ordinance. Frankly, I don’t care what is legally right…I just care what is right. It is unconscionable what has happened and what is still happening out there.
I care not whether it is the responsibility of the city of Blytheville, the Aeroplex, the family of those buried out there or others, it IS the responsibility of good decent people to correct this wrong. Who else agrees?