A Discarded American Coffin Flag

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

Robert O. Fredley was born in 1919. He died in 1981 and is buried in San Antonio, Texas. He enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942 and left the service as a Sergeant in the US Army. He enlisted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and at the time was single.

I do not know who Robert Fredley was. I was in the Salvation Army thrift store on Platte Avenue in Colorado Springs when I spotted a coffin flag, mounted inside a triangular shadow box. This is one of the large US flags that is draped over a casket at a veteran’s funeral. The flag is removed at the grave site and presented to a family member of the dead veteran. Sgt. Fredley was buried in 1981 in Texas, so why was his flag in a second-hand store in Colorado?

I saw the flag the week before and brought pen and paper to take down the only information on a small brass plate: his name Robert O. Fredley, born 3/27/19 died 3/2/81. I was able to find out on-line through archives.gov information taken at Sgt. Fredley’s time of enlistment, during WW II. Where is his family? Who had the shadow box and flag last and why was it discarded? Was there no longer a place of honor for the last memory of a combat veteran’s personal military history?

I started looking on-line and it would appear that the issue (not a problem) of what to do with a long gone veteran’s casket flag is experienced by many family members. One lady told how she had her grandfather’s flag and did not know what to do with it. I guess is never occurred to her to keep it. She slipped into an empty office at an American Legion Hall and just left the flag on a chair. In her words, “is was like leaving a baby in a basket, on a church step.” Again why not keep the flag? I guess the flag gets in the way of daily life and just needs to go.

I found a place to send the coffin flag of your departed veteran family member. Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery will be happy to receive your flag. They have started a program of taking in the large coffin flags, mounting them on tall poles and displaying them on Veteran’s and Memorial Day. At this time they have 26 flags mounted on poles and they have another 29 poles that could use donated flags. If you have a flag you would like to donate, please send it to Magnolia Cemetery 1202 Virginia St. P.O. Box 6383 Mobile, AL 36660-6383 (251-432-8672). After finding a place to donate a coffin flag, my plan was to go back to the Salvation Army store and acquire Sgt. Fredley’s flag.

I just got off the phone with the manager of the store. I asked her to hold the flag and told her why I wanted it. She sent an employee to bring the flag to her office. The flag is gone. The shadow box was still on the shelf, but the flag and the brass plate were missing. It was only a couple of hours since I had left the store. Military day at the Salvation Army store is on Tuesday and lots of veterans shop there for the 50% discount. I can only hope that some fellow veteran spotted the flag just as I had and wanted to honor it somehow.

Everyone of my family members who served in WW II are gone and there are coffin flags in the homes of many of their children, but what is going to happen to those flags in the coming years? Most of my cousins and their children had no military service or even close contact with active duty troops. What do they care about a piece of cloth that was on grandpa’s casket for a few hours? I hope that they care and I hope my veteran family member’s flags do not wind up in a junk store or worst yet, put out in the trash on garbage day.

My Revolutionary War grandfather was on General George Washington’s staff. Could you imagine having his coffin flag still in the family? What a piece of history that would be. A veteran’s career is part of our history and the casket flag is the final reminder. If you have a flag and you cannot keep it, please pass it on. The Magnolia Cemetery will be happy to honor your veteran.

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Copyright 2012, 2016 by Major Van Harl, USAF Ret. All rights reserved.

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