Story and Photos by Roselyn Pickens | MTSU Seigenthaler News Service
Losing a loved one who has served their country is a heavy cross to bear.
This Memorial Day, thanks to efforts of the American Legion Post 44 of Winchester, dead soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen from Franklin County will be remembered by crosses bearing their names. The crosses, placed at the foot of a waving American flag, can be seen at various locations around the city through Memorial Day weekend.
Tom Isbell former band director of Franklin High School and adjutant of the American Legion had the idea to honor the memory of fallen soldiers by placing a flag and cross along the streets of Winchester after seeing something similar in Ringgold, Georgia. Isbell coordinated with Post 44 Commander Ray Cobb and the Legion petitioned officials to allow crosses and flags to be posted along the streets of Winchester each Memorial and Veterans Day. Once a cross is purchased for a soldier, the cross will be maintained and displayed on each of these holidays.
For Isbell, one of the crosses is personal. It bears the name of a former student, Jeff White, who won an appointment to West Point and served in the Gulf War.
Isbell recalled visiting West Point while White was a cadet. Surrounded by groups of cadets marching in cadence, Isbell heard a plebe much louder than the rest, much louder than he should be. He looked up to see White, his former band student, trying to get his attention.
In a video of White taken during his tour during Desert Storm, the officer offered a look of determination and pride. “I never thought about being anything but a soldier. I think defending people’s rights who are indefensible is one of the most noble things you can do with your life,” White said during the interview.
White survived the war, but one day years later while singing with his church choir, he suffered a heart attack and died. Isbell said the cross-bearing White’s name will remind his hometown of his service.
Another story to be found among the crosses is that of Robert Ernest May, an Ensign 1st Class in the Navy who served aboard PCE(R)855, a patrol craft, in World War II. Kelly May said his grandfather, Ensign May, was posted to the guns on his ship which served as a rescue vessel to damaged or sinking ships. When his ship wasn’t under attack, May would help in rescue missions saving countless lives.
The lives in front of him weren’t his only interest, said the grandson. Ensign May also held great concern for his shipmates. One ship that was sinking had an ice cream maker and May petitioned the captain to rescue the machine. His grandson said his grandfather knew how much ice cream would enhance morale during war.
One time, Kelly, the grandson, was watching a war movie with his grandfather. Bullets filled the air like rain hoping to find the kamikaze plane bearing down on the ship.
“I was there. I saw that,” Robert May told his grandson. That’s when Kelly said he understood what his grandfather experienced in war.
Ensign May rescued a Japanese pilot from drowning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Decades later, the grandson said, his grandfather shook the pilot’s hand when they met at a PCER855 reunion
Robert Ernest May died December 6, 2019, in the comfort of his home of heart issues. His final message to his family was one of love. “He fought for his country because of the word love,” Kelly May said of his grandfather. Now, a cross bearing his name will give witness to his service.
Roselyn Pickens is one of nine Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who recently spent two and a half weeks in Franklin County writing stories for the Herald Chronicle. More of their work can be found at www.theroadtripclass.com.