Gone but never forgotten

NODE – National Prisoner of War and Missing In Action day is observed annually on the third Friday of September. This year it was September 16 and at Node in a small cemetery on a hill side overlooking the eastern Wyoming prairie a man was laid to rest who needed to be honored not only for his sacrifice, but as a symbol of the almost 82,000 Americans still missing according to defense records. Major Virgil Olds, a son of Niobrara county and presumed dead one year after he went missing during a bombing mission over Tokyo in May 1945. Olds was serving as a pilot on the B29 “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in a pathfinder mission. Old’s plane was shot down sometime during the darkness between May 24 and May 25 and according to the military, “after twelve months of MIA presumptive finding of death is determined.” Yet Olds never received a headstone. He was awarded a purple heart, several flight commendations, and in June 1945, shortly after going missing his commendation to Major went through, but a headstone and subsequent records were never awarded to this son of Niobrara.

Olds’ story stands out for its many twists and turns, not the least is the one that starts with him choosing to take private flight lessons in Scottsbluff, Neb. to prepare for advancing his career in the military, all without telling the people who love him, and who he loved the most, his grandparents that had raised him. Throughout his army and then air force career Olds made choices to protect his family and friends from the inevitable time when he would be deployed during WWII. 

By all accounts, this sense of duty and protection started well before his military career. Following the death of his mother and father Olds was raised in Node by his grandparents Robert and Wilhelmena “Minnie” Bell. A few individuals remain who remember Olds as a young man. Jimmy Shane, who was integral to the process of getting Olds remember in the national veteran’s records, has faint memories of Virgil and his sense of work ethic and fun. He was unfailingly loyal to his grandparents and those who depended on him. Olds used to ride his Indian motorcycle around Node and give rides to other boys.

The school children of Node use to write letters to servicemen, among them, Major Olds. As Shane recollected these things during the dedication to Olds on September 16, you could see his own mind drift back to a time when a young boy wrote letters to a looked-up-to soldier and then that soldier never came home.

This experience had a significant impact on Shane’s life and he, along with his wife Carmen became committed to honoring Old’s life and death even after all of Olds’ know family had passed. His grandparents are buried in the Node cemetery and every year the Shane family has placed a wreath at the gravesite in memory of Olds. Olds, himself, never received the honor of a headstone, a gravesite, or even a mention in the national cemetery. Although he is listed in the Courts of the Missing in Hawaii, without better records or a family member to sign for a headstone, the Veterans Affairs department was unwilling to put up a marker unless there was a body or ashes. 

Commander Ed Tirado of VFW Post #3511 of Lusk became involved in 2019 and after the formal requests through national offices failed rallied those attending the 2022 Memorial Day service in Lusk to petition their representatives and senators to push for a headstone. Shortly after this Representative Liz Cheney’s office contacted Tirado and said that her office, Senator Barasso and Senator Lummis would also be assisting with completing this request. Within days, they were notified, a marker would be delivered within 8-10 weeks. 

It was at this time that Tirado made plans to hold a memorial service befitting a serviceman like Olds. Tirado invited local, state and national figures and military leaders. Tirado has always been a tireless advocate for veterans and just because their time is decades past doesn’t make their service or the individual any less important in Tirado’s eyes.

As Tirado told Olds’ story to the almost 200 community, political, and military representatives gathered at Node cemetery he became emotional. Not just because of his personal work on this particular case, but because of what it stood for. The righting of a wrong when a man was not honored in the way he should have been for his sacrifice. 

Governor Mark Gordon quoted Rudyard Kipling’s “In Times of Prayer, “ with, ““In times of war and not before, God and the soldier we adore. But in times of peace and all things righted, God is forgotten and the soldier slighted.” Gordon stated that this service, headstone and ceremony were an example of how that slight can be corrected. This day demonstrated that in Wyoming we remember. All service men and women are family and Wyoming will stop at nothing to honor those who have served. 

Brigadier General Michelle R. Mulberry of the Wyoming Air Guard was also present to remark not only on the events of the day, but how they relate to every member of the military who has ever served and the impact that events like the one for Olds’ has on them.

Harriet Hageman briefly addressed those gathered in appreciation for military sacrifices. Cheri Steinmetz read “The Soldier’s Psalm” number 91. JD Williams reminded those gathered of “the cost of opportunity” and our obligation to honor and not squander that opportunity and to repay in brotherhood and good will.

Elaine Griffith, representing the Niobrara County commissioners, rose and read the proclamation from Niobrara county designating September 16, 2022 as Major Virgil Olds Day. This proclamation joined those from the Town of Lusk and Town of Manville.

As the headstone for Major Olds was unveiled by Jimmy Shane and Governor Gordon, a color guard from the Civil Air patrol and the Patriot Riders looked on, their flags waving gently in the breeze. A moment of silence was observed.

As the taps began to play, more than one attendee wiped tears away watching the many veterans salute Major Olds. The haunting melody carried over the prairie and reminded all of those attending that this man, this pilot, soldier, son, friend and grandson was gone but not forgotten. That the debt we cannot repay had at least finally been honored in a fitting way.

© 2022-Lusk Herald


Video News
More In Home