COLUMBIA — “War was war in 1778; war was war in 1968 for me; and war is war for my grandson today,” Vietnam War veteran Dewey Riehn said. His grandson is currently serving his fourth tour of duty with the Army in the Middle East.
Riehn and his wife, Virginia, are both members of Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church, and for the past two years they have placed flags on the graves of all the veterans buried in the church cemetery on Memorial Day.
The cemetery holds 32 confirmed veterans' tombstones, Virginia Riehn said. They are scattered throughout the cemetery's approximately 300 graves.
An estimated 30 to 40 more gravestones in the cemetery are illegible, Joella Henry said. Henry, 85, is a longtime church member who has attended Little Bonne Femme since before she can remember. Henry and her husband, Donald, 88, started the flag-placing tradition at the church cemetery and passed it on to the Riehns in 2009.
“It amazes me that the church has been there in the same place, and it’s been active there for so long that we have people there who were in the War of Independence,” Riehn said.
A placard standing in front of the tombstone of John Woolfolk Jr. lists his birth date as Sept. 9, 1760. The faded, discolored face notes that he served in the Revolutionary War and died on Oct. 11, 1843.
Woolfolk was one of the early deacons at the Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church, which was established in 1819, Riehn said.
Woolfolk’s grave marker was moved to the church cemetery along with three other tombstones from their original locations on the Woolfolk family farm, according to the placard.
Only the tombstones were moved on June 22, 1987, after the farmland, located in Deer Park, changed hands. The graves remained in place, Henry said.
Henry has kept records of the cemetery and is interested in its history because she and her husband have family members and friends buried there.
"I’ve always kept a diary and kept newspaper clippings, and that’s how I know a lot of them were veterans,” Henry said as she rested her hands on a binder of handwritten notes that list the veterans whose tombstones are in the cemetery.
The Henrys had been placing flags on graves each Memorial Day for so long, neither can recall exactly how many years. The couple was inspired to start the tradition in order to honor the World War II veterans who they knew personally, including two of Donald’s brothers and one of Joella’s who are buried there.
The Riehns carry on the tradition because they empathize with veterans, and after Dewey Riehn’s 20 years in the Army, have a deep sense of patriotism, Virginia Riehn said. They hope to impact young people to share in that patriotism.
“If we don’t set good examples, to teach and train what it is to be an American, where are they going to learn it?” she said.
Other wars represented by veterans memorialized in the cemetery include: the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Dewey Riehn said.
The cemetery has so few lots left to sell that only church members can buy them now, Henry said.