Article and images from Leslie L. Megyeri
As a military veteran, I am grateful for the many sites that Florida offers to honor those who have served their country. The Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, maintains 155 national cemeteries in 42 states and Puerto Rico as well as 34 monument sites, but Florida alone is home to nine national cemeteries. On Memorial Day, I try to visit one or two of these solemn, beautiful places where visitors can reflect, remember, respect and honor those who have served.
Sarasota National Cemetery is the closest to where I live. On 295 acres, it has a public information center, electronic gravesite locator, restrooms, memorial walkway, two committal shelters and a stunning 2,000 seat ceremonial amphitheater known as Patriot Plaza that features personal testimonies engraved in stone amid memorable artwork. Guided tours are offered at 10 am on Tuesdays without reservations.
Other Florida National Cemeteries:
- Barrancas National Cemetery is in the Pensacola Naval Air Station and sits on 8,423 acres that holds the remains of British aviators, Civil War casualties and the second wife of Apache Indian Chief Geronimo named Ga-ah. Deceased veterans there number 44,000 but access to the cemetery depends on admittance to this active-duty Naval Air Station.
- Cape Canaveral National Cemetery is a new 318 acre cemetery in Mims that will serve the burial needs for more than 163,000 veterans over the next 200 years. Legendary Tuskegee Airman Edwin T. Cowan was reinterred here in 2019 with full military honors.
- Florida National Cemetery sits on 500 acres within the Withlacoochee State Forest 50 miles north of Tampa. It is one of the busiest cemeteries in the nation, boasts a memorial pathway lined with over 50 memorials and its main assembly area of open colonnades is used for Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies.
- Jacksonville National Cemetery is a new 526 acre site located north of Jacksonville’s International Airport and will serve the needs of vets for the next 100 years. Since the St. Augustine National Cemetery is now closed to new internments, the Jacksonville site serves the needs for those in northern Florida.
- St. Augustine National Cemetery is a historic site that has an illustrious background as it was designated a national cemetery in 1881 and sits in the oldest city in the nation which was founded in the 17th century as a Spanish colonial possession.
- Tallahassee National Cemetery began in 2015, sits on 250 acres, and will serve 83,000 vets of the area in years to come.
- Bay Pines National Cemetery features a towering monument of pink Etowah marble that was built in 1937 and sits on the grounds of the Veterans Administration Center in Pinellas County, northwest of St. Petersburg.
- South Florida National Cemetery is set among lakes on 338 acres in Lake Worth in Palm Beach County. It will serve vets’ needs for the next 50 years.
What many find surprising is that the burial for the spouse, surviving spouse or dependent of an eligible veteran or member of the Armed Forces may be eligible for internment in a national cemetery even if that veteran is not buried or memorialized in a national cemetery. Any member of the Armed Forces who dies while on active duty or any veteran discharged under conditions other than dishonorable may be eligible. Free caskets are provided only if the death occurs while on active duty.
At the funeral, the flag is presented to the deceased’s next of kin. All eligible vets are entitled to military funeral honors signifying America’s gratitude for their service. Another surprise is that the tombstones may, in addition to the dates of birth and death, carry inscriptions such as “loving father, son, and friend,” etc., but Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which has its own stringent requirements, does not allow such personalizations.
A charming tradition that one encounters in these Florida national cemeteries is that coins are left on many headstones to let the families know that someone has stopped by to pay their respects. A penny signifies a visit; a nickel means the visitor served in boot camp with the deceased; a dime means the visitor and deceased served together; and a quarter signifies that the visitor was present when the deceased died. When too many coins accumulate, the caretaker collects them and contributes them to a fund for cemetery up-keep, lawn mowing, weed elimination and the washing of tombstones. Coins have long been used to honor fallen warriors even in ancient Greece.
Other than cemeteries, there are other historical sites, monuments, museums and destinations for those who desire to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers:
- American Victory Ship in Tampa is one of only four operational World War II ships in the U.S. It is a national historic landmark and prize attraction for cruises, tours, and events.
- Air Force Armament Museum at the Eglin Air Force Base showcases military equipment and 29 aircraft used by the Air Force from WWII to the present.
- Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West was constructed in 1845 when Florida became a state. It was named for this president in 1850.
- Military Sea Service Museum in Sebring is the only one honoring all ocean going arms: the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
- National Armed Services and Law Enforcement Museum in Dunedin honors individuals in the U.S. Armed Forces and law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels.
- National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is the world’s largest naval aviation museum, is one of Florida’s most frequently visited museums, and offers 350,000 square feet of exhibit space.
- National Navy UDT-Seal Museum at Ft. Pierce sits on the actual site where WWII Navy Frogmen trained so it shows the era’s artifacts.
- SS American Victory at Channelside Drive in Miami is a floating museum and one of 414 Victory ships built to carry cargo.
- Fort Clinch State Park served as a military post during the Civil War, Spanish-American War and WWII.
- Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park in Sanderson offers re-enactments of Florida ‘s largest Civil War battle every February.
- Liberty Bell Memorial Museum in Melbourne is operated by Honor America, a nonprofit that celebrates American history. The museum offers a timeline of milestones in American history, documents, memorabilia, a full-scale replica of the Liberty Bell, tributes to each branch of the Armed Forces, information on major wars, and exhibitions on the history of Florida.
Lastly are two of my favorites. The Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda holds 50,000 artifacts on display from the Spanish-American War to the Mideast conflicts. Nearby in Laishley Park is a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. that lists more than 58,000 names of deceased men and women and honors, “the courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty and country of those who served during the longest war in US history.” The amputations and crippling wounds were 300% higher than in WWII and one out of every 10 Americans who served in Vietnam was a casualty. There are still 1,587 U.S. military and civilian personnel left unaccounted for today.
The granite used to build this Wall is from the same source as the original and the slope of the wall mirrors that of the original. There are 74 separate panels that run 246 feet and 9 inches. It was dedicated in 2016 and the ceremony began with a walk of honor and tribute by Rolling Thunder. The Wall’s names are arranged chronologically by date of casualty. Not surprisingly, the Army had the most casualties, then the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.
Since more than 500,000 World War II residents live in Florida, the Department of State’s Florida’s World War II Heritage Trail at dos/myflorida.com offers still more sites for visitors to honor our national veterans this Memorial Day.
Leslie L. Megyeri is a retired U.S. Army LtC who resides in Venice, FL.