Tales from Yesteryear

The Fort Douglas military cemetery keeps centuries-old stories alive.


On the southeast corner of campus, where the gold, dry grass turns and races up the hill toward an overlook of the city, is a piece of land that is shrouded in stories. The Fort Douglas Post Cemetery is laid out in a simple, unassuming design—a three-acre square that grew with the casualties of time and war, harsh winters, and wild passions—but the tales of those interred here are intricate and complex.

Tony, the German shepherd who fought in World War II, was a descendant of Rin Tin Tin.

From prisoners of war to army musicians, Buffalo Soldiers, and World War II heroes—the military cemetery is a cross-section of history, a slice through some of humanity’s best and worst times.

The first Fort Douglas burial occurred mere months after the 3rd Regiment of the California Volunteer Infantry arrived to establish the outpost in late October 1862. A handful of funerals still occur here every year, but for the most part, the cemetery, which is owned and overseen by the National Cemetery Administration, is closed to new additions. Nevertheless, there are whispers about the grounds—that they’re haunted, or overrun by rattlesnakes—but to walk through the rows of aging headstones, under shade trees and past the storied memorials, is to stroll through time.

In the fall, Beau Burgess, executive director of the Fort Douglas Museum, organizes a tour for people to come hear about the graveyard’s history. Volunteer actors, some of whom are descendants of those interred, roam the property in costume, telling the tales of those buried here. This year, as plans to host the tour resume with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, we are bringing a few of those stories to you. They come from different time periods, backgrounds, and perspectives, but they have one thing in common: if left unsaid, their existence would fade like the etchings in the sandstone marking their graves. Repeating the words keeps their memory alive.

The Flying WASPs

Lorraine Bain (Image courtesy WASP Archive/TWU)

In the summer of 1943, a program was created to train women to fly noncombat missions in World War II. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) completed hundreds of hours of ground school and flight training to receive their wings from the Army Air Corps, even though they were considered civilians. After completing their training, the 1,830 WASP pilots knew Morse code, meteorology, military law, aircraft mechanics, and navigation, and they took to the skies ferrying airplanes, towing targets for aerial gunnery training, and testing planes after repairs.

Lorraine Marion Nelson Bain, born April 16, 1920, applied to be part of the program, and paid her own way to travel from her home in Montana to the training base in Sweetwater, Texas, in December 1943. She deployed to the Pecos Army Air Base in Pecos, Texas, as a maintenance pilot, where she worked until the WASP program was deactivated in December 1944.

Even though 38 women died during their service as WASPs, they received no honors until 1977, when the WASP program was officially militarized, and the members were granted veteran status. The surviving women, including Bain, received Congressional Medals of Honor in 2010 for their service. Bain continued to fly and work in aviation for the rest of her life, until she and her husband retired to a small farm in Texas, where she died on May 23, 2014. She is buried in the Fort Douglas military cemetery in honor of her wartime contributions.

Terror No More

Tony with his trainer, and his best friend—a cat.

Not all the burials in Fort Douglas are human—like Tony "the Terror," a German shepherd who fought in World War II. A descendant of Rin Tin Tin, Tony joined the K-9 corps in June 1943. He was assigned to Sergeant Jack Lamper, who traveled with him to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, where he underwent training to become aggressive in battle.

After two years, Tony was released from service and sent to a rehabilitation program to overcome his fierce training. Some dogs never recovered, but Tony was different. He wasn’t violent; he was sad. He remained mopey and seemingly depressed until he was reunited with Lamper in February 1946, and he became friends with two orphan minks, a cat named Aggie, and the Lamper children. He later became a mainstay at the fort and a beloved uniformed mascot for the American Legion. When he died in 1949 at age 7, Tony was buried at Fort Douglas in an elaborate casket, with “Taps” and a salute.

Bear River Massacre

One of the most notable features of the cemetery is a large monument to soldiers killed during the Bear River Massacre in January 1863. The attack on the Northwestern Shoshone just above the northern border of Utah resulted in the deaths of 21 soldiers—and hundreds of Shoshone men, women, children, and babies were killed in the largest Native American massacre in the West. Only about 100 of the Shoshone survived.

For years, accounts of the event overlooked the Shoshone perspective, which has been passed down through generations. The tribe has now purchased 650 acres surrounding the area, with plans to build a cultural center on the site to tell their story.

Here, Darren Parry, tribe historian and former chair of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, shares his thoughts about the monument in the Fort Douglas cemetery and how that day in January forever impacted his people.

GETTING HISTORY RIGHT

“I’m not a history eraser. I think it’s important that people see history in the context of the time that they lived. It’s important that we share that historical context, otherwise, how do we know if we’re getting better? I use it as a measuring stick, and I use it to place my values on today, because we know so much more than people who lived 158 years ago.

Chief Sagwitch married his fifth wife, Beawoachee, after the massacre.

I wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, saying why I felt we needed to preserve and maintain the monument, and it’s still there today. It’s a painful reminder, though, of what took place. I always tell people, monuments are not history, so if you keep that in mind, it just gives you a snapshot of what people want you to know.

I hope as we get smarter and older and wiser, we can put up another reminder, or a plaque, that tells a different side. That’s what we’re doing at the Bear River Massacre site. It’s okay to acknowledge past wrongs and a dirty part of our history that we’d probably rather forget, because that’s the only way you get to reconciliation or forgiveness—the willingness to say, ‘This was terrible,’ or ‘This never should have happened.’

We can all do more to acknowledge our past and try to rectify it. That was one of the things my grandmother Mae Timbimboo Parry did as she went to Washington, D.C., and testified 10 times to Congress and the Senate about Bear River. She said Bear River wasn’t a battle, it was a massacre. So, the National Park Service changed the name to the Bear River Massacre in 1990 because of her. She worked her whole life to tell the story of her people in an accurate way.

I am a descendant of Chief Sagwitch, my great-great-great grandfather, who was chief of the Northwestern Band when the attack occurred. I have a strong feeling that we need to share their story; their voices need to be heard. In the next year, we will start construction on a $6 million cultural center that tells the story on the site.

I think it’s finally time that our story is told. Horrible things happened to our tribe. But that doesn’t define us today. We get up and go to work and try to be the best people we can today, and that’s what the world needs more than anything. We survived. We’re resilient. And we want to make a difference.”

Service in Suds

Army women received high wages to wash the soldiers’ clothing. (Image courtesy New York Public Library)

In the late 1800s, some women performed a key duty in the Army: washing the laundry. The women usually lived together on “Soap Suds Row,” nicknamed after the suds from the wash tubs.

Fort Douglas had its own Suds Row, as did nearby Camp Williams. Several of the laundresses from both locations are buried in the cemetery, including Margaret Rivers, who died Jan. 1, 1863, and Anna Forbes, who died Aug. 2, 1864.

While they were alive, they completed the time-consuming work of washing, ironing, and mending the men’s clothing, with four laundresses being assigned to 100 soldiers. They often received only one ration of food per day but were paid well—more than most of the enlisted soldiers: $.75 per month for each enlisted soldier and $3 per month for each officer.

The Buffalo Soldiers

The first advanced guard of the 24th Infantry—an all-black regiment formed in 1869—arrived in Salt Lake City in October 1896. The men were known as Buffalo Soldiers, so nicknamed by Native Americans at the time. They were deployed to fight across the frontier and abroad. At Fort Douglas, the men filled every role from musicians to members of the cavalry.

One of the first Buffalo Soldiers to be buried at Fort Douglas was Lee Shipman, who died June 3, 1897. Shipman was born in the early 1840s in Kentucky and enlisted in the Colored Volunteer Army, a precursor to the 24th Infantry, as an “Enlisted Recruit Slave” in 1865.

In 1868, he officially enlisted in the Army as a free man, after which he had 32 years of exceptional military service. Three months after Shipman retired in Utah, he died of a cerebral abscess.

Stories of soldiers like Shipman must be preserved so that their contribution is recognized, says Robert Burch, executive director of the Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation, whose mission is to document Black history in Utah. In some cases, descendants of Buffalo Soldiers don’t know where their ancestors are buried. Families weren’t always notified where their loved ones died; they simply never returned home.

“We can only unify ourselves as a community by learning the truth of everyone in that community,” Burch says.

A Buffalo Soldier

Sam Thomas, a native of Indiana who joined the army at age 21, brought his wife and children with him to Utah, where he performed in the popular Fort Douglas military band. He played gigs every weekend, but one night, his wife found him in another woman’s house. On June 11, 1897, she shot and killed him on the spot.

Two other Buffalo Soldiers—Private William Carter and Sergeant John Jackson—fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Jackson was one of the highest-ranked Black soldiers at the time, and Carter had an excellent service record, but after San Juan Hill, Carter suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In August 1899, after being disciplined for not completing his orders, Carter shot and killed Jackson. As Carter tried to run away, he was shot in the back by his comrades, and he also died.

The Buffalo Soldiers left Fort Douglas later that year.

Shadow People and Haunted Visions

Of all the cemeteries Fiona Robinson-Hill has visited throughout the world, none is more active than Fort Douglas.

“Any time you go there, you are guaranteed to get paranormal activity happening,” says Robinson-Hill, a ghost hunter, historian, and tour guide for Salt Lake City-based Grimm Ghost Tours, founded by Paul Wheeler BA’09. “It just depends on whether you are aware of what is happening or not.”

Robinson-Hill works with the cemetery to conduct research about who is buried there, and one of her life’s goals is to ensure those stories stay alive. But the more time she spends in the graveyard—giving tours and looking at photographic evidence of orbs, inexplicable shadows, and mists of light—the more she’s convinced that the burial ground is full of activity from another realm.

There are reports that one can hear whispers in German in the southwest corner of the cemetery, where German prisoners of World War II are buried. And a security guard told Robinson-Hill that when he parked outside of the gates, he witnessed human shadows moving about. When he turned on his headlights, the shadows vanished, but as soon as he turned them off, the dark figures reappeared.

On a tour once, Robinson-Hill placed candles on the gravestone of someone with a questionable past. As she voiced her skeptical opinion of the person, her candles became covered in spiders, moths, and other creepy crawlies. That never happened before, or since, she says.

Robinson-Hill recorded herself using dowsing rods to communicate with ghosts in the graveyard. She is standing in deep snow on a cold, gray day, holding one straight, thin copper wire with a 90-degree angle in each hand. Ghost hunters believe that spirits use their energy to move the rods, in the same way the rods were historically used to find water.

“Is there someone here?” she asks no one in particular. The rods slowly move toward each other, crossing into an x—a sign that means yes.

“Do you want to talk to me?” X again.

“Who are you?” The wires slowly rotate, gradually creeping 180 degrees to her right, pointing to a different part of the cemetery, and she looks off in that direction, a little wary.

Then, the video ends—a story for another day.

EDITOR’S NOTE While the military cemetery is not owned or managed by the University of Utah, the university has both historical and contemporary relationships with Indigenous peoples. We acknowledge that the land the campus was built on is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute peoples. The U respects the sovereign relationship between tribes, states, and the federal government, and we affirm our commitment to a partnership with Native Nations and Urban Indian communities through research, education, and community outreach activities. As a result of this article, the university is in the process of petitioning the National Cemetery Administration to install a plaque in honor of the Shoshone who died in the Bear River Massacre.

Comments

Comments are moderated, so there may be a slight delay. Those that are off-topic or deemed inappropriate may not be posted. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with an asterisk (*).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *