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More than 40 headstones at the Oakwood, Longwood and Greenwood Cemetery were damaged sometime last weekend, including one at the grave of one of the Bedford Boys killed on June 6, 1944, during the Normandy invasion.
That gravestone belonged to Sgt. John L. Wilkes, a first sergeant with Bedford’s Company A, who died in heavy sniper fire at the water line as Company A struck the beach at 6:30 a.m. on D-Day.
“We are saddened by the news that anyone would vandalize a cemetery,” the D-Day Memorial Foundation released in a statement Monday. “The incident is only compounded by the fact that one of the damaged tombstones belongs to John Wilkes, one of our town’s Bedford Boy heroes. We extend our thoughts to all the families affected by this incident.”
Bedford Police Chief Jim Day said the vandalism was “very disrespectful" and goes far beyond what someone might have thought was a funny prank. “I can assure you we are spending a lot of time on this investigation,” he said.
On Monday, Bedford Police responded to the cemetery located in the 1200 block of Longwood Avenue regarding the vandalism. They discovered that sometime over the weekend, someone had pushed over the headstones, separating them from their base. Other stones were pushed over still attached to their base and some of the more fragile gravestones broke. “Those cannot be restored to exactly what they looked like before,” he said.
Those who caused the damage will likely face Class 6 felony property damage charges.
Damage to the headstones is estimated to be in excess of $2,000.
“They were scattered all around; they weren’t in just one section,” Day stated of the vandalized gravestones. That led him to believe more than one individual was responsible for the crime.
“Those stones, some of them are really heavy,” he said. “I just don’t think even one good strong farm boy could push over those stones—plus there are so many.”
Day said the vandalism likely occurred Sunday night. “We feel like somebody would have (seen it and) called if it had been done Friday or Saturday night,” he said. City workers discovered the damage when they came to work Monday morning to work on the grounds.
The cemetery is city owned and maintained. Day said he believes the damage will be covered by insurance. He said the vandalism appeared to be more “mischief than malicious” in its intent, and not directed at any particular individual. “I think they just randomly went through the cemetery and pushed over stones. … It’s very disturbing to the family members,” he said.
Day said the department had numerous calls from family members wanting to know if their loved ones' gravestone had been damaged. Those needing that information may call the City Public Works Department at 587-6081. Public Works Superintendent D.W. Lawhorne said city workers have been putting together a list of the names of the gravestones that were damaged. Some of those dated back to the 1800s and in one section, set aside for Elks members, 12 stones were knocked over.
“It’s heart breaking,” Lawhorne said. “What a lot of people would see as a final resting place was not this weekend. Every one of these is someone’s loved one.”
Lawhorne said city workers can set back in place the gravestones that were just turned over, but not damaged. Those that were damaged will have to be repaired by a monument company.
“We have filed a claim with our insurance,” he said, adding that the city plans to take care of the damages.
Lawhorne said this is “by far” the biggest incident of vandalism at the cemetery.
Police are offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in this crime.
Day is hoping the reward will stir up some information about who committed this crime. “I very much want to be able to identify these people,” he said of catching who did the damage. “Hopefully we’ll be able to develop a suspect in the next several days.”
Anyone with information about this crime should call the Bedford Police Department at (540) 587-6011 or Central Virginia Crime Stoppers at 1-888-798-5900.
A look back
In 2001, Bettie (Krantz) Wilkes Hooper presented her D-Day memories to the Colonial Dames Seventeenth Century. The following paragraphs describes in her own words the impact of learning of the death of John Wilkes, her husband:
“I had a job in Bedford and shared an apartment with my sister and husband in John’s absence. I had gone uptown to buy items to complete the package I had prepared to take to the post office for mailing to John. I met an acquaintance on the street and we had stopped to chat and catch up on any war news we had to share. In answer to her question, I had replied that I had received no news from John, and it was then she told me someone had heard in a letter that John had been killed on D-Day.
“I must have stared in disbelief and shock, as I yet cannot remember how I got back home, or little else afterward. Of course, family and friends kept telling me it was probably a mistake, and I guess I did have a little hope still even though no letters or news was yet received from John. But the day of July 17, 1944, came, weeks after D-Day, and with it came the telegram to me from the War department, as it was known then, and delivered while I was at work. It was official and final now that John was gone, and my sister would then need to see me home to our apartment. When we reached our apartment, we heard sounds of crying and soon learned that our neighbors in the building had also received a telegram.
“And so it was all around our small town and the surrounding farms as the dreaded messages kept coming, all 23 of them, with each family receiving their own particular summons to grief and loss. Even the local sheriff with the one official car he had was pressed into service in delivery of these telegrams. A family who lived near us as I grew up would lose two sons, and the friend who had gone with me to New York to see our husbands off to England would also lose her husband and the daughter born to them in his absence would not see her father. Practically everyone in Bedford, including myself, had known well each of these 23 men and their families.”