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Infants, POWs mark unique section of Arlington National Cemetery

Editor’s note: With Memorial Day on the horizon, the Pentagram is looking beyond the regular pomp and circumstance that mark near daily ceremonies inside Arlington National Cemetery. This week, we examine one very special section of the cemetery - now entering its 150th year of existence – with special ties to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.

Between Arlington National Cemetery’s Selfridge and the Old Post Chapel Gates, the inscriptions on grave markers in Section 15 spell out an acre of innocent tragedies.  Below the section’s mighty oak trees, graves of children who never received the opportunities to follow in their fathers’ military footsteps, attend school or live a life-long dream of a wedding day stand ready to be remembered this Memorial Day.

Careful examination of Section 15 grave stones presents a number of burial patterns. Some infants lived just a day, some two days, some survived for months. Part of the Pentagram staff, along with former Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall historian Kim Holien traveled into the cemetery to unravel the mysteries and questions of their premature deaths, but for as many flags Old Guard Soldiers planted the Thursday before Memorial Day, that many mysteries and questions still surround the circumstances behind the Section 15 children’s last, brief moments on earth.

Holien did answer some basic questions about the ANC section, which is broken into five parts between Farragut, Garfield and McPherson Avenues, and how the current joint base is linked to Section 15.  The ground parallel to the tri-service parking lot once was the Army base’s own burial plot.

“This used to be the Fort Myer Post de facto cemetery,” Holien said as he walked past graves which contain remains of servicemember children, wives and parents in addition to deceased post employees. “The wall here would have been up, but this would have been for the children of Fort Myer, Soldiers of Fort Myer. If someone from the post died in an accident or [from] disease, they could be interred in this section.”

And disease may have taken a toll on the Fort Myer young. A number of consecutive graves in Section 15 holds brief stories of infants who lived just hours or days.  Two distinct patterns run consistent in regard to the infant graves in Section 15 – a significant amount of newborns were buried in succession during the years of 1947 and 1951.

According to the United States Public Health Service, the National Office of Vital Statistics and Washington Post articles, pneumonia and influenza were the second-highest cause of deaths among infants in 1947 and a flu epidemic was reported that year. In 1951, a strain of flu bolted through the northeastern part of the United States during the winter and spring.

“There are some variations here [in Section 15],” Holien said as he visually scanned the graves. “But there’s five [death dates] in a row that read May, 1951. Then there’s an April death date right next to them. There’s another April of 1951 and another, and they are all young ones.”

Another hypothesis Holien shares is that the newborns fell to a virus which caused mass panic during the middle of the 20th Century. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, the United States suffered its most deadly polio season in 1951 with 57,879 reported cases.

“There was a major outbreak of polio in the early 1950s,” Holien explained. “You match up a lot of these dates, and [polio deaths] may be the case. Remember, there was no polio vaccine. For these little children to catch something, not too much could have been done.”

If any medical attention was given to Fort Myer youngsters during the post-World War II era and the advent of the Korean War, pediatric patients would have been seen at medical offices at Building 59 – the current JBM-HH headquarters.

“Building 59 was an active hospital up until the mid 1960s,” Holien said. “I’ve even seen some paperwork where they still had clinics until the late 1960s. Around that time, they [Arlington National Cemetery] stopped taking burials for Fort Myer personnel.”

While unnamed infants eternally rest in Section 15, one other intriguing side-bar story lies inside Section 15: Two Italian prisoners of war and a German POW are buried among the children.  

The known facts about the Axis prisoners are brief. Italians Mario Batista and Arcangelo Prudenza were captured in North Africa, and Anton Hilberath appears to have also been taken prisoner during the African campaign. All three were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, permitted to do farm work, and the three were placed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. All three died in 1946.

“Under the Geneva Convention, if a POW or a national died in a foreign country during World War II, they were buried in the closest national cemetery of that country,” Holien said. “That’s why we have a German POW and Italian POWs buried by those big trees.”

According to Arlington National Cemetery, 17 foreign nationals are buried in Section 15, including six British servicemembers, two Danish sailors and a pair of Danish marines.