American Legion Post 5 in Tampa, Fla., has a nearly 100-year-old tale that resulted in the only stand-alone American Legion cemetery in the country.
In 1921, Unit 5 Auxiliary President Mrs. Bie witnessed police attending to the lifeless body of a homeless World War I veteran. Appalled that a war hero was placed in a pauper’s grave, Mrs. Bie purchased three acres of land and dedicated it to Post 5 for the creation of a sacred place that would never forget another veteran – The American Legion Cemetery. To date, it’s the only veterans cemetery in Hillsborough County, which has a population of nearly 1.3 million.
The American Legion cremation-only cemetery is open to any Legion member in good standing, as well as his or her spouse. The cemetery is the final resting place for 736 veterans who served in every war conflict, including the Spanish-American War. All five branches of the U.S. military, 11 countries and nearly every state are also represented.
"We are very proud of our cemetery," said Bill Hamblin, commander of Post 5. "It’s beautiful."
On its website, Post 5 has a record of all the service men and women buried at the cemetery, including their war era, branch of service and military rank. Hamblin said in his research on those laid to rest, "a so-called movie star" is among them: World War I U.S. Army combat veteran Rondo Hatton. After his war service, Hatton was diagnosed with a disease that grotesquely distorted his face, head and extremities. His unusual features helped him star in several small Hollywood films where he played a "creepy" character, such as "The House of Horrors" and "The Brute Man" in 1946.
Hamblin also found a World War I veteran whose rank was WGNM – wagon master. "Horses and wagons were their transportation in World War I and that was his actual rank."
About 60 burial spaces remain at The American Legion Cemetery, which is located next to Post 5 on the corner of a busy intersection in Tampa – Dale Mabry Highway and Kennedy Blvd. Care of the cemetery is provided by the Hillsborough County American Legion Veterans Cemetery Corp. The corporation board has six members, three from Post 5 and three from Unit 5.
Besides burial services, Post 5 and Unit 5 members have hosted a Memorial Day service at the cemetery for the past 91 years where luminaries are placed at each headstone. And during the holiday season, wreaths are placed at the headstones as part of the Wreaths Across America program.
Post 5 members call The American Legion Cemetery a "sacred ground" and a "protected ground." Read more about the history of Post 5 on The American Legion’s Centennial Celebration web page here.