TAMPA — Bill Hamblin surveyed gravestones marking the lives of the more than 700 people buried in a small cemetery.
Some buried here died in combat. Some died in their sleep as old men. To Hamblin, it doesn't matter. Each one, he said, is owed a debt for one reason.
They are veterans.
The American Legion U.S.S. Tampa Post 5, on Kennedy Boulevard near Dale Mabry Highway, held a simple, candlelight vigil Sunday night at its adjacent veterans cemetery. About 75 people attended to light candles at the 733 graves, some dating to the Spanish-American War.
"Regardless of how they died, they were all willing to give their lives for the freedom we have today," said Hamblin, an Air Force veteran and commander of the post. "They wrote a blank check to the United States."
None of those who gathered on the eve of Memorial Day, which will be marked by ceremonies throughout the Tampa Bay region, knew any of the dead buried here.
Some were like Annette Smith, who tried to imagine the faces of the young men buried under the candles she lit.
"I try to picture what they went through for their country," Smith said.
And so she bent over and lit a candle marking Sgt. Maj. William Harry Carroll's grave. His marker said little of his life. He was a Marine born in New Jersey. He died on June 5, 1943.
Not far away was the grave of Rondo Hatton, who died in 1946 at 52. He was voted the most-handsome boy at his high school, Hamblin said, but he later suffered from a disease that disfigured his face. He turned to acting, playing roles in B-grade horror movies. The work earned him the nickname "the monster without the makeup."
That's all interesting to Hamblin. But he doesn't forget another fact about Hatton. He is a veteran who served in World War I.
Barbara Fuerst came to the ceremony with her husband to remember the death of her son six years ago in Afghanistan.
Fuerst's eldest son, Joseph III, is buried at the veterans' cemetery in Bushnell. But he had frequently visited the Legion post in Tampa.
"People say it gets easier over time. It never gets easier," she said.
Veteran Fred C. Marlow never rose above the rank of private. He died in 1942. No family came Sunday to visit his grave. But Fuerst lit a candle for him. And so his service wasn't forgotten.
The post, at 3810 W Kennedy Blvd., will hold a memorial service from 11 a.m. to noon today. Speakers are scheduled to include Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda.
Other Memorial Day ceremonies are planned throughout the region today.
At the Bay Pines National Cemetery in Seminole, adjacent to a veterans hospital, a ceremony is scheduled to open at 10 a.m. and includes musical performances, a firing salute and speakers, including the Bay Pines medical center's new director, Suzanne M. Klinker.
An 11 a.m. ceremony is planned at the Florida National Cemetery southwest of Bushnell. Patriotic music will be played by the Hernando High School band.
Largo will hold a ceremony at 7 p.m. at Largo Central Park's Military Court of Honor, 101 Central Park Drive. One of the speakers will be U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.