TAMPA — Every Memorial Day, members of the American Legion USS Tampa Post 5 have gone all out to remind the world why freedom matters.
They have placed candles before hundreds of gravestones in their cemetery, which currently stands at 728 graves dating back to the Spanish-American War. The next morning they replace the candles with American flags. A bigwig comes in to speak; in the past, these have included generals.
Before it's all over, retired Lt. Col. Daniel Hall would address his peers in a strong voice, reciting a famous poem from memory:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row …
Another lieutenant colonel, John McCrae of the Canadian Army, wrote In Flanders Fields in 1915, during World War I.
Each year, Col. Hall brought the poem — and buried soldiers everywhere — into the moment.
"It was a tearjerker," said Kevin Duffy, 52, a member of Sons of the American Legion.
The rest of the year, he honored the dead with his labor. Starting in the early 1970s, Col. Hall and his brother, Linton, had maintained the American Legion Cemetery near Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway. They cut grass and pulled weeds. They attacked blackened gravestones with bleach and water, and scrubbed the names of soldiers until they were white as bone.
Col. Hall, a 29-year active-duty Marine who fought as hard for the dead as he had for the living, died Wednesday at Memorial Hospital. He was 89. In recent years, he had served as the Post 5 commander and as president of the American Legion Cemetery Corp., an organization he helped start in the 1970s.
"The stones in this cemetery look better than they do at Arlington," Col. Hall told the St. Petersburg Times in 2003.
His voice carried weight around the Legion post.
"He would speak, and you would see people straighten right up," said Alyse Duffy, president of the American Legion Auxiliary.
If there was any whispering in a meeting when he started to talk, he would get quiet until there was no sound at all.
Daniel Webster Hall Jr. grew up in Tampa, in a family that saved mementos from its Confederate ancestors. He joined the Marines in 1942.
Over the years, he pulled off a rare feat —rising from enlisted man to lieutenant colonel.
He became crew chief of one of the first helicopter crews used to transport a U.S. president, starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s.
Col. Hall retired in 1972. He and Elsie, his wife since 1945, bought a travel trailer and toured the country.
He settled into the retirement of a former Marine.
"You didn't call him an 'ex-Marine,' " said Post 5 commander Bill Hamblin, 64, who describes himself as ex-Air Force. "I made that mistake one time."
He began to work on the Legion cemetery grounds and to clean the gravestones.
The Legion offers burial at no charge to families, a benefit that has made such cemeteries increasingly scarce in recent years, Hamblin said. These days, he said, American Legion veterans and their spouses are interred in national cemeteries or buried privately, sometimes in a designated cluster with other Legionnaires.
"We are the only standalone American Legion cemetery left in the world," Hamblin said.
The national headquarters of the American Legion in Indianapolis was unable to verify that claim.
Col. Hall taught Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts how to clean the headstones with an equal mix of bleach and water.
Another headstone problem proved more difficult to solve.
"They're very heavy," Hamblin said. "About 250 pounds each. They sink in the sand."
Col. Hall designed a sleeve that slipped over the stones and helped raise them. Then he packed clay at their base.
In the early 1990s, the cemetery corporation sold a piece of land for the widening of Kennedy Boulevard and has been on solid financial footing ever since.
"Dan Hall took the state to the cleaners," said Hamblin. A landscaping crew took over maintenance duties. Col. Hall's brother died in 1996, but he kept coming around, even cranking up the lawn mower when he thought the grounds could use an additional trim.
When a developer asked if the Legion would consider selling the property, Col. Hall responded vigorously.
"I remember Dan saying, 'Okay, you write down all the names, contact those families, and if you have 100 percent agreement to move the bodies, I'll sell it to you,' " Hamblin recalled. "Of course, that would never happen."
In recent years, it was harder for Col. Hall to maintain his erect military posture. He had both knees and a hip replaced, been diagnosed with cancer and recovered, and suffered infections and heart trouble.
He still patrolled the cemetery grounds, accompanied by his golden retriever, Semper Marina.
His wife held his hand as he died. Col. Hall will be buried with military honors at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, land that was once part of Withlacoochee State Forest. In a 2003 interview, Col. Hall said he planned to be buried in Bushnell, amid the swaying oak trees and pines dripping Spanish moss.
"It's beautiful," he said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]