If someone were to ask you where the first Pearl Harbor monument is located, what place would you guess? Honolulu? Washington, D.C.? Perhaps someplace in Arizona?
If you didn’t come up with “Swansea, Illinois,” then you wouldn’t be alone. Erected in 1942, just months after the Japanese attacked, the monument sits on a small cemetery plot beside a busy road in metro St. Louis. Located about twenty miles east of Saint Louis, and over 4,000 miles away from Oahu, Swansea does not contain a naval base, an airstrip, or much else of strategic value. What it did have, however, was a sad and terrified family whose members were losing hope. George E Hoffman’s namesake nephew was a sailor aboard the Chew, and he was reported missing along with several others following the attack. By February, his grieving uncle commissioned a large monument to be erected in his nephew’s honor and for all the other dead and missing servicemen at the Messinger Cemetery.
The monument is one of the newer stones there: the oldest grave belongs to Anne Lyon Messinger, who died in 1842. Her family’s gravestones lie behind a black iron fence near the back of the site. Nearby, W. Albert Issacs lies beneath a modest, well-kept gravestone. Issacs died on August 1, 1863, while attached to Company I of the 117th Illinois Infantry. The 117th was stationed in Memphis at that time, so it is likely that Issacs died of a non-violent cause (like disease).
Nearby, Hoffman’s much-larger monument turned out to be at least partially premature. During the months following Pearl Harbor, Hoffman was one of thousands of men whose whereabouts immediately following the bombing raid were unknown. By the time the memorial was dedicated, however, Hoffman had been found alive and well. Nevertheless, the monument’s dedication to all those who died and sacrificed during America’s “baptism by fire” was among the first to pepper a mourning nation’s growing cemeteries. Today the monument is flanked by several other memorials for more recent wars. A few feet away, just beyond a pair of small stone obelisks that mark the entrance to the cemetery, a busy highway disturbs the quiet, a perpetual symbol of time passing along just as those who perished cannot.
If you are ever in the region, it’s worth checking out the memorial and the surrounding cemetery. I visited with my family last December, and although it took a little while to venture out there from the Missouri side of the river, it was well worth the trip.