On a bright day in late May, he arrived at Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery early, as usual.
He wore his uniform: pressed pants and shirt, tie, blue blazer.
With five funerals planned, it was a busy week. This one would be his 187th.
For five years, Red McKendree has served with the Natrona County United Veterans Council, tending to the funerals of veterans of all branches of service.
He started because he had the time. He lost his wife six years ago; he was retired from driving trucks cross-country.
“It’s an honor to do it,” he said.
He’s done it enough he doesn’t need to rehearse ahead of time. The passages McKendree reads are printed on small cards he carries with him.
Before the family arrived at the chapel, when the casket of a World War II veteran was pushed through the side doors, McKendree stood at attention.
An American flag was unfolded and draped over the sides of the casket. Until the flag came to rest, McKendree remained in position.
No one was there to see, but it didn’t matter.
“We’re concentrating on them,” McKendree said, “not the crowd.”
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Sixty-eight years ago, he was 15.
Or 17, depending on which birthday you were going by.
McKendree had two: March 12, 1926, and March 12, 1928. The latter was the real one.
In 1943, he wanted in the service but was too young. So the teen from Hobart, Okla., fudged his age, enlisted in the Navy and took his physical exams in Norman, Okla. Nobody he served with ever knew he was underage.
“A lot of people don’t believe that you’d be in there 15 years old,” he said.
After two months of boot camp and two weeks of amphibious training, McKendree shipped to San Francisco, to a staging area housed on a racetrack. When he got orders to ship out with the 5th Amphibious group, he was so sick with pneumonia the doctor didn’t want him to go.
A first class boatswain mate convinced him by saying he’d personally see to it that McKendree went straight to sick bay once onboard ship.
McKendree could hardly lift his sea bag, but the doctor agreed. He was still sick when he reached Pearl Harbor, so McKendree was placed on a hospital ship. It took a week for his pneumonia to clear before he could continue training.
One extra boat crew was needed overseas, so McKendree and the other Navy men flipped coins to see who went and who stayed.
“We happened to win,” he said. “We didn’t know where we were going or nothing.”
He loaded up. The Marshall Islands it would be.
To McKendree, being part of a boat crew felt like being an orphan. There were just three of them working together, dumped somewhere in the Pacific.
When a ship unloaded, “they just left us,” McKendree said.
“We didn’t have a home. All we had was that boat.”
They washed their clothes on the stern of the boat, with salt water and a brush.
Mainly, McKendree’s three-man boat crew serviced ships, hauling out equipment or parts when needed. One day in the Marshalls, McKendree’s boat had to deliver a one-star admiral to the USS New Mexico. He asked them questions about their crew. What did they eat?
Sea rations and malted milk tablets.
The admiral asked to try a tablet.
They tasted good, he said.
Even decades later, it makes McKendree laugh.
When they could, the boat crew would bum food from ships. On Saipan, they’d steer the boat to a merchant ship and say they were having trouble with the motor. They’d tie up, and always, someone would ask when they last had something to eat. They’d get apples and oranges.
Once, a captain told them to get onboard for a full meal.
“They handed us menus,” McKendree said, laughing. “Holy mackerel. This is the Navy we belong in, the merchant ship.”
McKendree ordered ham and eggs.
“Of course they got wise to us pretty soon,” he said. Bumming off of multiple ships, “we pulled it too many times.”
In 1944, McKendree had to return stateside. He was by the boats on Saipan when a voice came over the PA system, calling him up to talk to an officer.
McKendree’s mother had died, and he was needed to settle the estate. He was given 45 minutes to pack and could only take 35 pounds of his things.
When he shipped out a second time with the 7th Amphibious group, McKendree was in the Admiralty Islands near New Guinea when the skipper fell two stories down the ship’s hatch onto a steel floor. They buried him on the beach with a firing squad salute and many of the same traditions McKendree follows when he serves at veteran funerals today.
McKendree was in the Philippines when war ended. He was discharged Dec. 15, 1945.
“I hadn’t turned 18 yet,” he said.
He hitchhiked to Wyoming, where he has been ever since. After serving in the National Guard and working as a truck driver for 63 years, McKendree finally retired in 2009.
Friend Cecil Barnes, president of the Natrona County United Veterans Council, got McKendree involved in serving at veteran funerals.
When a veteran dies and arrangements have been made, McKendree gets a phone call to be ready. He’ll read about the veteran in the newspaper obituaries, to make sure he has the correct name when he reads the prayers.
Most of the time, he doesn’t know the deceased. A few years ago, he buried a friend. At that funeral, he asked if he could say a few extra words.
His friend was a pilot in the 8th Air Force. They knew each other years before McKendree ever knew he had served. He had air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Sometimes, only a few people attend, but “you still do the same service.” Final honors are for the man or woman inside the casket.
Sometimes, McKendree can feel the loss.
“The real hurts you can feel.”
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After remarks by family members, McKendree approached the front of the chapel, wearing white gloves. Two Wyoming Guardsmen took the American flag draping the casket and lifted it into the air, folding it in half.
McKendree cleared his throat and began to read.
“This banner of love and devotion now being folded is a living memorial of the courageous thoughts of our comrade, the one you came here to honor this day ...”
He looked up. To him, it is important to keep in time with the folding of the flag, finishing only when the flag is nearly tucked in.
“... This is our spiritual heritage. Please receive it with the tears of our minds and the faith of our hearts.”
As the trombonist played “Taps,” McKendree stood guard to the right of the casket.
He stayed until “For Those in Peril on the Sea” was finished, until family and friends had filtered out. He stood attention for the veteran’s last salute.