Sergeant Riley’s Absence
Windswept leaves dance across the Wild Meadow Cemetery in a random swirl and suddenly all is calm. Perhaps the end was that sudden nearly seventy-two years ago when Sergeant Mark Herman Riley breathed his last breath on a battlefield in New Guinea. It was July 1944.
Little is known of that fateful day. A letter from his commanding officer Harold L Hanson states “the end came suddenly and without suffering.” 1st Lieutenant Hanson further states, “Sergeant Riley was held in high esteem by all members of this unit. He was the highest example of a splendid soldier, leader and outstanding character. His absence will be deeply felt by his many friends.”
Sergeant Riley’s absence would also be deeply felt in the small community of Nemours, WV. The place he called home. His remains rest in the cemetery behind Mount Herman Baptist Church. He attended the former Nemours School nearby and played ball in the rolling fields, climbed the steep ridges and skipped rocks along the Bluestone River.
As a young man he worked for Norfolk and Western Railroad and loved spending time with his family and friends. In the days before the war he earned enough money to buy a ’37 Coupe when only a few people in the community had a car. By all accounts he was a quiet, humble man with a kind spirit. I can imagine him cruising along the dusty dirt roads wearing that amiable smile and offering a ride to anyone along the way.
Yet it was another vehicle traveling that dusty road on a summer Sunday morning that many wish to forget. When the officers pulled up in the military car the service at Mount Herman gave pause as my Great Grandfather Riley was called outside. Before a word could be spoken an entire community inhaled the winds of war and gasped with sorrow.
Mark Herman Riley was my grandfather Bruce’s brother. Their father James ‘Jim’ Riley left his North Carolina home in the 1890’s for the mountains of Virginia. He found work logging for the Pocahontas mines. Later Jim would help build the E. I. DuPont black powder plant across the line in WV and would settled his family next to the railroad on the banks of the Bluestone River. There amidst the rising black dust and ash a community was born.
As I sit in the wild meadow grass along the steep sloping ridge next to the graves of so many family, I give pause to remember the uncle I would never know.
Mark Herman Riley
November 4, 1914 – July 25, 1944
His tombstone towers above all the rest, and rightfully so, for the memory of what’s lost lingers heaviest of all. The chorus of birds seems random but their precise notes blend harmoniously with the hush of windswept pines and barren oaks. Beyond the sun glistens on sparkling waters as a pair of mallards cup their wings in final decent. A black bear briefly appears from the woods above the branch and quickly disappears in the cattail swamps.
Seven decades ago and four thousand miles away a WV boy lay bleeding in the jungle. He would never again hear the sweet chorus of mountain birds and windblown trees. He would never know the sounds of a new-born baby crying, nor feel the soft arms welcoming him home from another day’s work. He would never again smell the honeysuckle nor feel the crack of a bat against a worn leather ball. He would never again enjoy a Sunday afternoon picnic, nor the gentle rains on a tin roof. He would never again ride his Coupe through the splendorous colors of an Appalachian autumn, nor awaken to a winter’s first falling snow. He would never return to the place he loved. The place he called home.
As the fallen petals that lay still on the ground atop his grave will once more rise in a glorious bloom, let us honor his memory, not through the pride of victory in war. For in war there are no victors. But rather honor him with an undying thirst for peace so that we might never again feel the air swept breathless by the winds of war.