Tiny Sowell came full circle Friday, on a warm South Florida day, the day before Veterans Day.
Sgt. Richard Gordon Sowell, U.S. Army, had grown up less than a mile away, and two of his brothers worked at a car lot at the exact spot where people gathered Friday. A spot that now is part of Woodlawn Cemetery.
The family plot. Where Tiny came home.
The diminutive Palm Beach High grad, Class of 1941, had died 73 years ago, July 7, 1944. He had died on the other side of the world, in a foxhole on the Japanese island of Saipan. He was 21.
He’d lain there for years before authorities could return. When they couldn’t positively identify him, he had reposed in a numbered grave in Hawaii for seven decades. In 2015, the military took a DNA swab from his nephew, Lewis Sowell Jr., and made a match.
On Wednesday, Tiny’s remains came off a flight at Palm Beach International Airport with full military honors, and went by motorcade to Northwood Funeral home.
On Friday, Mary Sowell Baldwin, wheelchair-bound, came with more than 100 people to bury her uncle.
“He was wonderful. He was loved,” she said. “He’d be so pleased.”
Harry Isabel, 92, had been on Saipan. He said that made Tiny “my brother,” even though he’d never known the man. But when he saw news reports about the funeral, “I had to come.”
Harry, who now lives in Boynton Beach, said he still can remember the deluges of mortar shells. The same shells that killed Tiny.
“Oh my, yes,” he said. “It was just like a firestorm. I mean, noise, noise, noise.”
Humble, as are so many of his generation, Harry didn’t mention until prompted that he’d earned a Bronze Star for dragging at least six buddies to safety in that firestorm.
Even before Friday’s ceremony, several graves in the city cemetery had been marked with small American flags, honoring the veterans buried there in advance of Saturday’s holiday.
Motorcycles roared down Dixie Highway, escorting the hearse. They turned into the cemetery and wound around to the back before approaching the grave site.
An honor guard from the U.S. Army Reserve’s 81st Readiness Support Command stood at attention. The men made that moving show of somber respect, the slow raising of the hand to the temple in salute. They turned and marched in place. Then, in precision, they approached the hearse and slid out the casket, draped in an American flag.
“It is an honor for us to do this for you,” Lt. Col. John Ruckart, who’d come over from Tampa Bay, told Tiny’s nephew Lewis Jr.
“This is a remarkable event,” Army Reserve Chaplain Capt. Cecil Costadoni of Boca Raton preached to those gathered. “It’s a great testimony of his life and his sacrifice that you are here.”
He said Tiny Sowell “answered this nation’s call to defend its freedom.”
Soldiers raised rifles and fired volleys in salute. One. Two. Three. They echoed across the buildings that frame Woodlawn.
“I tried to swallow and not look,” Lewis Jr. confessed later.
The escorts slowly pulled the flag back from the top of the casket, folding it triangularly as they went.
Lt. Col. Ruckart turned, took a knee and handed the tri-fold to Lewis Jr.: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation.”
He then slid three rifle shells into Lewis Jr.’s palm. He intoned, “Honor. Duty. Country.”
Jeff Garten, ride captain of the Patriot Guard, a veterans group that provides motorcycle escorts, saluted and handed Lewis Jr. a medal.
“Soldiers don’t fear dying,” he said. “They fear being forgotten.”
More items went into Lewis Jr.’s lap, from the Sons of the American Revolution, and from alumni of Tiny’s University of Florida fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega.
Capt. David Shanks, a military casualty-assistance officer, pressed a small pin into Lewis’ hand.
It was a Gold Star.
The ceremony took just half an hour. Then the crowds dispersed.
“They really have gone out to make this a special day,” Lewis Jr. said of organizers.
“I never thought this would happen,” he said. “We were always told there was nothing to return. So many of them (relatives) are gone and they don’t realize he’s returned.”
Lewis Jr. pointed to the ground next to the plot. He recalled showing a relative where he’d bought the plot and being told, “You’re standing on the car lot.” Tiny’s brothers, Lewis and Julian, had worked at a dealership right where he stood until it had been brought into Woodlawn.
Lewis Jr. said he’d hoped to bury Tiny right on Veterans Day, but too many of the escorts already were committed to parades. One day before was close enough.
“How better can it be,” he said, “than to lay a veteran to rest, after all these years, on Veterans Day?”
See Friday’s ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery at video.PalmBeachPost.com