The West Palm Beach City Commission was asked Monday to waive $500 in overtime fees for Friday’s burial of Richard Gordon “Tiny” Sowell and decided instead to cover the full $750 cost of burial from commission funds.
“This man was missing for 73 years and he served and died for all of us,” Gladys Van Otteren, state chairman of media and public relations for the Florida State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, told the commissioners in urging them to drop not just the overtime but all fees related to the burial.
“This is an American hero,” she said. “This is our hometown hero. We need to take care of this.”
The commissioners agreed.
Sowell, a graduate of Palm Beach High, was killed by a mortar July 7, 1944, on the Japanese island of Saipan. He was 21. During the fighting, authorities were unable to recover his remains. Crews returned later and collected several sets of remains but could not make positive identifications, and the remains were buried in numbered graves in Hawaii. In 2015, the military contacted Sowell’s nephew, Lewis Sowell, Jr., who provided a DNA sample that led to a positive identification and the arrangements to bury Sowell in a family plot at Woodlawn.
Last week, Sowell and Northwood Funeral Home complained about the city charging the U.S. military extra because Friday is the observed city holiday for Veterans Day, which this year falls on a Saturday, and the city will have to pay overtime.
At one point Sowell said he was considering moving the burial either to the federal military cemetery west of Lake Worth or to Sowell’s current hometown of Savannah, Ga.
Sowell said a military official who’s been working with him also was upset.
“He said that in 99 percent of the cases — the price for opening and closing the grave was paid with the soldier’s life — and very, very few charge anything at all out of respect,” Sowell told The Palm Beach Post in an email.
“The city of West Palm Beach is thankful for the service of Sgt. Sowell and all U.S. veterans. The city would be honored if Sgt. Sowell were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery,” city spokeswoman Kathleen Walter said Thursday. “The City’s holiday burial fee is $750 to cover the costs, including overtime pay, incurred by bringing in staff and equipment on a city holiday. The city’s holiday burial fee is consistent with that of other municipalities.”
On Friday, City Commissioner Shanon Materio asked that the commission consider the waiver when it met Monday as the city’s Golf Commission.
“This veteran gave his life for us and the freedom of our country and on this Veterans Day, I cannot think of a better way for (West Palm Beach) to honor one of their own coming home,” Materio wrote in requesting the agenda item. “This is our history and we need to honor his life and memory.”
Sowell’s remains are scheduled to arrive at Palm Beach International Airport at 11:52 a.m. Wednesday aboard a Delta Air Lines flight. The remains will be transferred with full military honors to a hearse, which will travel to Northwood Funeral Home at Broadway and 55th Street in West Palm Beach.
For people interested in lining the route, it is tentatively scheduled to travel north on Australian Avenue to 45th Street, east to Broadway, and north to 56th Street. The funeral is set for 11 a.m. at the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery. The public is welcome to attend.