Burns Hillman was playing his baritone horn and marching with the Waterville High School Band on Memorial Day 1939.

“I can remember playing in front of Civil War veterans. We formed up at the railroad station. The whole area was laid out in cobblestones. On the veranda of the Elmwood Hotel, there were probably eight or 10 Civil War veterans, and they all would stand up when we came by.”

He was 15 then. Now 89, Hillman still plays horn for the R.B. Hall Band, and he still reveres veterans.

I met him Wednesday at Pine Grove Cemetery in Waterville’s South End, where he was placing American flags on veterans’ graves — veterans of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam and others.

“Last year, we put out 1,400 flags between this cemetery and St. Francis Cemetery,” he said. “That’s a lot of walking, back and forth. I’ve been doing it 45 to 50 years.”

Hillman doesn’t mind walking. As a matter of fact, he’s been walking three miles a day for the last 30 years, and that may be one of the reasons he is in such good shape.

“I don’t smoke, and I don’t go around with wild women,” he said, a sparkle in his eye.

His good humor belies a serious demeanor he takes on when he talks about war. He knows all about it, having served as a U.S. Marine in World War II.

He remembers being in the Pacific Islands and making do with what he had, which wasn’t much.

“There was no electricity, no refrigeration. Everything was in a box or a tin can. We just barely had a telephone. We ate out of cans and boxes.”

People who haven’t served in a war don’t realize what it’s like, he said.

“I’d tell those senators and representatives … I’d put them right up on the front lines. That’s a good place for them. There wouldn’t be any wars, I’ll tell you.”

Hillman waved to people driving into the cemetery to place flowers on graves. Several know him. A woman in a blue Prius stopped and said she feels so badly that all the veterans’ families are gone.

“All my friends are gone,” Hillman called back.

He told me about a veteran named Thurman Chipman who is buried in Pine Grove, but has only a small marker bearing just his first name. Hillman, who knew Chipman, is working on getting him an appropriate military marker.

“He was in the 3rd Marine Division in Guam. I was in Guam also. He was cleaning out caves where the Japanese were, and he got killed.”

We visited Chipman’s grave, as well as one of another old friend and classmate of Hillman’s, Richard Crocker, born Feb. 21, 1925; died Aug. 17, 1944. He was a sergeant in the Army Air Force in World War II.

“He played in the high school band,” Hillman said. “He played trumpet. He was full of hell. He was shot down in Yugoslavia. Lots of fellas got shot down over there.”

When World War II ended, Hillman came home to work for the railroad on College Avenue. He started as a brakeman and then became a conductor. When he retired in 1983, he was yardmaster.

After all these years, he feels a sense of duty to make sure American flags mark these graves and that we remember the sacrifice our men and women made for the country.

There are 528 veterans’ graves in the cemetery which opened in 1852, according to cemetery superintendent Trudy Lovely. Many older veterans’ graves were moved from Park Street downtown to this cemetery.

Buried here are 204 Civil War veterans, nine from the Revolutionary War, 135 from World War I, and 136 from World War II, as well as veterans of other wars.

There’s even, sadly, a flat stone in the potter’s field section of the cemetery for veteran James W. Cote who died in 1975 at 22. An old, dirty and tattered American flag marks the stone, which bears the words “Hail Mary Full of Grace.”

Like Hillman, I’ll be thinking of Cote and all the other veterans on Memorial Day, hoping that after we, too, are gone, someone will walk the cemetery roads in late May, pressing little American flags into the soil.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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