MARANA — A century after he wrote his mother to tell her he was coming home and half a century after his death, Marine Private First Class Glenn Niner Wormwood made it to his final resting place.
Wormwood, an Ohio-born World War I veteran who had survived shrapnel and bullet wounds in France, described to his mother the warm reception he and other Marines received in Europe after the armistice was signed.
He told her he was “one of the lucky ones to come out of the war alive.”
He went home to a hero’s welcome, his town’s newspaper publishing his letter in full.
And then, many decades later, he ended up at a funeral home in Arizona, forgotten, unclaimed, a World War I hero tucked away in a box.
Until October 26, 2019.
That day, Wormwood was one of 37 veterans interred at the Arizona Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in a ceremony attended by a diverse crew of veterans and well-wishers willing to serve as a temporary family for the men and women whose own families couldn’t or wouldn’t claim them.
Thirty-seven lives became thirty-seven golden boxes the size of a bag of sugar, each inscribed with a name, dates and branch of service and carried by somber current military members in formal military attire, marching two-by-two under a row of flags held by fresh-faced Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets and grizzled vets with beards and leather motorcycle vests.
Each of the veterans interred in Marana was there because he or she died alone, without a family to ensure a burial with military honors. Months or years or decades posthumously, they were found by the Southern Arizona Missing in America Project and volunteers like retired Marine Lt. Col. Ross Scanio.
“Veterans across our country are sitting in dark rooms and closets,” Scanio said.
It took detective work, persistence and the drive to honor dead American soldiers to pull them out of those dark rooms and closets.
UNCLAIMED OR INDIGENT
A few hundred of the 1,893 people interred at the Marana cemetery since it opened in 2016 have been labeled as unclaimed or indigent, honored in twice-yearly ceremonies from the Missing in America Project or in one-off ceremonies arranged by friends.
The cremated remains of unclaimed veterans can end up at the cemetery in one of a number of ways. When an Arizona resident dies who is homeless or doesn’t have family around, his or her estate becomes the charge of the county’s public fiduciary, the same office that handles guardianship cases for vulnerable adults.
Fiduciaries look for family members, then arrange for cremation if they can’t find a family. In southern Arizona, fiduciaries flag the remains of veterans for the Missing in America project. Other unclaimed deceased people are buried in a pauper’s cemetery.
Most of the veterans interred October 26 came through a fiduciary’s office. They served in Vietnam or the Gulf War, baby boomers who had reached middle age by the time they died in 2018 or 2019.
But four of the men honored in Marana had been forgotten for decades: Wormwood, who died in 1967; Army First Lt. Irving B. Bush, who served in World War I and died in 1962; and, World War II Navy veterans Lawrence Gerald Champion and George MacGregor Russell, who died in 1993 and 1964, respectively.
Bonnie Dudelston, cemetery administrator at the Arizona Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Marana, found them. Before taking over as administrator of the cemetery in late 2015, Dudelston had worked for more than 30 years at Tucson’s Evergreen Mortuary, Cemetery and Crematory.
There, she saw firsthand how remains can sit for years or even decades. In some cases, Dudelston said, families arrange for cremation but then don’t claim remains. Veterans, in particular, earned military funerals paid for by the federal government through their service, but family members might not have documents proving their loved one’s service.
In her current role as an employee of the state Department of Veterans’ Services and with her past experience in the private funeral home business, Dudelston could call funeral homes and ask to see their records on unclaimed remains.
In this case, 10 names came back. Dudelston matched them against national records and found the four World War I and World War II veterans whose remains had sat unclaimed and unremembered for decades.
A chance meeting in a doughnut shop led Pima County Detective Shaun Pfund to the Missing in America Project.
The former New York City narcotics detective was picking up a cup of coffee when he spotted a group of four veterans in jackets with patches marking their service. He stopped to thank them and struck up a conversation with one, Vietnam veteran Bob Day.
A meeting later, Pfund had bought in to the group and its mission as a way of honoring veterans, like his father, uncles and friends. He now serves as the nonprofit’s law enforcement liaison.
“This is my way of giving back because I fully realize what they have done to secure our nation, secure our freedoms and stand for us when there is a threat,” Pfund said.
During his years with the Missing in America Project, legal changes and growing awareness have made identifying and retrieving remains easier.
In 2014, former Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, successfully pushed for a law allowing funeral homes to release identifying information on unclaimed remains to organizations like the Missing in America Project and ultimately give unclaimed veterans’ remains to the organization for a military burial.
The bill passed easily, receiving only one “no” vote in each chamber. Pfund and the Missing in America Project are now advocating for a version of that law in other states.
Once they receive remains, volunteers with the Missing in America Project search for family members. Enlistment forms often list a military member’s next of kin, and the search starts from there.
“We’ve Googled people,” Pfund said. “I go on ancestry.com. There’s a few other sites of that nature, but a lot of it comes from Social Security and the Veterans Administration that allows us to connect the dots and locate people.”
SEARCHING FOR WORMWOOD
When the Missing in America Project accepts the cremated remains of an unclaimed veteran, it effectually becomes the veteran’s guardian, Pfund said. That enables the group to request information from the VA and find not just family but records on where and how a veteran served.
Scanio, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel who led the October 26 ceremony, used that information as the starting point of his own investigation into Wormwood. Their shared branch of service and the era in which Wormwood fought had piqued his interest.
“Wormwood caught my eye, and I just had to go out and find everything I could,” Scanio said.
He searched through available VA records and online archives of Wormwood’s hometown newspaper, the Fremont (Ohio) Daily Messenger.
He found that the Wormwoods were a prominent family in Ohio in the early 1900s. Glenn Wormwood’s father, referred to by the newspaper as A.A., was the deputy state fire marshal. Wormwood was in France, near the Marne River, in July 1918.
On July 19, as American Marines launched a counterattack on German forces, Wormwood was shot through the foot and later injured by shrapnel in his arm. Both wounds were beginning to heal by the time he wrote his parents on July 26.
By December of that year, after an armistice agreement was reached, Wormwood wrote again to his mother, and the letter, postmarked “somewhere in Germany,” was published in full in the local newspaper. “Because of Private Wormwood’s popularity, the following letter will be read with interest,” the editor wrote.
Wormwood described passing through Belgium and Luxembourg and the warm reception he and fellow Marines received in both countries, noting he was “one of the lucky ones to come out of the war alive.”
He continued to appear in Ohio newspapers throughout the next several years. Wormwood had been on hand for his grandfather’s 75th birthday celebration in 1921, the newspaper had covered his mother’s unexpected death in 1930, and stories about his family continued into the 1940s.
“Twenty years later, Wormwood ended up in a funeral home in Arizona with no one looking for him,” Scanio said.
As for how a hometown hero from northern Ohio ended up abandoned for decades on a mortuary shelf in Tucson, Scanio has yet to find an answer.
What he did find was a sense of camaraderie with a man who died when Scanio himself was just a toddler. Based on his research, he is sure Wormwood fought in one of the battles that resulted in the apocryphal origin of the Marines’ “Devil Dog” nickname.
German forces were so taken by the Marines’ tenacity in the Château-Thierry region of France that they referred to the American forces as “Teufelshunde,” or “devil dogs,” the story goes. The Marines claimed that nickname.
“We’re fueled by that knowledge,” Scanio said. “We’re Devil Dogs. We won’t be defeated in battle.”
A MILITARY HONOR – AT LAST
More than 5,500 miles and a century removed from the French fields where he saw combat, Wormwood’s journey is almost over. The ceremonies of a military funeral — a flyby, a final roll call, a volley of shots from an honor guard — are done, and he’s back in the white-gloved hands of a fellow serviceman.
One more march under a row of flags and the deceased are at a columbarium, where workers in gray maintenance uniforms stand ready to take the urns and place them in the niches where they’ll spend eternity.
The Southern Arizona Missing in America Project will be back in Marana in April and October of 2020, and every year following. But while they continue to search for missing veterans and work to ensure their service is never forgotten, volunteers also look forward to a day when their missions are complete.
“One day, our goal is that this will never have to be done,” Pfund said.