In the summer of 1968, more than a half-million U.S. service members were deployed in Vietnam.
On May 30 of that year, 45 of them were killed in action, including four from Illinois.
That same day — nearly 9,000 miles away — then O’Fallon Woman’s Club president Betty Osborne gathered a group of her fellow club members in downtown O’Fallon to honor such heroes from their own community.
"She's phenomenal, and so very dedicated to the O'Fallon veterans, and always has been," Jan Todd, O'Fallon Woman's Club Memorial Corner chair, said.
The club has continued the tradition every month since.
"We rendezvous monthly to honor the members from our hometown who have given so much for us to live freely,” said Jan Todd, O'Fallon Woman's Club Memorial Corner chairperson.
The day has changed. That first meeting was a Thursday — Memorial Day that year before the holiday was changed to the fourth Monday of the month by an act of Congress in 1971. The club now meets for the ceremony on the first Saturday of every month.
Like clockwork, at 9 a.m., members assemble at “Memorial Corner,” the intersection S. Lincoln Avenue and First Street. Today, the location has a marquee and flag pole, and with help from local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the club conducts flag-raising ceremony to honor the service and sacrifice of fallen veterans from O'Fallon.
"All of these people were from O'Fallon in some way. It's truly the ultimate sacrifice, and we want to celebrate their selflessness," Todd said.
This weekend marked the golden anniversary of the ceremony to honor Gold Star families.
A larger crowd than usual congregated at the corner Saturday to celebrate the re-dedication of the Memorial Corner location and tradition.
On Saturday, the names, ranks and branch of service for every O'Fallon fallen soldier, as well as the war in which they fought, were read aloud. Biographies of five of those heroes — Marine Corps Pfc. Delbert E. Schaeperkoetter, Marine Corps Pfc. Russell R. Kuehn, Air Force Capt. Karl Patrick Youngblood, Marine Corps 1st Lt. John Nelson Wilt, and USAF Airman 1st Class Zachary "Zac" Ryan Cuddeback were also read.
Members of multiple local Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops worked together to perform the flag-raising ceremony and read the information about each veteran:
▪ Schaeperkoetter was born July 26, 1922 and joined the Marines in January 1942. On July 27, 1944, he was killed in action. He was the first World War II fatality from Shiloh. His remains returned home March 1948 to be buried with full military honors in Shiloh Cemetery.
▪ Kuehn was born March 6, 1915 and joined the Marines in February 1942. On Jan. 28, 1943, he was killed in action at Guadalcanal during the last days of the Japanese resistance. His remains returned home in 1948 to be buried with full military honors at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Shiloh. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart in August 1943.
▪ Youngblood was born March 31, 1969. In 1992, he attended fixed-wing pilot training at Lubbock AFB in Texas and was later assigned to the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis AFB in Nevada. On Sept. 3, 1998, while training over the Nellis Range, he and 11 other men took their final flight as a result of a midair collision at night. He was buried with full military honors in the O'Fallon City Cemetery.
▪ Wilt was born Aug. 26, 1978 and joined the Marines in May 2000. On May 8, 2002, he died as a result of a collision during a training flight over the Gulf of Mexico. A military funeral and sea burial was held at Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, for all seven lost crew members, and a local memorial service was held at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in O'Fallon. There are memorial benches in the O'Fallon City Cemetery and at Barrancas National Cemetery in his honor. He was posthumously promoted to rank of 1st lieutenant in August 2008.
▪ Cuddeback was born July 6, 1989 and joined the Air Force in 2009. On March 2, 2011, he was shot and killed in the line of duty by a terrorist while serving in Germany. He was buried with full military honors in O'Fallon on March 12, 2011.
Phillip Klohr, assistant scoutmaster for Troop 94, said the ceremonies are a "valuable experience" for the children.
Klohr’s 16-year-old son, Harrison, has been in Boys Scout for six years and done a number of ceremonies. He called the experience “humbling.”
"Because it's always honoring somebody, and I think that's very neat and honorable," Harrison said.
The club also gave special recognition to Osborne on Saturday her efforts in making the ceremony a tradition that has lasted throughout the years.
Osborne said she was "beyond surprised" by being honored by her club sisters, but was more happy that others came to pay tribute to those for whom the ceremony was meant.
"It was a great re-dedication program, and a lovely turn out," Osborne said.
Brian Keller, president of the O'Fallon Historical Society, said Saturday's event "turned out really nice."
"Memorial Corner goes back a long way, and it's because of the O'Fallon Woman's Club keeping a tradition of honoring veterans in that downtown location ongoing that we still have it today," Keller said.
Through fall, winter, spring and summer, Keller said the Woman's Club members have remained steadfast in their efforts to keep the location looking nice for the monthly events.
"Come rain or snow, they're there. It's been their project for decades, and they've done a great job," Keller said.
Osborne was quick to note it was a community effort. Many other local organizations that have helped with Memorial Corner over the years, too, she said — from tasks such as building a flower box or installing lights below the marquee.
"Many just really care about it and the veterans, like we do," Osborne said.