Flags are lowered to half-staff — half-mast if you’re at sea — all the time.
U.S. law codifies certain aspects to the honor.
“By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory,” reads the pertinent section of the Flag Code.
But seriously, outside the death of a former president — the flag flies at half-staff for 30 days — or a beloved hero with the stature of Sen. John McCain — who really notices or even knows who the lowerings honor?
So far this year, Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered flags at state facilities lowered 11 times for 27 days, including four to honor the passing of former U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr., four to remember a slain Mooresville police officer, eight in May after a mass shooting at UNC Charlotte left two dead and two in February to mark the death of a Meherrin Indian chief, to name a few.
On Friday, flags were lowered again, this time in honor of a soldier who finally returned home, nearly 70 years after his death.
Years of uncertainty
There are few things in life less exciting than receiving email from the N.C. Department of Administration. Corn growing, folding sheets and pumping gas, to name a few.
Most get deleted immediately; it’s reflex. But the subject line from one last week leaped out.
FLAG ALERT: Lowering of US and NC Flags to Half-Staff From Sunrise to Sunset on Friday, June 21 in Honor of US Army Private First Class William “Hoover” Jones
Wait one ... Who? And perhaps more importantly … Why?
Jones was but 19 years old when he went missing in action in Korea in November 1950. He was a farm kid, an African American from Red Oak. Rocky Mount in Nash County is the nearest place you might know.
Jones enlisted, an older sister told Time magazine earlier this year, for a “chance at a better life” — a familiar story for a lot of poor kids.
But what he found instead was a place in the infantry in one of the military’s last segregated units, the 24th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, 8th Army. It was badly trained and poorly equipped. Private Jones was reported missing after a fierce, bitter cold battle in western North Korea.
More than 33,000 American soldiers were killed between 1950 and 1953 during the Korean War. Some 8,100 were listed as missing — 5,300 of those still unaccounted for.
(By comparison, close to 2 million North Koreans — one fifth of its entire population — were killed or wounded. South Korea suffered 1 million casualties.)
Jones’ family, like thousands of others, was left in an agonizing purgatory of not knowing. A sister for years held out hope he might still be alive.
Still, in need of some closure, his siblings erected a tombstone in a cemetery behind a local Baptist church.
The final chapter in Jones’ life story started being written last June in Singapore during the first summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un when the North Koreans handed over 55 boxes of remains.
Time reported that the 55 boxes contained 710 bones and fragments which likely represented more than 100 missing U.S. service members.
Advances in technology, including a database of the missing which contains DNA markers for 92 percent of the 8,100 soldiers with that designation, account for the identifications.
One of those was William “Hoover” Jones; military scientists matched his remains with DNA from his family. Army officers from Fort Bragg came in person to tell his surviving sisters the news.
A familiar story
The story of William “Hoover” Jones homecoming is a familiar one.
About this same time three years ago, the family of George LeTell Rights, a Winston-Salem man, received the same news from the Army. Rights’ remains were identified through the same DNA database as Jones, and he was returned home to be interred in God’s Acre.
“I had about given up hope of it ever happening,” said the Rev. Graham Rights, George’s brother, in July 2015.
George Rights, his family learned years later, had been taken prisoner in February 1951 and likely died in a prison camp a month or two later. Finally knowing and being able to give him a proper Moravian burial.
“It means a great deal to our whole family. … I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime,” the Rev. Rights said.
It means a great deal, too, when a governor orders flags to be flown at half-staff.
“After nearly 70 years, (Jones’) remains will be returned home to family and friends, providing closure after years of uncertainty,” the email from the Department of Administration reads. “In honor of his life and service, PFC Jones will lie in state at the NC State Capitol rotunda in Raleigh on Friday, June 21.”
The occasions and days might all run together, but often as not, noticing that flags have been lowered — and learning the reason why — is worth the effort.