REST IN PEACE, BENJAMIN DUKE

May 25, 2003 - The Lake City Reporter

By H. Morris Williams

Forestry Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ocean Pond Picnic Area Dedicated to the memory of Benjamin Franklin Duke, Forester on the Osceola and Choctawhatchee National Forests in Florida in 1939 and 1940, who gave his life in the service of his country on June 18, 1943, World War II

-- Plaque at Ocean Pond

Who, of all American war dead, will you think of tomorrow on Memorial Day?

I will think of Benjamin Franklin Duke and the day my unexpected prayer became part of his memorial service.

You have probably never heard of Benjamin Duke. I never knew him. He was a young forester who worked in the Osceola National Forest in 1940.

When World War II started, He left the Forest Service tojoin the army and he was killed in action June 18, 1943, while serving our country.

In 1947, the U.S. Forest Service decided to dedicate the brand new Ocean Pond Recreation Area in Benjamin Duke's memory. The dedication ceremony was set for March, 1947.

Five Lake City Boy Scout troops were invited to attend the dedication ceremony and all accepted. I was one of five scouts, one from each troop, selected to participate in the formal program. My part was to lead the pledge to the flag.

The ceremony was held on the north side of Ocean Pond, and it was there we all gathered outdoors in a large circle on that cool bright March day.

The program began exactly on time. The master of ceremonies looked out over the 100-plus uniformed scouts and other guests and welcomed them. He then began calling on first one scout to recite the scout's oath, then another to say the scout's laws, all according to a rehearsed plan.

I was scheduled to be next, to lead the pledge to the flag, and I was ready. Nervous, but ready.

"And now," he said, Morris Williams, Troop 87, "will lead us..."

I was actually looking forward to my part. I would stand tall and say in my clearest voice, "I pledge allegiance, to the flag of the United States of America..."

But then the emcee finished his sentence, "...in our opening prayer."

My mind went blank. I couldn't believe it! I was not supposed to say a prayer. That was someone else. I was to lead the pledge!

All the scouts removed their caps for the prayer. The group fell silent. They waited for the prayer to begin. I waited, too, thinking, hoping the scout designated to pray might begin his prayer even though my name had been called.

No such luck. I had to do it. Mentally staggering, I almost began, "Dear Lord, I pledge allegiance to the flag...".

Then I took a deep breath and began, "Dear God, thank you for Benjamin Duke. Thank you for his work in this forest. Thank you for the sacrifice of his life for our country. We hope his family will like this memorial to him. Amen."

The caps went back on and the program continued to its conclusion. The other scouts returned to their campsites and their normal routines. But my mind was still reeling. I worried about my little prayer. It hadn't even seemed to me like a real prayer. I yearned for some sign of reassurance. When you are 14 years old, you find lots to worry about.

Miserable and depressed, I walked to the truck we came in and climbed into the back. I sat there alone for a long time feeling sorry for myself.

The mix-up in the program was bothering me, but I realized I was also feeling guilty. I was thinking about me when I should have been thinking about Benjamin Duke.

I left the truck and headed toward my scoutmaster, L.O. Collier. I knew I could depend on him to make me feel better.

Suddenly I was in her arms and felt her soft kiss and her tears on my cheek.

"I am Benjamin Duke's mother," she whispered. "I have felt such a heavy burden since Ben left us. Today, I felt part of that burden lifted. Your prayer helped me so much. I will always remember it."

Back home a week later I got a letter from her. She thanked me for participating in the dedication ceremony. In part of her letter, she recalled my little prayer almost word for word. That's how I can recall it now. She asked me to write to her from time to time. I never did. Fourteen-year-olds don't write many letters. I wish I had written her. I never heard from her again.

Recently I traveled to the Ocean Pond Recreation Area to see the memorial plaque. It is still there. The plaque reminded me that a young forester gave his life for our country some 60 years ago, and that a grateful country memorialized his supreme sacrifice the best way it knew how.

The plaque also reminded me of Ben Duke's grieving mother and the high price she, and all like her, have paid for giving their sons and daughters for our country's freedom.

Rest in peace, Benjamin Duke, and all the Benjamin Dukes of American History. Memorial Day is for you. square

H. Morris Williams is a local historian and long-time Columbia County resident.

www.hmorriswilliams.com