It is a tradition since the Civil War on Memorial Day to place American flags on the grave sites of soldiers and veterans. The practice will be followed this year at Arlington National Cemetery, where 300,000 flags will be placed, to veterans' cemeteries in every state, and at smaller neighborhood burial sites across the country.
On Saturday, I was able to find and place a Flag at the grave site in New Rochelle, NY of Eugene Lee Evans, a college football player of 60 years ago. Evans, who was known as "Dippy," played on the CIAA national championship team of Morgan State in 1949, then as a young, married Army officer, died heroically in the Korean War just three years later.
Evan's teammate at Pelham Memorial High School just north of New York City, and later in college, was Eli Page Howard, Jr., another extraordinary athlete of the late 1940s who also died while serving our country as a US Army officer. A small Flag was placed this past week at his resting place in the last row of section 39 at Arlington National Cemetery.
Perhaps for a moment we can remember them playing for Morgan State College as it was known then, Howard the quarterback and Evans the end competing for an undefeated season in 1949. November 5th of that year must have been a special day when they played arch rival Wilberforce at the Polo Grounds in New York City, the outcome a 14-13 victory for Morgan.
We were at West Point earlier this month to present an award to Cadet Stephen Anderson, the inspirational linebacker and co-captain of the Army football team, which last December won the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. In the presentation we described the heroism of the two college football players from our Pelham community where I grew up and the heroism they displayed as Army officers when faced with the extreme challenges of leading troops into combat situations.
In high school, Eugene Evans was an extraordinary athlete, quite possibly the best in the history of Pelham High. He batted .444 for the baseball team, in basketball he was All-County and in track he was the star high-jumper. In football he made his mark as a three-year letterman, captain his senior year of 1944 when he made "All-County" and "All Metropolitan" as an end. On top of his athletic achievements, Evans was respected and popular enough to be elected to the student council and secretary of his 1945 graduating class. When he was inducted posthumously into the inaugural class of the Pelham Hall of Honor in 2009, a number of alumni of that era spoke fondly of their memories of "Dippy" Evans.
"Tim" Howard, as he was called growing up, a year behind in Evans in high school, where he co-captained the undefeated 1945 PMHS football team. Howard was known in football as the "Touchdown King." Both he and Evans went on to serve in the US Marine Corps during an era when African-Americans trained in different camps and served in segregated units.
After service in the Marines, both enrolled at Morgan State in Baltimore where the football team was coached by Edward P. "Eddie" Hurt. The legendary coach was in the middle of compiling a 173-54-18 record at the school with 14 CIAA conference titles. Two players of that era at Morgan, Len Ford and Rosey Brown, were elected into the NFL Hall of Fame. Evans and Howard led Morgan to a CIAA title in 1949, which was considered the national championship of "Historical Black Colleges."
In addition to football, Evans and Howard were cadets in the brand new Reserve Officer Training Corps program started at Morgan in response to President Truman's Executive Order 9981, which directed that the military be integrated. Howard excelled in military duties and was named the first "Cadet Commander" of the program, which in years that followed, would be known for producing generals.
"Dippy," ever the outgoing politician, was a member of the student council at Morgan, commissioner of intramural athletics and student representative to the college committee on intercollegiate athletics. In 1951, Evans went back to his alma mater in Pelham as a student teacher of physical education to finish out his senior year of college. Soon after graduation and commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, Evans married Mildred Onley. Just a year later, Lt. Evans was sent to Korea, a member of the 32nd Infantry Regiment, Seventh Infantry Division.
On the night of of July 19, 1952, Lt. Evans led a scout mission across enemy lines, testing enemy positions before an anticipated battle. The small group of soldiers was ambushed, one soldier was taken prisoner, and several escaped. Lt. Evans was killed. When we posted a story about Eugene Evans on a Korean War website, Leon Sparks, one of the soldiers who survived the mission, called to tell the story of his last mission and how much Evans was respected by the mostly white soldiers who served under him.
Elli Page Howard, Jr. also served in Korea, later in Europe, in Vietnam and at the Pentagon in Washington, rising to the level of Lieutenant Colonel. For his second tour to Vietnam, Col. Howard was named Commander of the Third Battalion of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. On August 19, 1969, less than a month after the first manned landing on the moon, Col. Howard was leading his unit from a helicopter during a fierce battle. The helo was shot down amidst fighting so intense that American forces could not get to the crash site for five days.
Col. Howard's internment site is the last grave site at the top of Arlington's section 39. His father, a World War I veteran, is interned in the row ahead. His wife, a wonderful lady we met at a sports banquet several years ago, raised their family alone after his death, passed away this spring and is now also interred at our nation's most hallowed grounds. We thank the soldier from the Third Infantry Division, known as the "Old Guard," who would have placed a small Flag at the Howard's grave site in preparation for Memorial Day.
We located Eugene Evans widow Mildred two years ago and arranged a reception in her honor at Soundshore Hospital where she has worked since the 1960s. "Millie" was amazing to meet, well liked and respected by her coworkers. On why she had never remarried, her comment was, "I never met anyone like my husband". Finding Lt. Evans' grave site in the back area of the Beechwoods Cemetery provided one of those moments when you connect the dots and touch history.
Some of the old timers told me "Dippy" Evans was being scouted by major league baseball teams. We will never know where his potential as an athlete or charismatic personality might have taken him. The career track of Eli Page Howard, Jr. was very similar to that of General Colin Powell, perhaps he would have made General.
All we can do is remember their service to our country with a Flag on Memorial Day.
Ken Kraetzer is researching a book about veterans from his Pelham, NY community. He is a graduate of Pelham Memorial High School Class of 1975. His mother's PMHS class of 1938 has three members who remain "Missing In Action" from WWII. He covers West Point football for WVOX 1460 in New Rochelle. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org