SAREPTA – Nearly 200 kinsmen, friends and others paid their respects Saturday as Corporal Judge Clayton Hellums was laid to rest in his native Calhoun County soil.
As a military honor guard carried the flag-draped coffin into the Shady Grove cemetery, the only sounds were the droning of a distant plane, the snap of many cameras and the crunch of feet shuffling on dry grass. When the haunting strains of “Taps” echoed against the woods, some mourners wept ever so softly.
“This is for the Hellums family … a bittersweet day,” said the Rev. Billy McCord, pastor of Shady Grove United Methodist Church. “We can’t help but feel a little sad, considering how long it’s been – 66 years ago today – that Clayton gave his life for this country. We’re also delighted that his earthly remains are back in the United States of America and in this community.”
Hellums was killed on Oct. 9, 1944 in Lorraine, France, by a German rocket that hit his M10 tank destroyer. Until a few years ago, when a French history buff, Gerard Louis, found part of his ID bracelet in the Foret de Parroy, not only was there not a body to bury, but officially he wasn’t even dead.
“All (my parents) knew was he was missing in action,” said Dwight Hellums, one of Clayton Hellums’ three surviving siblings. “He volunteered for this mission, his superiors knew he’d gone in there on that mission, and why they listed him as missing in action is something I’ve never understood.”
Judge James Roberts of Pontotoc recalled the lingering impact on his relatives.
“His parents, my great-uncle and aunt, Grady and Lillie Clark Hellums, grieved to the day they died,” he said. “They had a lot of children, but they never had closure.”
After the ID was found, the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command excavated the site and were able to identify bone fragments belonging to Clayton Hellums and the two fellow crew members killed with him.
The Calhoun County serviceman had had his fiancampée’s name – Martha – engraved on the back of his bracelet. A family member read a letter in which Martha, who married another man after Hellums’ death but kept in touch with his family, remembered his loss.
“Sixty-six years ago, the man that I loved and wanted to spend a lifetime with was taken from me during the horror of war,” wrote Martha Dooley. “This loss not only changed my life completely, it changed the lives of all those who loved him.”
After the short dedication service, Dwight Hellums recalled his last visit with his eldest brother. Dwight, a Marine who would narrowly survive Guadalcanal and several other major Pacific battles, was about to ship out of San Diego. Given 36 hours’ leave, a friend drove him deep into the California desert, where Clayton’s unit was encamped.
The long, arduous drive meant a short but priceless visit.
“We got to eat breakfast with him, and that was the last time I ever saw him,” Dwight Hellums said. “We had a very emotional visit.”
One surprising element of the service was that a similar commemoration was being held by mourners in Europe.
“Right now it’s 7 o’clock in Lorraine, France,” Larry Hellums said after the short noontime memorial. “Out in the Foret de Parroy, where my uncle was found, there’s a group of Frenchmen kneeling in prayer right now.”
Larry Hellums recalled that at that same site, battle artifacts have been found from World War II, World War I and a Franco-German war fought in 1870.
“This is a place that has been fought over too often,” he said. “The people in that part of France are very grateful for the sacrifices Americans made.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ERROL CASTENS / Daily Journal Oxford Bureau