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Funeral procession to escort WWII veteran 1,000 miles from Florida to his old Kentucky home

By BILLY COX | Sarasota Herald-Tribune | Published: April 15, 2021

SARASOTA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — "Colonel" Wallace Anderson Taylor loved John Wayne movies, packed a .45 Colt revolver as an enlisted man, owned a restaurant in Miami and toured the country with a "Colonel Taylor's Fly By Night" carnival concession stand.

He was on a first-name basis with employees at the Zephyrhills Waffle House and Sam's Club. And he "had an opinion about everything, for himself and you, too."

That's how Rob Lynch, Taylor's pal for nearly seven years, remembers the old man who survived World War II and the Korean War. Yet, when Taylor died in February at age 96, he had outlived everyone in his family, leaving no one but a pet border collie to attend ceremonial graveside services.

So Lynch, a Veterans Experience Officer at James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa, conferred with a nonprofit motorcycle fraternity to produce the most ambitious funeral procession in the group's short history. The motorcade will span more than 1,000 miles over six states to bury Taylor next to his mother's plot in his native Kentucky, outside Louisville.

But the entourage, led by the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association's (CVMA) Tampa chapter, will begin its three-day journey from Jennings Funeral Home in Sarasota. That's because its staff includes Ronald Stoll, inventor of a non-motorized, towable, hybrid hearse that's part coach, part caisson, and all about expressing who and what the deceased was in life.

The glass-paneled innovation — a Coasson — affords mourners a look into the interiors of the decedent's final journey, and it can be fitted with decals, wraps and other symbolic decorations unique to the life and personality of the departed.

With so many members of the "Greatest Generation" dying at accelerating rates, Stoll, CEO of Coasson Inc., is inviting the public at large to bid farewell to an old soldier who might otherwise have passed without fanfare into history.

"We can accommodate as many people who want to come, because we'll be outside on the lawn, under the flag," says Stoll of the formal sendoff, which will begin at 6:30 a.m. on Friday. "But we'll be on the road promptly at 7. It should be quite a sensitive, emotional event."

Taylor, who never married, will be laid to rest in full uniform. The cremains of three pet border collies, and a woolen afghan blanket crocheted by his late mother, will spend eternity with him.

Taylor enlisted in the military as a teenager in 1941, when he joined the Army Air Corps as a mechanic, according to Lynch. Deployed to Korea as a staff sergeant nearly a decade later, his Army unit supported the 1st Marine Division's armor as it rumbled above the 38th parallel in 1950.

In November 1950, a Chinese offensive encircled American and United Nations forces in a 17-day battle near the Chosin Reservoir. Outnumbered 4-to-1 by enemy troops and braving brutal temperatures that plummeted as low as -36 degrees F, survivors would be known as the "Frozen Chosin."

"He took pictures and kept notes of everything and put them in a photo album," says Lynch. "Captured Chinese soldiers, captured Russian weapons, everything."

As a result of his service, Taylor would be promoted to Kentucky Colonel, the Bluegrass State's highest civilian honor.

Lynch met Taylor — a member of multiple veterans service organizations — through the VA hospital in 2014. He describes Taylor as a stubbornly independent woodsmith who lived alone until early this year, when he took a spill and suffered severe head injuries.

Lynch had started a ceremony several years earlier for the recently deceased, called The Final Salute. As bodies get wheeled down the VA hospital's corridors for transport to mortuaries, employees can line the hallways, and salute or place their hands over their hearts, as taps plays.

"It's really for the family members as they follow their loved ones out of hospice, and it's kind of phenomenal for them to see people lining up who never met their father or their grandfather paying their respects," Lynch says. "We've had family members shake every single hand, just for being there."

As the life drained out of Taylor in February, with no family to receive him, Lynch contacted Dave Allen with the hospital's tech support and treasurer with CVMA Chapter 20-10. The group was locally famous for designing farewell ceremonies for unclaimed veterans. They called it The Final Mile, and Allen got the idea after confronting the fact that so many veterans die without survivors.

"If there's nobody to request military honors, they get a direct interment, which means the flag goes to the funeral home director and they get tossed unceremoniously into a hole," Allen says. "The military only sends two service members of your branch, and they'll fold the flag and play taps. But full military honors involve a three-volley salute. That's what they deserve, not partial honors."

A Desert Storm veteran, Allen was taking a smoke break outside the hospital loading dock a few years back and noticed "a hearse with all glass windows along the back and there was a flag-draped casket and an Army seal on the doors and diplomatic flags and I'm thinking, this has gotta be somebody really important."

His trail of inquiry led to Jennings Funeral Home in Sarasota, Ron Stoll, and the Coassan, which can be customized for funerals of all stripe. For Allen, the Coasson was an ideal pairing.

Over the past two years, CVMA 20-10's volunteer motorcycle cortege has escorted the remains of more than two dozen unclaimed veterans to national cemeteries in Bay Pines, Bushnell and Sarasota, as well as private burial grounds, for the full-honors treatment.

"We did two at the same time two years ago, one of whom was a Special Forces captain who'd served in Vietnam who had been unclaimed since 2003," Allen recalls. "His remains were found in an abandoned U-Haul shed in this, like, an oatmeal cardboard tube, and there was a picture. His cremains had been dropped off at a VFW.

"At the same time we got a call from a women veterans group for a 30-year retired female Navy master chief held by the Pinellas indigent program for $1,800, and for whatever reason they were unable to get her into Bay Pines. We got her released at no charge and we did those two ceremonies the same day, back to back."

CVMA's farthest trek to date was a 300-mile round-tripper to a graveyard in Oviedo. It can't compare with Wallace Taylor's Louisville odyssey, which will push off from the mortuary at 5750 Swift Road on Friday morning. The Coassan will be towed by a Chevy Tahoe.

Joining the CVMA entourage along the way will be riders from the Patriot Guard. Law enforcement escorts from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky will guide them through their respective states. Taylor's dog, adopted by the Lynch family, will also make the trip.

"We're taking the long way around (through Interstate 95) because we do not want to take this large package through Atlanta," says Stoll, who will accompany the casket all the way to Kentucky. "We'll be out two nights and we'll be having ceremonies at every stop. It's going to be an amazing thing."

The procession will spend those nights in St. George, S.C., and Knoxville, Tenn. The Last Mile wraps up at Arch L. Heady Resthaven Cemetery in Louisville, 4400 Bardstown Road, at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

At roughly $10,000, the funeral is an expensive proposition. A GoFundMe account to defray the costs has been set up at gofund.me/9a9f3231.

"When the bikes start rolling in, with the hearse in tow and the police escorts," says Allen, "it's going to be really impressive."

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