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World War II vet’s burial flag found in a Florida antique store is returned to his family in Massachusetts

A folded American flag used in a military funeral ceremony.

CHRISTOPHER S. MUNCY/U.S. AIR NATIONAL GUARD

By RON CHIMELIS | The (Springfield, Mass.) Republican | Published: October 4, 2020

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — There was Old Glory, sitting in a grocery store in Florida that also traded in antiques. To Lloyd Hyatt, that just didn’t seem right.

“That flag did not belong in there,’’ said Hyatt, a retired U.S. Navy veteran who purchased the flag for $59.95 — not to keep for himself, but as a first step in its return to its rightful owner.

That was the family of Edwin Smith, whose honorable Navy service during World War II was recognized with the burial flag up for sale. Complicated by time, distance and a tangled web of changed last names within the family, the research project undertaken by Hyatt and his wife has allowed a family in western Massachusetts to share the poignant, tangible pride of their veteran’s patriotism once more.

“What’s even weirder about it is that I don’t even have my father’s last name, and my ex-wife doesn’t use my name anymore,’’ explained David Rexford, a Huntington resident who is Smith’s son. He was not only grateful but impressed that Hyatt and his wife, Melissa, not only made the effort to locate the family, but succeeded.

The Hyatts had gone from their home in Jacksonville, Fla., to Wildwood on an antiquing expedition when the flag caught his eye. Having served two separate stints in the Navy between 1970 and 1984, Hyatt recognized immediately that the flag was in a commemorative burial box — but whose?

Once he opened the box, he was speechless. Inside, he found a treasure trove of information, tucked behind the flag: ribbons; honorable discharge papers; pictures of Smith’s ship, the USS Joseph M. Auman; documents related to the G.I. Bill; and a letter from President Harry S. Truman that thanked Smith for his service.

“I couldn’t believe all this stuff. It was incredible, what was in there,” Hyatt said.

There were also three bullets signifying duty, honor and country — a military tradition that dates to the Revolutionary War, when three shots would be fired so that combatants could cease fire and collect their dead for burial. Smith’s identification card was there, too.

“I told my wife that we were going to get this back to the family somehow, some way,’’ Hyatt said. “My wife was the supersleuth. She got right on the internet, and she found Dave Rexford’s ex-wife.”

Rexford’s initial reaction was natural and predictable. “When I first heard about this, at first I thought is was a prank. I was suspicious.” He and his former wife, Kim, were not close, but they knew each other’s whereabouts and she passed on the message.

Smith has a surviving sister, Andrea, who lives in Easthampton. Her son, Joe Guevin, also was located, and a family that assumed those treasures were lost to time unexpectedly had been reconnected to a proud past.

Family members discussed where the Hyatts should send the flag. They agreed that once it was shipped from Florida to Massachusetts, it would be shared.

“Andrea wanted her big brother’s burial flag, so Dave told me to send it to Joe. (The plan was) two weeks there, and then it would make the rounds with the family, so that everyone could spend time with Eddie,” Rexford said.

Perhaps by coincidence — or fate — the flag’s rediscovery unfolded as the U.S. and the world marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri, formally ending World War II on Sept. 2, 1945.

Smith, who died in 2011 at 85, was born and grew up in West Springfield. He lived for many years in Agawam, where he is buried at the state Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

How the flag wound up for sale in Florida remains an intriguing mystery. It will probably stay that way because Hyatt said his wife’s research indicated that Smith’s widow died during the summer.

“Eddie’s widow was not a friend of the family,” Rexford explained. “My guess, and I don’t know for sure, is that she had the flag but nobody knew what to do with it, and they had an estate sale. My theory is that she just got rid of it.”

“She was not my mother, she was not on good terms with us and she was not sentimental about these things,’’ said Smith’s son, whose last awareness of his widow was six months ago, when she was still alive.

The documents and photos leave no doubt the flag is authentic. Rexford isn’t as sure about the box, which carried a small, unobtrusive Vietnam marker — recognizing a war fought long after his father’s service — but it seems possible and even likely that at some point, it was attached to the original box.

“I think I was put in the right place at the right time. I’d love to think that if anyone were put in that position, they would have done the same thing,’’ Hyatt said.

Rexford is sure that’s not true.

“The American flag should not be for sale as a curio in an antique store, but what he did was remarkable. I even offered to pay for it, and for shipping and so on, but he wasn’t that concerned about that,’’ Rexford said. “Not everyone would have done what he and his wife did. We are very, very grateful they did.”

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