Memorial Day on Deadman’s Island

US Navy sailors bow their heads in honour of the American, French, and Spanish POWs buried on Deadman’s Island.

US Navy and CAF recognize Memorial Day on Deadman’s Island

By Ryan Melanson,
Trident Staff

One of the earliest accounts of Deadman’s Island as a final resting place for soldiers comes from the journal of Privateersman Benjamin Palmer, an American held as a POW during the War of 1812.

In a poem written from the prison at Melville Island, Palmer lamented the growing number of fellow captives who were dying and being buried on the island then known as Target Hill. He also predicted that the dead servicemen would ultimately be forgotten, writing:

“No monumental marble shows…
Whose silent dust does there repose
All sleep unknown; their bodies rot
By all, save distant friends, forgot.”

The facility on Melville Island held more than 8,000 Americans as POWs through the course of the war, including those captured in land battle on the frontier, as well as sailors and privateers captured at sea.

Since 2005, both Canadians and Americans have gathered at the Deadman’s Island burial site on the American Memorial Day holiday to ensure the 195 Americans who died and were buried there, along with 66 individuals from France and 9 from Spain, are not forgotten, as Palmer predicted they would be, but honoured for giving their lives in service.

And in 2016, Both Melville and Deadman’s Island were designated as National Historic Sites by Parks Canada and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, with new educational displays and plaques joining the original monument installed by the US Department of Veterans Affairs in 2005.

“We must pay tribute to those lives who have been lost. The Americans, the French, the Spanish, those who were slaves at one time and who sought freedom, and who found themselves here,” said RAdm Margaret Kibben, Chief of Chaplains of the US Navy and the senior US Armed Forces member in attendance. She was joined at the ceremony by crewmembers of the visiting submarine USS Toledo, other USN exchange officers posted to Halifax, and Steven Giegerich, US Consul General in Halifax.

“We stand here also because of the historic grace of Canada, who ensured we would pay tribute to those who have fallen, for it is our duty to honour them,” RAdm Kibben added.

Canadian military and government representatives included Capt(N) Paul Forget, CFB Halifax Base Commander, BGen Derek Macaulay, Commander 5 Cdn Div, His Honour Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Arthur J. LeBlanc and Her Honour Mrs. Patsy LeBlanc, and HRM District 9 Councillor Shawn Cleary.

In a speech, Capt(N) Forget chose to recognize Memorial Day and honour those buried on the island not by recounting the conflicts of 200 years ago, but by celebrating the relationship between Canada and the United States that has developed since then.

“Canada and the United States found an enduring and mutually beneficial alliance that has seen us through Two World Wars, the Korean conflict, the Cold War, and the complex and uncertain world that has continued to evolve since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said.

“Today, we continue as inseparable allies in NATO, in NORAD, in the Pacific, and our Armed Forces serve side by side in counter-drug operations, patrolling the sea lanes of the North Atlantic, on Op REASSURANCE in the Black, Baltic, and Mediterranean Seas, and on countless other missions around the world.”

The ceremony included both a one and three-volley cannon salute, and the American flag was first raised, and then lowered to half mast to honour the dead, at the nearby Armdale Yacht Club. The Guard of Honour, led by Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Jose Diaz of USS Toledo, was accompanied by the Stadacona Band and 12 Wing Pipe Major WO Katie Buckland. Also in attendance were The King’s Orange Rangers, an 18th century Loyalist reenactment group.