More than half a century ago, Pfc. Cornelius Cornelssen VIII fought in the Battle of the Bulge and earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. A native of New York, the World War II veteran eventually settled in Georgia, but had few friends or living relatives there near the end of this life.
After he passed at 93 years old on Dec. 17, Cornelssen’s daughter, Candice Easton didn’t think anyone would show up at her father’s funeral.
She was wrong.
Somehow the veteran found time to make a few more acquaintances, just as he was being laid to rest.
As the Gainesville Times reports, more than 100 caring individuals, most of them complete strangers to Easton, found their way to the Masonic Lodge in Flowery Branch. They paid their final respects to the veteran just before Christmas, and proved to his daughter just how supportive their community can be.
“I have received dozens, now hundreds, of comforting messages,” Easton told the Times on Christmas Eve.
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Some drove from hours away just to attend the memorial ceremony, including veteran Dan Hemphill, who served in the Air Force from 1983 to 2011, Fox 5 Atlanta reports. Hemphill made the 140-mile trip north from Warner Robins to Flowery Branch to honor Cornelssen.
“I’ve seen times when [Easton’s] fears were realized,” Hemphill said of her concern that another veteran would be buried alone. “We’re losing so many World War II-era veterans and so many people don’t understand the sacrifice and the things that they did. Why we are the way we are in the world today is because of those folks.”
Retired Major General Marvin Back spoke to those in attendance at the service.
“We’re here today to pay our respects to a superb American warrior. Rest in peace, comrade. You shall not be forgotten,” he said.
And not just by military personnel, but by the members of his small Georgia community. A number of teachers at the event, friends of Easton’s, shared stories of how Cornelssen would visit White Oak Elementary School to read to the first-grade students, explaining each picture to them so they understood the story.
“I think it’s huge that he continued to serve his community into his 90s,” said Lori Plaskowsky of Suwanee. “I think that’s very powerful, and I think that speaks to the kind of person he was.”
Easton was greatly moved by the show of support, proud of her father, and proud of her neighbors.
“One time, I asked my father what he was thinking about when he was sent overseas,” Easton told The Times. “He answered that he was thinking the same thing as every other soldier, ‘I hope I’m brave.'”
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.