Shaffer: Small town of Tarboro is site of big memorial

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comNovember 10, 2013 

  • If you go

    The Edgecombe County Veterans’ Military Museum is located in downtown Tarboro at 106 W. Church St. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Admission is free. For more information, call 252-823-7445 or visit www.edgecombevet.com.

— In the back corner of this tiny veterans museum, there’s a Japanese flag with a bullet hole through the red rising sun – a souvenir collected by Pvt. James Taylor.

A lifetime ago, that flag sat folded in the breast pocket of a Japanese soldier fighting in the Philippines. That soldier had the misfortune of creeping up to Taylor’s foxhole in the dark. Taylor had the luck of firing a perfect shot at a moving shadow.

And so the flag, like Taylor, came back to Edgecombe County from World War II. It’s one among hundreds of highly personal items on display at the Veterans’ Museum in Tarboro, all of them touched by locals gone to war.

A jar of black sand scooped up at Iwo Jima. An M-16 fired in Vietnam. A dress uniform worn by Blake Williams, a 26-year-old Tarboro High School graduate, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Even the volunteer curator qualifies as an exhibit. At 89, Norfleet Sugg of Pinetops not only manned an anti-aircraft gun aboard the U.S.S. Sabine, he served as scoutmaster to a local boy who went on to become a rear admiral.

“I knew James Taylor,” he said, admiring the old soldier’s flag. “He was a farm boy from Macclesfield. I was in the same battle. Of course, he was on the land and I was on the water ...”

Only about 55,000 people live in Edgecombe County, roughly the population of Rocky Mount. But 5,200 veterans call the county home, an abundance of service members that inspired Joel Bourne to start the museum.

Bourne, a retired attorney and ex-Marine from Tarboro, helped start the tradition of a flag-raising ceremony in the town common on the first Monday of every month. Each ceremony salutes one fallen veteran, a tradition that has lasted 10 years.

The museum grew out of that idea: knowing that all those veterans had dusty uniforms and dented mess kits in their attics, not to mention gun and sword collections.

Once the museum began in 2004, starting in a corner of the Chamber of Commerce, people donated their collections of model planes, newspapers announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, photos of their departed vets that now make up a gallery of more than 800 portraits – Bourne’s included.

By the time Bourne died in February, his baby museum had grown into its own building on Church Street, right behind Town Hall.

“Two of the bloodiest battles of World War II were the ones that Joel fought in,” former Tarboro resident W.M. “Bill” Bass of Dallas wrote to the Daily Southerner upon Bourne’s death. “When asked to tell of those times, he would say that he only unloaded cargo on the beaches. Edith (his late wife) would be quick to reply, ‘That’s not what your Marine buddies say when we go to those reunions!’”

The walls of Tarboro’s museum contain a Civil War cannonball, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle used in World War II and an Army Jeep reconstructed by the shop class at Edgecombe County Community College. But the proudest exhibit stands out back, a block-long mural that depicts fighting from the Revolutionary War forward, painted across a brick wall by Chapel Hill artist Michael Brown.

Sugg explains proudly that the museum gets all its money from members – none from the federal, state or county governments. It has the feeling of a clubhouse inside more than a museum, its exhibits like pages torn from a yearbook.

Take the Stallings brothers, all six of them World War II vets featured on the wall of portraits. Three brothers chose the Army: William, Charles and Barber. Three picked the Navy: Julius, Churchwell and Howard.

All came back alive. All six are gone now.

“The thing about this museum is we knew a lot of these people,” said Ellis Cullifer, 72, who served in the Air Force during Vietnam. “We can relate. Some we went to school with. This man right here won the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.”

Sugg played basketball with Thea Dalton Lewis, a Navy veteran from nearby Speed.

He watched Rear Adm. John D. Pearson work his way through Scouts.

And he heard Pvt. James Taylor tell the story of the flag he brought back from the Philippines – over and over and over.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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