Hidden History: Remembering highly decorated African-American soldiers

Hampton VA National Cemetery.

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) —  In the middle of the energetic hustle and bustle of college students lies a quiet sanctuary in Hampton.

Hampton University is the college, and the sanctuary is Hampton VA National Cemetery.

The cemetery includes thousands of headstones belonging to those who’ve served and protected.

According to Janice Hill, the director of the Hampton VA National Cemetery, there are about 30,000 interments in the two locations of the cemetery. Among the 638 unknown soldiers buried are headstones with clear names, clear dates, allowing us to get a better picture of who they were, and what they did for our freedom.

“There are so many stories of valor,” said Hill. “To just be in this position to have a decorated soldiers here, I don’t know if its quite recognized here in Hampton.”

One of those soldiers is Ruppert Sargent, who was a Virginia State University graduate and a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who received the Medal of Honor. Sargent died at just 29 years old after throwing himself onto two grenades to save two of his fellow soldiers.

“It is monumental. It’s something that we in Hampton, we need to know, and perhaps take for granted,” said Hill. “It’s something that people who live in the city of Hampton or Hampton Roads should be aware that we have a hero right here interred in this cemetery. Even more, they gave up their life, he lost his life. It’s something that we in the Hampton Roads area should be aware that we have a hero interred at this cemetery.”

A few rows up and to the left, there is the headstone of another decorated solider, Sgt. George Nesbitt, who served in World War I.

Lee Ford is the Program Support Assistance at the cemetery and says he knew Mr. Nesbett. They were neighbors here on Lincoln Street in Hampton.

“Like the kids would come up to Mr. George and say, ‘hi Mr. George’ and sometimes he’d hand out money,” Ford said.

Ford also remembers when Sgt. Nesbitt died. Mr. Ford was 13, but still has the image of the flag-draped casket and then decades later, Mr. Ford would reunite with Sgt. Nesbitt here at the Hampton VA National Cemetery.

“After my employment here I realized he was buried here as well. I’m glad he’s buried here.”

Also buried here are two Medal of Honor recipients who served in the 4th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. Sgt. Alfred Hilton was shot in the leg while carrying two flags through heavy enemy fire. Corporal Charles Veale of Portsmouth was able to pick up one of the flags before it hit the ground.

“There are a total of 779 UCTs buried here, or United States Colored Troops, buried here at the Hampton National Cemetery,” Ford said.

Veale and Hilton worked together more than 100 years ago, today buried just feet away from each other.

A few rows up, to the right, next to a big tree — Andrew Triplett — one of the last soldiers buried here in the year 2000.

Triplett is also a Purple Heart recipient. He was a lieutinant in the Navy for 13 years and lived in Norfolk.

Triplett was one of the 17 sailors killed when a suspected terrorist bomb tore through the hull of the USS Cole in Yemen.

“This is a final resting place for the people who have served this county and we want it to look like this and represent them forever.”

Four decorated African-American soldiers, who will forever be memorialized here in a quiet place — a quiet and peaceful cemetery to honor the men and women who protect us.