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William Oakley Medal of Honor Ceremony Representatives of the US Air Force Honor Guard from RAF Lakenheath prepare to fold the Stars and Stripes. Photo courtesy Wivenhoe Town Council

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US and UK come together to honor US Medal of Honor recipient in Wivenhoe, Essex
Representatives of the US Air Force Honor Guard and US Navy joined locals to honor William Oakley, a veteran of the Spanish-American War

Published on April 10, 2019

On Saturday March 23, 2019, representatives of the US military joined locals in the town of Wivenhoe, Essex, to honor one of only 10 UK citizens to have been awarded the US Medal of Honor. William Oakley, who fought for the US Navy during the Spanish-American War, died in Wivenhoe in 1918, but was buried in an unmarked grave in Wivenhoe Old Cemetery. If he had died in the US, he would have been eligible for burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

A permanent gravestone to commemorate Oakley and his Medal of Honor was organized by the William Oakley Working Party after a relative of his contacted the town council about marking his achievements.

In attendance at the ceremony were Chief Petty Officer Richard Taft of the US Navy, representatives of the US Air Force Honor Guard from RAF Lakenheath, the Mayors of Wivenhoe and Colchester in their respective regalia, members of Wivenhoe’s History Society, Wivenhoe’s Congregational Church Vicar Rev. Justin Lunniss, and the vicar of St Mary’s Rev. Erwin Lammens, as well as members of the Colchester Watch, who raised their pikes to greet attendees as they entered.

Reporting from the event, Hazel Humphries explained that the focus of attention "was the white marble gravestone of William Oakley, which, bathed in sunlight, stood out even more than usual in its antiquated setting having been delivered to Wivenhoe Town Council following efforts by a Working Party of Wivenhoe Town Councillors, council staff and local people to ensure that William’s heroism with the US Navy during the Spanish-American War which led to him receiving the Medal of Honor did not continue to go unrecognised.

William Oakley Memorial Stone Mayor of Wivenhoe, Bob Needham, and councillor Michael Smither, alongside the William Oakley Memorial Stone

"The ceremony of dedication was introduced by Wivenhoe’s Mayor Bob Needham, and an invocation from Rev. Lunniss followed, it having been established that William had been a member of the Congregational church. A short summary of William’s life and the significance of his achievements came from a member of Wivenhoe Town Council’s Estates team Michael Smither, who, in his spare time, has worked diligently over the last few years to unearth William’s life (no easy task when William died without any immediate family and much of his life from when he left the UK in 1880 to join the US Navy has been pieced together from limited military records and other sources). Michael also managed to produce a family tree for William and track down his surviving relatives in the UK, who were amongst the guests of honour.

"A local bugler, Graham Banning movingly played “Sunset” and wreaths of poppies and other flowers were laid at the graveside. This was followed by an incredibly intricate and respectful flag presentation from the two female officers from the USAF Honor Guard, who unfurled and refolded the Stars and Stripes solemnly and meticulously before presenting it to William’s family. The vicars delivered a final blessing, finally giving William a respectful farewell and Taps was played as all in attendance took a moment of peaceful reflection before Mayor Needham invited all to a reception, fittingly at the Nottage Maritime Institute (near that "well-known local landmark the Rose and Crown” as Mr Mayor joked) where a detailed presentation on William’s story, put together by Mr Smither, was displayed, much to the family’s delight. More information about William Oakley should be available in the Chapel Museum in Wivenhoe New Cemetery run by Wivenhoe Town Council and local volunteers on weekends during the summer months ... It was an afternoon that showed Wivenhoe at its best; respectful, open, friendly and considerate. One hopes that visitors in years to come, including our American cousins, will take the time out to visit William Oakley’s grave and discover his story"

You can found out more about William Oakley's story by contacting Wivenhoe Town Council - www.wivenhoe.gov.uk. Information on Wivenhoe's Historical Society can be found at www.wivenhoehistory.org.uk, whilst the Facebook Page for the memorial is www.facebook.com/WillamOakleyMOHgroup

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