United States Army Pfc. Henry Van Demps, born and raised in Plant City, deserved better than he got 54 years ago.
Demps started a tour of duty in Vietnam with the Army 503rd Infantry on April 18, 1966 at age 22. A little more than three months later, he was killed in the Long Khanh Province of South Vietnam. On September 3, 1966, the son of Robert N. and Thelma C. Demps was laid to rest in his hometown at Garden of Peace Cemetery.
But if you didn’t know Demps personally, you wouldn’t know anything about his service just by looking at his gravesite. For reasons unknown to the City of Plant City’s Cemetery Operations Unit, Demps spent the last 54 years in an unmarked grave and was not given full military honors at his funeral.
John Lawler knew who Demps was. Lawler is a volunteer with the Coffelt Group, which for 40 years has compiled a database of Vietnam War casualties around the country so that those who served may not be forgotten. He found Demps and traveled to Plant City to find his gravesite. Locating it was much easier said than done.
“What I had was, in the 80s, the Florida Genealogical Society did a survey of every cemetery in Hillsborough County,” Lawler said. “Mr. Demps, although his name was misspelled, it did label him as being here… I knew he was here somewhere by that, but I did not know exactly where the burial was. I contacted the office after several tries of looking — you basically just walk — and Mr. (Jeff) Black came out and we found what you see here… there’s no marker. You could walk past the rows and never know he was here.”
With help from Cemetery Operations Unit Superintendent Jeff Black, himself a United States Navy veteran, Lawler finally found Demps this past May. The two men looked upon the gravesite and had the same thought: Demps deserved better.
Black got in touch with the Hillsborough County Veterans Services Office and VSO Clifford Heasty helped him secure a new headstone for Demps. Later, at an unrelated burial service, Black had another chance encounter that helped him piece together Demps’s puzzle. He struck up a conversation with a relative of the deceased, who started pointing out other buried family members — whose surname was Demps. That’s when it all clicked.
“I just asked her if she knew who Henry is and she said ‘That’s that boy that died in Vietnam,’” Black said.
Black connected with more of Demps’s relatives and the mission to honor Demps himself got another objective. He needed the full military honors he never got. Black worked with the Army Casualty Assistance Office at Fort Stewart, Georgia to coordinate the military funeral honors and got the Durant High School JROTC Color Guard involved.
Demps finally got what he deserved on Tuesday.
The City of Plant City invited the public to a military ceremony for Demps at Garden of Peace Cemetery that afternoon. The ceremony was attended by more than 40 people including several of Demps’s relatives, city commissioners and Lawler. After Demps’s new headstone was unveiled to the public, Taps was played and Thelma Demps received her son’s flag.
Tuesday’s ceremony was unique, according to those involved. Lawler, who has been walking cemeteries all over the state for several years looking for people like Demps, has never had this happen. Heasty, who has been with the VSO for several years, was not aware of anything like this happening in the county since he’s been here. Parks and Recreation Department Director Jack Holland said he doesn’t believe a ceremony like this has happened in his nearly 45 years of working for the city. Tuesday’s ceremony may have been unique, even unprecedented, but everyone agreed it was necessary.
“It was exciting that on this off chance… it’s just really weird the way this all came together,” Black said. “John Lawler was just looking. I got the Hillsborough County VSO involved and Mr. Heasty was incredibly willing to help. It was neat to see a whole group of people who just wanted to see this happen.”
The Coffelt Group’s database is viewable online at coffeltdatabase.org/index.php.