A Glimpse into the U.S. Naval Cemetery at Naval Station Great Lakes

by the Education Department, NMAS

Nestled among the numerous buildings at Naval Station Great Lakes is a small official U.S. Naval Cemetery that is almost as old as the base itself. Its first burial occurred in 1913, only two years after Naval Station Great Lakes first opened. That burial, however, did not happen at the cemetery’s current location. Originally, the cemetery was located farther east, next to the installation’s original Naval Hospital . It was in the winter of 1919, that the cemetery moved to its current location. The majority of the burials in this cemetery are from the 1910s to the early 1950s, however, the most recent burial took place in 2016. The cemetery at Great Lakes serves as a reminder of self-sacrifice and patriotism of numerous generations of Navy Sailors.

NMAS Cemetery Walking Tour group at the entrance of the cemetery.

One of the more distinct aspects of the cemetery that is first noticeable are the uniformity of the grave markers. In order to ensure that all graves in military-controlled cemeteries were marked appropriately and honorably, the federal government established design guidelines for burial markers for service members and civilians buried in military cemeteries. Known as the “General” type and established after World War I, these slab style markers are slightly rounded at the top, made of American white marble, forty-two inches long, thirteen inches wide and four inches thick. The inscription on the front face includes the name of the service member, their military information, and state from which they came. 

The headstone of Joseph Wallace Gregg, Naval Station Great Lakes’ first recruit.

For many of the deceased buried in this cemetery, Naval Station Great Lakes held a special place in their lives. One such sailor resting in a prominent location in the Cemetery, was among Naval Station Great Lake’s first graduating class; Joseph Wallace Gregg. 

Gregg was born on October 19, 1893 in Terre Haute, Indiana and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Indianapolis when he was only seventeen years old. Gregg reported for apprentice training on July 3, 1911 – just two days after the station’s official commissioning.

Wealthy businessman Graeme Stewart, who helped raise the funds to purchase the property on which Naval Station Great Lakes resides, and his colleagues wanted a Chicago recruit to be the first through the gate when the installation  opened. Unfortunately for the businessmen, the handpicked Chicagoan was nowhere to be found when the gates opened. Joseph Wallace Gregg was second in line and therefore became the first enlistee to pass through the base’s  gates. He graduated in Great Lakes’ first graduating class in October 1911.

Naval Station Great Lakes’ first graduating class. Joseph Wallace Gregg is in the first row, second from the left.

Gregg’s first assignment was on the USS Birmingham (CL-2), a scout cruiser operating out of Norfolk, Virginia. He served as a deckhand, or “jack of the dust,” issuing food and stores for the ship’s galley. In 1912, while assigned to the Birmingham, Gregg traveled to Havana, Cuba to participate in ceremonies commemorating the 1898 sinking of USS Maine (ACR-1). The Birmingham returned to Virginia later that spring with the bodies of Maine crewmembers, who were to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The USS Birmingham (CL-2) circa 1914. From the collection of ADM Horne. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command, UA 571.96.

Gregg was discharged September 30, 1914, three weeks before the end of his regular enlistment. In a 1957 interview, he said, “If I had to do it all over again, I would choose the Navy as a career. As a matter of fact, even now, I wouldn’t swap my Navy education training and experiences for a college education. The Navy is an education in itself”. Joseph Wallace Gregg died on June 30, 1966 at the age of seventy-two and requested to be buried at Naval Station Great Lakes.

To discover more Navy stories about the individuals buried at Naval Station Great Lakes, the National Museum of the American Sailor invites you to join us for a virtual tour on Saturday, October 10, 2020 at 10:00 am CST. While this is a free event pre-registration is required by following this link. See you there!

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