Many have gone off to war and endured long stretches without seeing their spouses or children. Of course, the reason Americans commemorate Memorial Day is that a number of those soldiers never returned home. Some children live with memories of their parents in happier days, and some have no frame of reference at all.
Brenda Henley’s father never laid eyes on his only child. She was 6 months old when Robert Cannon died during a battle on the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. It was July 2, 1943. He was 21 years old, and he died on his third wedding anniversary.
It took two months for the news to make it back to the Georgia community of Scottdale. A Yellow Cab pulled up in front of the large house where Henley lived with her mother and grandparents. A courier delivered an envelope. Henley’s grandmother folded it and put it in her pocket without reading it. She knew there was only one reason such a parcel would be delivered in that manner. She walked straight into the house to wake her daughter.
“Get up,” she said. “Bob is dead.”
Bob and Flo Ella Cole Cannon had known each other since third grade and neither had ever dated anyone else. All Flo Ella ever wanted was to be a wife and mother. She had no job skills outside of that.
“My mama was a wife, a mother, and a widow before she turned 21,” said Henley, who now lives in South Pasadena.
For a long time Flo Ella refused to believe that her husband was dead. His body had never been shipped back to the United States. It was two years after his death that a fellow soldier arrived at the house to tell the family that he was with Robert Cannon, who he considered his best friend during the war, and witnessed his death.
Bloody World War II Battle
The island they were on had been under Allied control, but the Japanese forces laid siege to it and cut down dozens of men in the process.
“They were like fish in a barrel,” Henley said in describing the situation her father and others faced.
Robert Cannon rescued one of his fellow soldiers from enemy fire and pushed him out of harm’s way just before he and some other men were blown to bits in an explosion. Many soldiers met the same fate that day, to the extent that U.S. forces eventually recovered portions of bodies and brought them all together for a burial at sea.
It was extremely difficult his widow to adjust to life without her husband. Brenda Henley looks back and remembers a time that was also difficult for her, although she benefited greatly from the love and support of her grandparents and some aunts and uncles. Her paternal grandparents were especially fond of her because in many ways she was all they had left of their son. Many family members maintained that she looked a great deal like her father.
Henley was 7 years old when her mother remarried, and she eventually became a wife and mother herself. She now has two daughters and a son as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She lost much of the memorabilia she had kept to remember Robert Cannon when she lived on the Gulf Coast in southeast Texas. Hurricane Ike destroyed her home in the fall of 2008 (ironically, she was back in Georgia burying her mother at the time of the storm). She moved to Pinellas County a few years ago to be near one of her daughters and her son.
Brent Stancil has lived in Pinellas County for 14 years while serving as senior pastor of Community Bible Baptist Church, formerly in St. Petersburg but now in Pinellas Park. An avid student of history his entire adult life, he has found this personal connection to be extra special. He never knew the Cannon family because they were nearly all deceased by the time he was born, but he knew his grandfather was a hero.
“I always thought he was buried there,” he said of the Pacific island site where Robert Cannon lost his life.
He was talking several years ago with a friend about his grandfather. Both wondered if some kind of memorial was in place at that location. His friend decided to search the internet for more details. Thanks to a number of organizations seeking to honor such veterans as well as the federal government itself, this kind of information is much more readily available than it was years ago.
When Stancil’s friend informed him that a grave marker bearing Robert Cannon’s name stands in the Manila American Cemetery, it was extraordinary news. On top of that, Stancil and several others from the church had a mission trip to the Philippines scheduled in less than a year.
In the spring of 2018 he became the first and only family member to visit Cannon’s grave. Hundreds of identical white crosses line the area, similar to the American cemeteries in Normandy and other places.
The church group made a special trip to the cemetery just before their return trip home. After finding it, Stancil knelt next to the cross that bore the name he had heard about all his life.
“It was very moving,” he said of the entire experience.
Brenda Henley still holds out hope that she can also see it one day. But she has a clear view of the significance of what her father did.
“He volunteered for the military. He didn’t want to wait to be drafted,” she said. “And he died saving another man’s life.”