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Key tag search leads to county hero

Tim Croft
The Star
As it happens, a closer inspection of the monuments along the Honor Walk at Veterans Memorial Park at Beacon Hill would have provided a major clue to a mystery posed in last week's edition.
Or the tolling of the bell and reading of the names of those gave the ultimate sacrifice each Veterans Day at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School.
In fact, every monument that honors those Gulf County natives who have lost their lives in the country's wars offers a clue.
To the life and death of a hero.
Last week's edition included a story about a “mystery tag” found a year ago in a driveway in Clarksville.
A small bronze-colored tag, something that one might find on a key chain, with the year 1939 stamped on it along with the name B. C. Kirkland, Jr. and the address P.O. Box 108, Port St. Joe, Fla.
There is also the faint outline of a vintage automobile at the top and around the circle where the tag would latch to keys “Return to Sender” can be faintly read.
Dropped off at Bluewater Outriggers recently, the story urged anyone with information about the tag or a B. C. Strickland to come forward and offer to fill in the clues.
To the rescue came, among others, Gene McCroan and Charlotte Maddox Pierce and her sister, Eva Maddox Davis.
The Maddox sisters seemed fairly confident of the tag's origins.
Nobody has an explanation of how it ended up in Clarksville.
Benjamin Cornelius Kirkland was best buddies with Capt. Dave Maddox, the long-time harbor pilot, historian and all around great guy who passed away in recent years.
As youngsters, the two spent many a day playing, fishing and hanging out around Port St. Joe.
“They were very close,” Pierce said. “(Kirkland) was very special to daddy.”
Davis provided a series of letters and postcards Kirkland sent to Maddox during his advance from basic training to deployment in North Africa.
Each one begins, “Hey Bud.”
In one, written in September 1943 from “somewhere in North Africa” Kirkland requests a “good hunting knife.”
Private Kirkland was killed in action in Italy in January 1944, as reported by The Star in March of that year.
He was buried in Italy, at a cemetery near Encino; a memorial service was held in May in Port St. Joe.
Originally from Apalachicola, Kirkland's family moved to Port St. Joe, living on Long Ave., following the death of his father, also Benjamin Cornelius Kirkland, who had worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In a world of odd coincidences, at one time Ellen Kirkland, wife to Benjamin, Sr. and mother of Benjamin, Jr., had dated Capt. Fred Maddox before he found love with Miss Zola, both of whom have streets named in their honor.
Pierce believed part of the special bond between her father and Strickland was that Benjamin was fatherless.
“Neither had a brother and Cornelius didn't have a father,” Pierce said.
Kirkland attended school in Port St. Joe and graduated from Port St. Joe High School in 1942.
Benjamin had a sister, Margie, who barely a year younger, the two born as ”Irish Twins.”
Margie's daughter, Melissa Root of Alabama, said her mother was advanced past first grade putting the two siblings in the same classroom.
“(Benjamin) did not like that at all,” Root said.
Margie would also skip the third grade and graduate two years ahead of her brother.
“She graduated in the same class as daddy,” Pierce said.
Kirkland worked for a couple of local companies and joined the U.S. Army.
He was serving with the U.S. Fifth Army and was part of the battle for Cassino, one of the more pivotal battles of the war.
Ellen was a cherished crossing guard in front of Port St. Joe Elementary School, despite living part of the time in Panama City, Pierce said.
“She was so sweet and caring,” Pierce said, noting all the children looked forward to seeing Mrs. Ellen each day.
Root said she could remember traveling back-and-forth from Panama City and the dedication Mrs. Ellen had to be present and accounted for at the beginning and end of each school day.
“She liked those kids more than she liked her own at times,” Root said with a chuckle.
In return, Root said, her mother would frequently return home with drawings made by the children for her.
Root will place the key tag in a shadow box of her mother's mementoes.
“People need to remember what went on before, especially when there is no architecture to remind them of things,” Root said, noting that the Maddox House is no more.
“Hurricane Michael took away so much of the architecture you need reminders of what and who was there before.”
The man who received the tag from Doug Sewell of Clarksville and started the mystery train down its tracks, Joe Sieber of Bluewater Outriggers, was tickled to hear the whole story and of the tag's pending reunification with Strickland's lone living relative.
“That is the kind of positive story we need right now,” Sieber said.