William Shelton received overdue recognition. when will other Penny HEaven’s inhabitants get theirs?

WWII Veteran moved from York City’s Cemetery to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery

60 Indiantown Gap Rd, Annville, Pa

In episode 2.11 of Hometown History, a video series focused on York County’s interesting past, Jamie Noerpel and Domi Miller talk about York’s City Cemetery and other current do-it-yourself-urbanism.

The situation

Our friends and neighbors adorn wreaths on the headstones of loved ones at Christmas. But there are over 800 people in a one-acre grassy plot where no wreath will hang. In fact, the cemetery has only one tombstone where a flag could be placed.

The cemetery is called York City Cemetery – Penny Heaven or York’s potter’s field – and a single marker acknowledges the life of one of those interred there.

Forty years ago, there was a bronze plate that has since been moved – the plaque belonging to William R. Shelton, a WWII veteran. 

The 1930 Index of Graves shows us William Shelton’s burial number in Penny Heaven as well as when he was disinterred.

Shelton was born in 1921 down in Stafford, Virginia. After serving in WWII, he found his way to York where he lived with his sister in a South Pershing Avenue apartment. Both had no money and no other relatives, despite his job as a pipe fitter. At just 45 years in age, he suffered from lung congestion and the hardening of his arteries. His final days were spent in York Hospital where he died in October of 1966. 

Wm. J. Workinger Funeral Home Inc. paid the $350.36 to have Shelton buried in a gray-shrouded casket and vault in Penny Heaven’s plot number 472. Since Shelton relied on welfare assistance, the funeral home applied for reimbursement costs. 

Shelton’s military service meant he was entitled to a plaque with his military credentials. He was even eligible for a burial at a national cemetery, free of charge. However, this doesn’t happen automatically. It took the persistence and work of a local York man to get Shelton the recognition he deserves.

Based on his burial plaque, we believe Shelton served as a railway operator. The Army trained professional railroad men working for private railroads and commissioned them for military service. They provide logistical support to the Allies in both theaters. 
 765 RY (Railway) Shop BN (Battalion) TC (Trans Corps).

The witness

Jerry Martin moved to York in 1951 where he lived just steps from Penny Heaven. Like Shelton, Martin served in WWII. His ship, the USS Nevada, was hit by a Japanese suicide bomber, injuring him. He felt a connection to Shelton, caring for his grave by clearing grass or cleaning off dirt. 

At the time, this was the only marker in all of potter’s field, setting it apart from the other anonymous burial sites. The current city health officer, Al Heagy, reported that vandalism meant markers wouldn’t last longer than a month or two past burial. Despite the abandonment of the lot, Shelton’s bronze plaque survived. 

It bugged Martin that Shelton’s final resting place lacked the full recognition of his service that he deserved. So, he did something about it. He contacted local news agencies and the VA to right what he saw as a wrong.

Fifteen years later, following Veteran’s Day 1985, Shelton’s body was moved to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery with full military burial. “By the time the sun set, there was no doubt that it would be the last Veteran’s Day Shelton would spend in the desolate York field where those who have no money, no family and occasionally no identity were given a final resting place,” a York Daily Record article wrote. 

“Pfc. William Roy Shelton will finally be laid to rest in a cemetery where the graves are marked, the dead are honored and wealth doesn’t matter.”

This holiday season, his grave will have a wreath to honor his service to America – and rightfully so. But for those interred still in York’s City Cemetery – the one described by the YDR as a desolate field – there will be no wreaths, no flowers, no flags. There is only one meager stone that identifies the site as a cemetery. 

The Friends of York City Cemetery want to change that by installing a permanent monument with the field’s histories, the names of those buried there, and a sign showing the index of graves. Read more about the initiative and other stories on Witnessing York.

Invest in this project AT PRESERVATION PA

Jerry Martin spent 15 years caring for William Shelton’s grave in York City Cemetery. In 1985, Shelton was moved to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery with full military honors for his WWII service.

The questions

William Shelton received the recognition he deserved – when will the rest of Penny Heaven’s inhabitants get theirs?

Related links and sourcesThe unmarked graves of forgotten Yorkers“; “It’s more than a grassy field, City Cemetery bears 800 unmarked graves by Jamie Noerpel; York’s Potter’s Field exhumations center of early dispute about disease” by Jim McClure; Mike Shanabrook provided burial recordsResearch assistance by Samantha Dorm. Photos, York Daily Record.


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