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60 years ago, General Douglas MacArthur was laid to rest in his adopted home of Norfolk

Gen. Douglas MacArthur's mother was born in Norfolk and two of his brothers were buried in the city before he was in 1964. (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)
Gen. Douglas MacArthur's mother was born in Norfolk and two of his brothers were buried in the city before he was in 1964. (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)

Sixty years ago on April 11, General Douglas MacArthur – one of America’s most revered and controversial military figures – came to his final resting place in Norfolk.

MacArthur, who now stands in the shadows of a mall bearing his name in Norfolk, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, but had deep family ties to Norfolk, said MacArthur Memorial archivist James Zobel.

“His mom was from here-  her family lived across the river- The Elizabeth River – right on the Southside, where the Berkley Bridge is,” Zobel said. “He would come spend his summers here with his mom and dad and he could remember it.”

As an adult, MacArthur made history as a five-star Army General and for a number of major accomplishments, like developing island-hopping in the Pacific arena of World War II, which allowed the U.S. to regain power over the Philippines from Japan, and accepting the Japanese surrender during World War II.

Later, MacArthur was put in charge of the American-led United Nations troops during the Korean War until President Harry Truman removed him from that position.

After that, MacArthur lived the rest of life quietly in New York City until his death in Washington D.C. in 1964.

The General’s final resting place was Norfolk’s old City Hall. Then-Mayor Fred Duckworth ordered a new civic center during a massive redevelopment in 1960, and the old structure sat empty.

When the idea to turn it into a memorial came about in 1960, it was seen as an economic boon for the city, but it wasn’t without controversy. 

Norfolk’s segregationist policies of the time were at odds with MacArthur’s own beliefs, as seen in his thoughts about the desegregation of the army.

It’s likely he would’ve insisted a memorial for himself would be open to everyone, Zobel said.

“MacArthur said no way, he said ‘I’m not going to agree to it if this (is)  going to be  some kind of segregated place  where  not everybody  can  go to’ …  and it was the only place in Norfolk where Blacks and whites could go to in those early days.”

MacArthur died on April 5, 1964 at Walter Reed Hospital. His body arrived at Norfolk Naval Air Station on April 9.

The procession assembled at 21st Street and Monticello Avenue, where a horse-drawn caisson slowly moved towards downtown and  the spectators were ten-deep on the sidewalks. 

Bill  Zimmerman was a veteran from New York who stayed in Norfolk following his navy stint here. 

He watched the procession from St. Paul’s Boulevard.

“(There were) hordes of people there … there was a limousine, but  behind the limousine walked the young MacArthur,  and  followed by many notables  either in cars or walking. It was virtually silent as I remember it. There were no bands, many flags.”

Zobel said it was one of the biggest events ever in the city of Norfolk, with some estimates saying there were 150,000 people downtown

“You have all these plans in the works and ready to go because you have so many people  and it really does go off without a hitch,” he said. “They bring him down on the 9th and he lays in state there in  the memorial from Thursday night to Friday night and 87,000 (people) go through and it stays open all night long.”  

Andrea Yesalusky was eight years old at the time and she remembers standing in line with her mother to go into the memorial. 

“My parents felt like it was important for me to see this historical moment,” she said. “To me it seemed like there were a lot of military officials, important people around - somber, quiet, respectful.”

After the procession, the General’s body was moved to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The period of national mourning ended at sunset on April 11 when a battery at Ft. Monroe fired a final 19-gun salute to hail an adopted son of Hampton Roads.