Title: Army Sergeant, Vietnam Era
Birthdate: August 29, 1954
Death Date: March 2, 1989
Plot Location: Section 137, Lot A, Row 5

Screenshot (2887)

Telling the story of someone who passed away in the late 1900s has its challenges because recent census information isn’t available. For Rick Majors, the only available information about his military career is what appears on this gravestone, meaning he served during the Vietnam Era and probably in Vietnam.

The good news is he survived and completed his tour of duty, but the bad news is that little is known of his life before, during, and after his service. His experience as a Vietnam vet would have been notable if it could have been uncovered, but another interesting storyline appeared. It starts with his family’s difficult circumstances just before he was born, only to be repeated in his own end-of-life tragedy. 

Bill Majors, the father of Rick and eight others, grew up in Oklahoma. Bill’s father wasn’t a farmer during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, but the family was one of many who moved away. Unlike most, however, they went east instead of west. They built a modest home in the southernmost part of Philadelphia, known then as “The Neck.” The sports stadiums occupy that area today, standing on what used to be a mix of farm land and swamps and shacks. This 1927 photo from the city archives shows the site of what is now Citizens Bank Park.

As soon as Bill turned 18 he joined the Navy and saw the war come to an end in the Pacific. Marriage to Margaret Heisler followed in 1947. They built a three-room house next to his parents and uncle near 10th and Packer Street, where a casino and hotel are today. By 1950 they were sharing their bedroom with three little boys.

That year’s census lists Bill’s occupation as an unemployed punch press operator but soon after he took a job as a truck driver. The shanty town was nicknamed “Squatterville” since they didn’t own the land and paid no taxes, just a small “ground rent” to the city. They had no water or sewer service, so Margaret and the other “Neckers” either carried water from a fire hydrant or paid someone else to do it. When the hole under the outhouse filled up, Bill did as his father and uncle and others did in their backyards; he dug a new one and moved the outhouse over it.

In March of 1952 the Majors family welcomed their first little girl. That summer, after a heavy downpour, two-year-old Alfred was playing in a swollen ditch when he lost his footing and drowned. Shortly after his burial at Mount Moriah Margaret became pregnant again. 

Four days after Christmas Bill was at work when the house was set ablaze after their Christmas tree fell onto an oil stove. One boy, Jimmy, age 4, escaped with minor burns but the oldest son and their baby girl died in the flames. In the space of five months, three of their four children were lost.

The family had to move on, of course. Margaret had another son, Frank, in 1953, then Rick arrived in 1954. They literally had to move on because by the mid-1950s the city evicted the entire neighborhood. What prompted the action was the construction of the Walt Whitman Bridge and the expressway that would connect to it.

Two events in 1955 accelerated the renewal effort: flooding made several homes uninhabitable and another house fire claimed the lives of a mother and her four children. Hundreds of truckloads of fill dirt raised the entire area by ten feet and eliminated the swamp.

Where the Majors family went is unknown. There were more children added to the family, but at some point the family unit was shattered by either separation or divorce. For that reason, at least one boy, Frank, was placed in the Methodist Home for Children and perhaps others were as well. In 1966 a dormitory there burned to the ground and Frank was one of three boys who didn’t escape. He became the fourth child in the family to be buried at Mount Moriah.

What impact the breakup had on Rick is a question to be added to the list of unknowns. Social Security and Veterans Administration files confirm Bill’s death in 1975 but there are no clues about where he died and was buried.

When and where did Jimmy, Rick, and the others complete their schooling? What was Rick’s life like after his military career was over? Only the end of his story is known, according to a newspaper account in 1989. At 34 years old, he was living in Fitchburg, Massachusetts working for a construction company. He was told to cut the ends off of some metal drums, but whatever was inside the first drum ignited. Most of his clothing was burned off and death came quickly, completing the horrific irony of death-by-burning for four of the Majors children.

Someone must have paid for his cremains to be brought to Mount Moriah. Less than a year later his mother died and was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in nearby Collingdale. Her obituary names three children who survived her. One was Jimmy, who had a 20-year career in the Army and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal. He may have prompted his mother to request a military gravestone to mark the place where Rick joined his siblings.

Japanese maple tree in front of a monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

Support the Friends of Mount Moriah

Help us in our mission to restore and maintain the beautiful Mount Moriah Cemetery by donating to our cause or volunteering at one of our clean-up events.