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Francis DeSales Wills never made it home, but his family will have finality of sorts when the county hoists a special flag in his memory next week. The only Charles County resident still listed as missing in action, the U.S. Army private vanished Feb. 26, 1966, while on reconnaissance in Vietnam. He was 22.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, a ceremony at the county government building in La Plata will raise a flag honoring all prisoners of war and soldiers who are still missing in action, but with an emphasis on Wills, whom family members remember as a budding civil rights leader and a father of four.

Wills, a La Plata resident and graduate of segregated Bel Alton High School, was the first youth president of the Charles County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Wanda W. Woodland, his niece. He participated in sit-ins and marched on Washington, D.C., hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Wills inspired Woodland, herself a past president of the local NAACP, in her activism and in her life, she said.

“My uncle was the first love of my life. He was the male role model in my life. He was the person who took me to my first bus ride to Washington, D.C. He’s the person who stood me on his feet to teach me how to do a swing dance, when my mother was laughing, saying he didn’t know how to do it himself. … My uncle was just everywhere. His persona was bigger than life, just one of those bigger-than-life people who was loved everywhere,” Woodland said.

After he enlisted, hoping to gain money for a college education and “a better life,” friends held five parties for the enormously popular young man. He took his mother to all of them, Woodland said.

Wills being perpetually missing is a particular torment to survivors, Woodland said. The flag ceremony provides some sense of finality missing because there was no funeral.

“When you’re a family of a POW or [someone] missing in action, you live with the hope of that person coming home. You never bury that person. You never have closure to that person’s life. It’s a sort of tragedy, having to bury your loved one, you do that. With families like mine, it’s the not knowing. All we get is letter signed by the president letting us know it’s a possibility our loved one is missing; they don’t know anything, but he might be a casualty. I still have that letter at home,” Woodland said.

Planning for the ceremony was launched by James Shekleton of Waldorf, a member of Rolling Thunder Maryland Chapter 1, with an email to the Charles County commissioners. Rolling Thunder is an organization of veterans and motorcyclists dedicated to keeping prisoners of war and the missing from fading from public memory.

“Four years ago, or five, I started doing some research on the Internet just to see how many men from this state were missing. I happened across Francis Wills’ name,” Shekleton recalled. He “adopted” Wills, dedicating himself to keeping this particular man’s name and memory alive.

“It’s hard to say, it’s hard to explain the adopted POW, because I kind of took it on myself. … I kind of adopted him, just so I can be able to keep his name out there, use him as a sort of centerpiece for being a local man, use him as a centerpiece for all the POWs,” Shekleton said.

The commissioners will vote on Tuesday on flying the POW flag perpetually outside the county government building, said commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D).

“The hope is the commissioners will allow us to consider flying that flag permanently in honor of Mr. Wills and in honor of all our soldiers who were POWs and are missing in action to this day. Some of our younger generation may not remember the Vietnam War and the toll it took on our young men, predominantly young men then,” Kelly said.

emitrano@somdnews.com