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Lumpkin County woman finds military history, mystery in her vegetable garden
When Lumpkin County resident Melissa Zelenko was digging in her garden she uncovered an old dog tag from a World War II veteran with Hall County ties. - photo by Scott Rogers

Digging for a vegetable garden in her yard may have led Melissa Zelenko of Lumpkin County to a piece of history with Hall County ties.

She found a dog tag belonging to Barney C. Burson, who according to a 2009 article in The Times, served in World War II as a machine gunner with the 30th Infantry Division, which occupied the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. 

He died in 1960 in a car accident in Gainesville, according to the story, which profiled a multigenerational military family.

Burson’s grandson, Sammy Burson Jr., was featured in the Memorial Day story talking about various family members who served in various branches. Burson couldn’t be reached for comment.

Zelenko said she kept the faded metal tag for a while, putting it on her kitchen window.

“A few days ago, I looked at it and thought, ‘I should try to look these folks up,” she said. “It was surprising, when I could finally read it, get enough light on it. It was definitely worn by nature.”

When Lumpkin County resident Melissa Zelenko was preparing the soil for a garden she uncovered an old dog tag from a World War II veteran with Hall County ties. - photo by Scott Rogers

Her online research led her to The Times story and Find A Grave, where she found more information about Burson.

The grave website says that Burson is buried in a private cemetery off South Waterworks Road in Hall at the Gwinnett County line. A headstone for Burson is on the property, showing that he served in the 119th Infantry in World War II and died at 42 years old on May 2, 1960.

The website also shows a photo of Burson playing checkers with Audie Murphy, one of World War II’s most decorated soldiers, who went on to a career in movies, including a biopic starring Murphy as himself.

The caption also says that Burson “participated in the Battle of the Bulge,” a major German offensive campaign toward the end of World War II.

Zelenko’s gardening was part of a larger cleanup effort at her trailer.

“There’s a lot more trash than treasure out there — just a couple of arrowheads and this dog tag,” she said. “It’s a very old piece of property that folks have lived on for a long time. This trailer is like 40 years old.”

Sammy Burson Jr. is seen in this file photo with several photos of family members who served in the armed forces.

Military dog tags “are of great importance in the identification of soldiers in the army,” according to CIM USA, a Florida company that makes metal tag embossers and plastic card printing systems. “The main purpose of the military dog tags is to identify soldiers that are wounded or killed while they are in action.”

By World War II, military ID tags “were considered an official part of the uniform and had evolved into the uniform size and shape they are today — a rounded rectangle made of nickel-copper alloy,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Each was mechanically stamped with your name, rank, service number, blood type and religion, if desired. An emergency notification name and address were initially included on these, but they were removed by the end of the war. They also included a ‘T’ for those who had a tetanus vaccination, but by the 1950s that, too, was eliminated.”

Zelenko, hoping to get the dog tag to Burson’s family, said she hopes her mystery doesn’t remain one much longer.

Burson “has got to be an interesting guy,” she said. “We’re still talking about him to this day.”