Dan Wine placed an American flag at his uncle's grave at New Camden Cemetery on Saturday, then drove to the soldiers' plot nearby.
He expected to see scores of flags, standing like sentries, in front the veterans' graves in honor of Memorial Day.
"What I found angered me," said Wine, a former Air Force master sargeant who served in Kuwait. "Someone had pulled up all the flags and left them on the ground."
Metal rods that supported the plastic flag holders had been stolen, leaving the ground littered with flags.
"I don't know who did this," said Wine, 58, a service officer at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Oaklyn. "There were a whole bunch [of flags] laying all over the place. It was a senseless act."
The Audubon man immediately began returning the flags to their places in front of the stones in the Camden cemetery. For the next half hour, he pushed the bare wooden staffs into ground.
"I reset about 155 flags . . . and replaced five flags that were damaged," he said. The graves "are flagged to show respect for those who went before and defended our freedom."
It was not clear Tuesday whether vandals had struck or groundskeepers had forgotten to replace flags that had been moved to cut the grass closer to the stones.
Patrick Keating, director of public works for Camden, which is responsible for the cemetery's upkeep, said he did not know what happened at the burial grounds at Mount Ephraim and Ferry Avenues.
"If it was our guys, they would have put the flags back," he said. "At least, I hope they would."
The flags had been placed in front of the headstones - many belonging to Civil War veterans - about two weeks ago, said Phil Cohen, who helped install them.
"This never happened before," said Cohen, 55, a Navy veteran who lives in Pennsauken. "I don't think it was your trash-can crowd, the ones who take the metal trash to junk yards to sell.
"We put the flags in two plots," he said. "I was a sore puppy afterward, from bending over so much."
Who's looking out for the veterans? Cohen asked.
"To desecrate the flags and the graves like that . . . it's just bad," he said. "There's a lot of war dead there.
"Even the guys who came home after the wars and died in their beds deserve better than this."