Memorial Day Memories
As we mark this day when we remember those who died in service to our country, we find ourselves at a particularly fraught moment in our national journey. I think back to the United States of my youth, leading up to, during, and immediately following the Second World War. There was a unity back then that allowed us to repel and then defeat one of the greatest threats to peace and security in human history. If only we could face the threats of today with that collective resolve.
At the same time, we must recognize that the nation was then deeply flawed, especially when it came to racial injustices. Black soldiers who fought valiantly in combat returned to a country that treated them with contempt and even violence. Japanese Americans had been rounded up and put in internment camps, even as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-American soldiers, would fight with such bravery and fierce determination that it became one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history.
This history cannot be forgotten; it must be taught. Our children must also learn, and we must be reminded, about the sheer cost of war in blood and treasure. When it comes to World War II, the number of people still alive who remember firsthand that combat, and even what the war was like on the homefront, is rapidly diminishing. This is my generation, and the one just before mine. I know and feel the slipping bonds of this living history.
With this consideration in mind, I share here an excerpt of our book "What Unites Us" that is pertinent to these Memorial Day ruminations:
Many memories will die when those of us who remember the Second World War pass on: the shock of Pearl Harbor, the shifting fortunes in the European and Pacific theaters, the dawning horror of the full scope of the Holocaust. But less dramatic and more personal memories will also disappear forever, like our emotional response to the American war songs that were produced to comfort and rally a nation. To later generations, those songs of the early 1940s, with their simple tunes and lyrics that verge on (or sometimes even surpass) the jingoistic, may at best rise to the level of intellectual curiosity. But if I hear just a few bars of many of them, my eyes sometimes dampen, and it’s hard to sing the lyrics without a quiver in my voice.
The words and music transport me back. I remember so many neighbors waiting nervously for news of loved ones fighting in battles overseas; I remember mourning parents, children left without fathers; and I remember the knocks on doors that changed lives in an instant. The world of my youth was engulfed in a desperate fight for the survival of humanity, but these songs remind me that we remained in some ways oddly innocent. Simple songs of heroism and sacrifice, with evocative titles like “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere,” were welcomed and embraced by a grateful public without cynicism.
There is one song that still affects me more deeply than most, “The Ballad of Rodger Young.” It tells the true story of a young infantryman who gave his life so that his fellow soldiers could survive. Young was a man short in stature but big in heart. Despite his size, he had been a star athlete in high school, until a basketball head injury left him almost deaf. After dropping out of school, he enlisted in the Ohio National Guard and was sent to the Pacific. He rose to the rank of sergeant but asked to be demoted to private because he could not hear well enough to lead his men into battle. In an ambush in the Solomon Islands on July 31, 1943, Young charged a Japanese pillbox. The citation for his posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor tells how he was shot twice by machine-gun fire during his push up the hill, and yet “he continued his heroic advance, attracting enemy fire and answering with rifle fire. . . . He began throwing hand grenades, and while doing so was hit again and killed.” Young had recently turned twenty-five. His is a story of uncommon valor, but in war, I have found, such stories are not uncommon.
What shakes me to the core in this song is the fourth stanza, which paints a picture of Young’s final resting place:
On the island of New Georgia in the Solomons
Stands a simple wooden cross alone to tell
That beneath the silent coral of the Solomons
Sleeps a man, sleeps a man remembered well.
These words capture the heroism and insanity of war writ large. Who had ever heard of the Solomon Islands? And yet young men were sent to die there for a cause much greater than themselves, just as they were sent to die in the deserts of North Africa, the high seas of the Pacific, the mountain villages of Italy, and so many other distant battlefields. This is not just the story of World War II, of course, but of all wars, across all time.
Here is a performance of "The Ballad of Rodger Young" by the West Point Glee Club from 1959:
We live in debt to those who have served and died, a debt tallied in blood. And too often our political leaders who commit our young men, and now young women, into war do not take this truth into account with an adequate fullness of measure. Over the years, I have been to many military cemeteries, and I am always overcome with emotion. This is especially true of the cemeteries that are filled not with the tombs of long-lived veterans who earned a military burial for their service but with the graves of the young who perished in battle. For me, the most poignant hallowed ground is the Normandy American Cemetery in France. I defy anyone to walk through its more than 170 acres of green grass and white crosses and stars and not feel deeply moved. All told, 9,387 American servicemen are buried there, with uniform grave markers, regardless of the rank they held in life. Death strikes us all with the same finality.
The cemetery is one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I have ever visited — a far cry from the pain and torment that led to its creation. Most buried there lost their lives in that fateful landing on the nearby beaches on D-Day or in the fierce battles that immediately followed. I am struck by their ages. You quickly do the math, subtracting date of birth from date of death, and often arrive at a number in the high teens or early twenties. You cannot help but think: What might they have accomplished if they had lived? What happened to the loved ones they left behind?
Another stirring cemetery can be found halfway around the globe, in a volcanic crater in the hills above Honolulu. Nicknamed Punchbowl, it is a tribute to the sacrifice in our Pacific and Asian wars, not only World War II, but also Korea and Vietnam. Above the bustle of Waikiki, it is a place for meditation on the cost of service with the “courts of the missing” — walls of 28,808 names etched in marble of those who went missing in action or were lost and buried at sea. As an inscription at the cemetery reminds us: “In these gardens are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and whose earthly resting place is known only to God.” “Known only to God” is a phrase that epitomizes a level of service beyond our full comprehension. In war, most deaths are lonely, and leave loneliness behind.
And finally today, we wanted to share a piece we did a decade ago on our news magazine "Dan Rather Reports." (We also shared it once before on Steady.) It tells the story of Glenn Lane, who on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, was a 23-year-old radio man assigned to the USS Arizona. Many of his shipmates died that December 7, but Lane made it out alive, living to the ripe old age of 93. No matter the decades that passed, he never forgot those he left behind. And when it came time for his final resting place, there was little question where he would choose. The Lane family invited us to document the rare military burial of Glenn’s ashes at the sunken battleship. It’s a remarkable story.
As always, we welcome comments. We would especially welcome the stories of service members you might want to remember today.
I served as a combat medic in Vietnam. I was fortunate to return home to my family but too many others i served with did not. I and the others I worked longside trying to save lives saw too many young soldiers, both those we served with and those we fought against, die, unable to save them. I also saw civilians including children whose only mistake was being in the wrong place at the wrong time die when we were unable to save them. I have walked through the field of the American cemetary in Normandy, the Punchbowl cemetary in the hills above Honolulu, and Arlington cemetary in Virginia. On those walks i have thanked those resting there for their sacrifice, and tried to apologize to all those I tried but was unable to save wherever they may now rest. Those visits and cemetery strolls were at the suggestion of a therapist many years ago who helped me cope with both memories and the nightmares they caused.
Now each Memorial Day I try to remember those cemetary strolls. My thoughts now that I am in my mid-70s, let us try our best not to have to build any more such memorials to those lost who we could not save. And yet, this year I have to watch as we conduct yet more funerals but not for young soldiers, now for more of those civilians who through no fault of their own were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I cringe when anyone thanks me for my service. My only thought in response is - what are you doing to make such service no longer necessary? Are you doing anything to make America and the world a safer place? If not, why?
History is indeed slipping away. All those in conflicts in my family are gone (all the conflicts) and my younger relatives don't care. They don't want to hear about it-they don't know what Memorial Day represents--they just want to know when they can go shopping. No one went to the cemetery with me yesterday. It saddens me.