“They carry them in their memory…”
Lara Logan, speaking to/of Staff Sgt. Salvatore Augustine Giunta’s Medal of Honor; 60 Minutes Presents Honoring Our Soldiers, 5/29/11
Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. Service Members who died while in the military service. (Wikipedia).
Memorial Day. A day to “carry them in our memories.” Some died long ago. Others more recently.
And those who survived remember their fallen friends. Some who remember are now old, and feeble — like my wife’s father, who served as a Signalman on a Navy Ship – a ship that was hit by a kamikaze pilot, just feet away from him, near the end of World War II.
The places are many, and varied. From Gettysburg to the Battle of Midway (I wrote about this battle last year on Memorial Day) to the battle in Korengal Valley, near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Staff. Sgt. Giunta earned his medal. Men died in that “classic L-shaped ambush.” But Giunta did something remarkable, and then… (from Wikipedia):
Giunta learned two days later from Captain Kearney that the captain was going to recommend him for the Medal of Honor. He was uncomfortable about being singled out and labeled a hero. “If I’m a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero,” he says. “So if you think that’s a hero—as long as you include everyone with me.” Giunta insists that his actions were those of any man in his unit. “In this job, I am only mediocre. I’m average.”
Lara Logan and 60 Minutes presented a thorough and moving report of his work on that fateful day – take a look at the video here.
As always, in the United States, we fought and we fight to keep people free. I think of much that I have seen and read and heard. I especially thought of these:
From The West Wing, President Jed Bartlett, about a few who made it to the United States on a flimsy boat, from Cuba (from the Pilot episode: script here):
With the clothes on their backs,
they came through a storm.
And the ones that didn’t die want a better life.
And they want it here.
Talk about impressive.
From the movie Gettysburg (text of movie speech, based on/taken from historical accounts, here):
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Addresses Maine Soldiers on What We’re Fighting For
This regiment was formed last summer in Maine. There were a thousand of us then. There are less than three hundred of us now. All of us volunteered to fight for the union, just as you did.
Some came mainly because were were bored at home – thought this looked like fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came because it was the right thing to do. And all of us have seen men die.
This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fighting for pay, for women, or for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free.
America should be free ground, all of it. Not divided by a line between slave and free – all the way, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home.
But it’s not the land. There’s always more land.
It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me.
What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other.
Sorry. Didn’t mean to preach.
From Isabel Wilkerson (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration:
In the end, it could be said that the common denominator for leaving was the desire to be free, like the Declaration of Independence said, free to try out for most any job they pleased, play checkers with whomever they chose, sit where they wished on the streetcar, watch their children walk across a stage for the degree most of them didn’t have the chance to get. They left to pursue some version of happiness, whether they achieved it or not. It was a seemingly simple thing that the majority of Americans could take for granted but that the migrants and their forebears never had a right to in the world they had fled.
For those who died to protect such freedom, “we carry them in our memories.”
(These quotes come from Ben Bradlee’s essay, The Turning Point: The Battle of Midway, included in Defining a Nation, edited by David Halberstam).
This is what they called a decisive battle.
On May 7, 1942 (five months after Pearl Harbor), American forces under General Wainwright surrendered in the Philippines. The Americans gave up a “tactical victory” to the Japanese at the Battle of Coral Sea.
The scene was now set for the critical sea battle of World War II, the Battle of Midway.
On one side was the greatest sea force ever assembled – more than two hundred Japanese combat ships, including eight carriers, eleven battleships, twenty-two cruisers, sixty-five destroyers, twenty-one submarines, and more than seven hundred planes. The fearsome Admiral Yamamoto was in command. The size is no easier to grasp today than it was on June 3, 1942. This armada was divided into three groups: a four-carrier strike force approaching from the northwest; an invasion/occupation force approaching from the west; and a main battle force of the battleships between the other two.
On the other side, Admiral Nimitz had only three carriers, eight cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. One of the carriers, the Yorktown, had been so badly damaged at Coral Sea that experts said it would take three months to repair her, but 1400 repairmen managed to patch it up in a Pearl Harbor dry dock in two days. Nimitz split this force into two groups – one commanded by Admiral Fletcher, the other by Admiral Raymond Spruance, a last-minute substitute for Admiral Bull Halsey, who had come down with a severe case of shingles. Many students of the Pacific war consider Spruance to have been its greatest American admiral.
The rest of the essay tells the story of the battle. The key “lucky break” for the Americans was an almost simultaneous attack on three Japanese carriers, all three of which happened to have planes and ordnance on the deck, loading fuel, making them sitting/defenseless targets.
Japanese planes on all three carriers were warming up for take off. Gasoline lines snaked across all three decks. Ordnance was stacked everywhere to reload returning planes… In less than ten minutes time, the tide of the war would turn.
When the Japanese commanders finally learned that the Hiryu was sunk, the fate was clear. The invasion of Midway was aborted. The tide of the Pacific war had definitely turned. The Japanese would never again be on the offensive.
I am certainly not a World War II expert. In fact, I know few of the details. I know that my wife’s father was a young, 20 year old signalman who watched his companion killed in front of his eyes from a direct hit by a kamikaze attack, just feet from where he was standing. (No, he has never been able to talk about it with me). But I know that the effort, the courage, the doggedness of countless people gave us our way of life, and, yes, many gave “the last full measure of devotion.”
And I also think this. All progress, all victory, in war and in every thing else, is fought one campaign, one battle at a time. We write the history in big phrases. But it was the single pilot, flying next to the other single pilots, working together in first this battle and then that battle, with their individual acts of courage, that describe the “bigger named” battles (the Battle of Midway), that ultimately led to the biggest description – we won World War II.
It’s Memorial Day. It is right to remember those who deserve our memories, and their memorials – those from the earliest days of this nation to the ones who carry on with individual acts of courage in places far from home today.
And so, as always, we remember these words from Lincoln, after one so very costly battle – one single battle that cost nearly as many lives as the loss of American life in the entire Vietnam War:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Personal note: if you made me clear out my library of all but a handful of books, one that I would keep is this volume edited by Halberstam. You can buy it used from Amazon for as little as $4.00, including shipping. It is a great volume! I encourage you to order a copy, and read it slowly.