11 November 21021 Anno Domini
St. Andrews Anglican Church
Veteran’s Day bears a special memory for me since it is a reminder of two men in my life who were stellar examples of the soldier patriot. Having been born in the very midst of World War II, the meaning of commitment to the defense of our Republic is vividly impressed upon my mind and memory.
Though psychologist deny that a young child can remember anything prior to five years of age, I realize that theory, along with many others they postulate, to be completely erroneous. I did not have the privilege to see my father’s face until the end of the war since he was deployed to the European Theater of Operations before my birth in June of 1943. But I vividly remember his coming home as well as the news of the German surrender on May 8, 1945. Those were hard days prior to 1945 when everything was rationed from sugar, to meat, to milk, and even candy. I remember my mother taking me and my older sister to see the movies. There were always shown newsreels of the war in Europe and the Pacific Theater. I do not remember much of those except that they were frightening.
On May 8, Victory in Europe Day, I was home with my mother and sister. Suddenly, there was some commotion with the two and the radio began playing patriotic music. My mother and sister began to dance about the living room throwing magazines up against the ceiling and celebrating wildly. All I could understand at the time was that “Daddy is coming home!” He had arrived in Europe after the Normandy Invasion but in plenty of time to take part in the allied consolidation of forces on the continent. He was quartered in the Netherlands until his 9th Army was deployed along the Ardennes Forest Line of northern Europe. They were relieving the 8th Army who was being pulled back for R&R (Rest and Relaxation). It was during the confusion of the move of the 9th Army onto the forward battle line that the German panzer tanks broke through the allied lines in what was called the Battle of the Bulge. It was a cold and snowy day in December.
American forces all along the Ardennes Forest line came under heavy and unrelenting artillery and mortar bombardment. My father said the ground was so frozen that it was nearly impossible to dig foxholes. – but that did not prevent the desperate effort. After the German thrust was repulsed, he was involved with the Ruhr River crossing into Germany proper.
My father was not a hunter. He never killed a living creature except to provide food for the family during the Depression years. So, it may be understandable that his greatest regret of the war was his being forced to kill a German soldier in self-defense. He always regretted having to do that, but admitted there was no other way. He found photos of the German soldier’s wife and two children on the dead soldier’s body which had an emotional impact that lasted until he departed this life.
When my father was finally transferred home, it was late Fall of 1945. I remember the taxi stopping in front of our house and a man in drab green uniform disembarking with a large duffle bag among other smaller bags. My mother told me it was my father. He smiled at me, gave me a hug, and a Hershey candy bar. It was the most delicious treat I have ever had, before or since.
The victory in Europe had demanded the patriotic vigor of all Americans and their Allies in England and elsewhere. The whole country was well aware of the cost of freedom and the necessity to defend it from all threats. For a number of years following World War II, there were annual Veteran’s Day Parades across America. These were not one block affairs, but full-blown military parades along with military band and battalions of military veterans of each branch of service. The first memory I have of those parades was that of 1948. I was then five years old. I was thrilled to hear the same stirring strains of martial music I had heard on the radio when the German surrender was announced. I have loved marching music ever since.
As the colors passed along main street, I remember the echoed commends of various marching units following behind. It was then that I saw my father in full uniform, eyes front and swelling the heart of a five year old boy. I ran along beside calling to him, but he disregarded my calls because my father was still a soldier.
He taught me many details about the military service and about the various engagements in which he had participated. There was no man greater in my eyes than my father. For many years after the war, he would awaken me before first light, splash cold water on my sleepy face, and take me outside for a walk. He was insistent, always, that I keep my shoulders erect when walking or sitting. If I allowed my shoulders to slump, he rebuked me and said that it was a bad habit which would someday reflect a defeatist character.
My father was a prolific reader. He literally loved books. He taught me how to care for the few books I had. He insisted that books would allow me to visit every part of the world through the eyes of the authors. I never outgrew that fundamental love of reading and books. It is a gift that is continuous from my childhood until today.
My younger brother, too, was hopelessly influenced by my father’s tales of his military exploits. He learned to love the American Flag and the great history of our Republic. He truly believed there should be no difference in Godly worship and patriotic devotion. He yearned to join the Army and serve the needs of our Country.
At age seventeen, he asked my father to sign for him to join the Army. The Vietnam War was in progress at the time and my father feared my brother would be sent there. He feared losing two sons as I was already at West Point. He refused to sign, so my brother devised a ruse. He would convince my father to sign for him to join the National Guard which my father did believing that my brother would not be deployed abroad. The very moment that my brother, Ken, was legally in the Guard, he volunteered for transfer to the Regular Army. He did go to Vietnam and felt he was helping to insure the same kind of freedom for the Vietnamese people that we enjoyed in the United States. His hopeful letters continued for the first eight months of his deployment in ‘Nam. But then the tone began to change in late 1966. He loved the Vietnamese people, but felt that we were not treating them with the respect and compassion that was needful as their allies. He begged me not to come to Vietnam since the casualty rate among pilots was very high.
In February, 1967, my brothers outfit, 1st Cav Division, was sent to an operation miles south of the DMC at the Ia Drang Valley (near Bong Son). On February 16th, my brother became one of many KIA in Vietnam during a night sapper attack.
He died believing in what he had fought for, the freedom of people who had been, until recently, total strangers to him, and for his friends and family back in the United States.
At his military funeral, a child-like hymn was played – Jesus Loves Me – a song first sung at the US Military Academy and written by Anna Warner who is one of only two non-military buried at West Point. The military rifle salute echoed from the mountain slopes of north Georgia as he was laid to rest, and the bugler’s echoing Taps sent chills of pride and of childhood memories through my mind. I loved him, and I loved my father. I hope this nation will never forget either of them, nor the thousands of others who died that we might breath the air of freedom and liberty.