May 26, 2019

May 29, 2019, Address for Veterans' Assistance Commission Memorial Day Ceremony at the Champaign County Courthouse

I have always appreciated the opportunity to remember and honor those men and women who died while serving in the militaryand fighting to protect us and preserve the freedoms we enjoy. People attend ceremonies, like the one here today, that are held throughout the country, and they visit memorials to remember those who died. Flags are placed on their graves with respect. These activities have been an American tradition since Memorial Day was first observed not long after the end of the Civil War.
        Of course, it isn’t just today that we should remember and honor their memory and their sacrifices. The families and friends of those now gone don’t just think of them on this one day each year. That loss is felt every day. It remains real. It never goes away. And that is something we all should remember and honor, as well.
        Amid the pain and the loss felt by those left behind, we want them to know that we are with them. That we acknowledge what they are missing because of the cost of freedom. They bear that burden for the rest of us every day of their lives.
        When I was growing up in southern Illinois, there were numerous veterans in the community—a few from the first world war, many from World War II, and later several Korean War veterans. So I was always aware of the significance of Memorial Day—or Decoration Day, as it was called back then. My hometown was a small village of about 75 people and the surrounding family farms. There was a two-story general store with an upstairs area for people to gather for plays, dinners and other occasions--like when the World War II veterans were home on leave or one of them was killed in action. A board on the wall listed the names of those who were serving, and a Gold Star appeared next to the names of those who were killed. There were four Gold Stars. And in later years, the father of one girl who lived nearby was killed in Korea; and two of my classmates from the one-room schoolhouse we attended were later killed in Vietnam.
        I remember them today, and I remember their families.
        Back in the Civil War, my great-grandfather received a medical discharge from the 123rd Regiment, Illinois Infantry, came home and died not long afterward from severe dysentery—as did many veterans of both the Northern and Southern Armies—before Decoration Day began in 1868. My grandfather was only a little over a year old when his father died, leaving another son and two girls to grow up without a father. My great-grandmother raised them alone and lived another 64 years.
        I remember them today, too.
        An older cousin of mine landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy in an M4 Sherman tank in A Company of the 741st Tank Battalion and was brought ashore by an LCT—a tank landing craft. B and C companies were in the amphibious Duplex Drive tanks with a “flotation screen” around them, which was supposed to enable them to float, and were launched 6,000 yards out in the rough waters of the English Channel that day. Many of them immediately sank to the bottom of it. Some of the men were rescued by nearby boats—but not all.
        My cousin made it to the beach, but his tank was soon put out of action, and he and his crew never got another one until before the Normandy breakout some time later. Then they rolled on through to Paris, were at the forefront of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, made it through Germany, until finally ending in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war.
        When he came home, my father hired my cousin as a truck driver, and I saw in his actions what is now called PTSD. After years of dealing with that internal pain, as well as severe pain from a permanent injury to his neck, he specifically chose D-Day, June 6, to take his own life, leaving a wife and a young daughter behind. He didn’t die in the war, but from the war.
         I remember him today, and all those men and their families.
        Each of us has someone to remember. Each of us knows family members or friends who died in the military or those who live with such losses. As someone who works with veterans’ organizations and writes military historical fiction, I spend a lot of time talking and working with other veterans and their families.
        There’s one last story I’d like to share with you today. It’s about a battalion commander from the Fifth Marine Division who died in the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. He was also a husband and a father of four at the time. I’ve known three of his children—his sons—well over 10 years now, and I’ve known that they lost their dad in the war. Two of the sons don’t remember him. One of them told me: “All I knew was that I never had a dad. His picture was on the wall.” The oldest son was 5. He remembers seeing his father off in San Diego in late 1944 when the Fifth Division headed for the Big Island of Hawai’i to train for the invasion of Iwo Jima.
        But I recently learned more about their story that makes me better understand why—to this day—they still feel his loss in their lives so profoundly.
        Before going into battle, their father wrote the letter a father never wants to write. It was a farewell letter to his wife—to be opened only if he was killed. During his time overseas, he wrote many letters to his wife, expressing his love for her and his family. But while on Iwo Jima, he only wrote two brief letters: one from “Fox Hole Villa” on February 25th—six days into the battle; and the other from “Tojo’s Cave” on March 2nd. His eldest son told me both of the letters praised the courage of his men, and that, woven throughout, was his father’s unwavering faith in God that he shared with his wife.
        Three days later, he was killed.
        Somewhere along the line previously, he had told his wife that if he were ever to be killed in battle, he wanted to be buried with his men. He was first buried in the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. And when the bodies were exhumed after the war to be sent home, his wife honored his request to be buried with his men by selecting, as his final resting place, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacificin Hawaii, which is also known as the Punchbowl, rather than bringing him back to his hometown of New Orleans.
        It wasn’t until years later, in 1990, when they were able to visit the grave together as a family for the first time—a widow and her four grown children. The older sister had brought the letters their father had written—including the farewell letter—and they all sat around the gravesite and read each one.
        It was a deeply emotional experience for them. And they never shared that farewell letter outside the family until their mother gave her consent to do so after her death.
        With the family’s permission, I’d like to share some of it with you all here today on this Memorial Day.
        He wrote:
        “There is so little that can be said in this letter, my darling, when our hearts shall go on talking to each other forever no matter how silent is my voice. It would be so utterly unreasonable to believe that my departure means separation.
         “Don’t mourn, babe. I did not go into battle unprepared for death. It wasn’t going to touch me, for sure; this I was supremely confident. You cannot imagine my surprise when it finally came. I firmly believed that I was to return to you and our children. But God thought otherwise; and, darling, if I loved God less despite all His kindness to me, I would not have gone unprepared for fear that it would mean separation from you for eternity.
        “I am leaving you with four small children. Some will pity you, but I don’t because I know you loved me dearly and these children of ours are the living testimonials of our love. Mary Jo and the boys will do much to keep your heart alive. I have great faith in them, babe, because I have faith in you. It doesn’t matter so much whether they be rich, or considered brilliant, or achieve great worldly fame, but so much more important is they know, love and serve God and respect the integral dignity of all men.
        “It is goodbye for a little while only, babe. I always loved you.
        “Yours forever,
        Growing up, the kids learned much about their father from their mother and often had to take their big brother’s direction, partially motivated by the instructions given in letters his father wrote to him about his responsibility to look after his younger brothers. My friend treasures those letters. Especially the last one that was written to him on February 18th—the day before the Marines landed on Iwo Jima.
        When their mother died in 2003, the two oldest sons took her ashes to Hawaii to be reunited with her husband.
        Their father was very present in their lives, as I hope the families of all those we honor today also feel. Those servicemen and women sacrificed SO much so that you and I, and all of us, can live in freedom. Let’s not forget that their families have also sacrificed so much. And, sadly, many continue to.
        Today, tomorrow, and always—we will remember them.
        And we do so because, as President Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, it is up to us “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
        Thank you for coming today. It is still up to us.

January 21, 2019

Recalling a conversation with Burl Ives

The famous singer/actor Burl Ives was from a little town of about 100-150 people called Hunt City in southeast-central Illinois, a few miles from the village of Bellair, where I was born and raised. "From Here to Eternity" author James Jones was born and raised in nearby Robinson.
          In 1982--13 years before his death in 1995--I interviewed Burl as part of a cultural journalism project called Tales from the General Store that published 27 issues in tabloid newsprint format and was distributed in several newspapers throughout east-central Illinois. Those issues are helping to preserve part of the history and culture of the area, and the entire collection is now available for free through the Digital Public Library of America at
          Burl had much to say about growing up in the area, his career, the musicals in which he performed (Lerner and Loewe's "Paint Your Wagon"), movie roles (Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"), songs he sang ("The Ballad of Barbara Allen," where he sees the same image saw when he first sang it early in his life), and more. Read all about him:

September 26, 2018

Fifth Marine Division Association reunion Oct. 16-21 brings Iwo Jima veterans to Urbana-Champaign

Two Iwo Jima veterans and I made our way to the elevator through a group of young students in the lobby of the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel in Arlington, Va., a few years ago during the annual Iwo Jima Reunion and Symposium to commemorate the Feb. 19 anniversary of the invasion of the island during World War II.
            When we got on the elevator, one of the veterans looked at the other one, chuckled and said, “Those kids are not much older than I was when I saw a bunch of Civil War veterans at a reunion of the battle at Gettysburg.”
            “Yeah,” the other one said, “I remember seeing Civil War vets, too.”
            I remember looking at them and being rather amazed. The Civil War was over in 1865, some 145 years before that night on the elevator. I’d never thought about these World War II veterans having ever seen Civil War veterans.
            The Fifth Marine Division Association is bringing Iwo Jima veterans to Urbana-Champaign Oct.16-21 for its 69th annual reunion. This is the Marine division whose Easy Company, 28th Marine Regiment troops raised both flags on Mount Suribachi, the second one depicted in the iconic photo that Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal took that is one of the most recognized photos in history and was made into the statue that overlooks the nation’s capitol from Arlington Cemetery.
            While there are Iwo Jima veterans around the area, people will have the opportunity to meet and greet several of these aging veterans from around the country at the free screening of Oscar-winning filmmaker Arnold Shapiro’s 1985 documentary, Return to Iwo Jima, on Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Virginia Theater. The theater will open at noon with historic displays, and the film will be shown at 1 p.m.
            Shapiro is coming from his home in California to introduce the film and sit on a panel with the Iwo Jima veterans afterward to discuss the battle and the effect it has had on these men. There is no charge for admission, although the FMDA will accept donations to help maintain the association and to develop a digital library of books, interviews, photos, and artifacts for the FMDA museum on the Big Island of Hawai’i where the division trained for the battle of Iwo Jima.
            Years from now, when the Iwo Jima veterans and all the World War II veterans are gone, there will be some aging citizens saying the same thing about seeing these Iwo Jima veterans like the two veterans said about seeing the Gettysburg and Civil War veterans on the elevator that night.
            Looking back, I remember seeing World War I veterans when I was a kid. Some of them hung around the pool hall, playing pool and enjoying life. They were a lively group and had a lot of fun talking trash to each other as they played snooker. One of the group who had lost an arm in the war sat and watched. And I watched him, quite astonished, as he rolled his cigarettes with only one hand.
            But most of the veterans I remember were from World War II and Korea. They had flown The Hump over the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains in military transport aircraft from India to China to resupply the Chinese war effort of Chiang Kai-shek and the units of the United States Army Air Forces, they had flown missions over Europe and throughout the Pacific and to Japan, they had made landings on Pacific islands and on Omaha Beach during the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and fought throughout Europe and the Pacific. When I hosted television writer and producer Norman Lear at Ebertfest a couple of years ago, I’d read that he had flown 51 missions over Europe.
            “Really that many?” I asked. “That was a lot of combat missions.”
            “Only 37 of them were combat missions,” he said dryly. 
            The barber who cut my hair for years was a veteran of Iwo Jima. Somebody told me once that one day, they’d walked into his barbershop in the middle of the afternoon. Three or four other men sat around the shop talking. Besides Ben the barber, who had been wounded on Iwo Jima and was being hoisted up the side of the hospital ship and looked over his shoulder and saw the flag on Mount Suribachi just after it was raised, one of them had been relieving the guard a little before 8 a.m. on Ford Island on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor, another had landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, for the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The other two were Marines who served during the Korean War.
            That’s one conversation I would have liked to have heard. And we’ll have the opportunity to hear some of these veterans talk about the experiences they had during the battle for Iwo Jima after the film at the Virginia on Oct. 20.
            Hope to see many of you there because these are things to remember.

September 12, 2018

Urbana (Ill.) Rotary talk Sept. 11, 2018, on Return to Iwo Jima documentary

I know I’m here to talk about Arnold Shapiro and his 1985 Return to Iwo Jima documentary to be shown at the Fifth Marine Division Association reunion in Champaign on Oct. 20, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a couple of words about the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Rotarian) Tom Conroy just did that, and it’s all over the news this morning, but I want to talk about heroes. People have different ideas about what constitutes a hero. To me, it goes along with the Rotary motto of “service above self,” and is not just an idle, catch-all motto.
             The passengers aboard United Flight 93 who took charge of the situation after they knew what was happening in New York and Washington—that the planes had crashed into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon and believed their plane was headed for the Capitol Building or the White House and caused the plane to crash into a field near Shanksville, Penn., giving their own lives to save the Capitol or the White House—were heroes much like the Iwo Jima veterans who put their lives on the line to win the battle for island and help win the freedom we now enjoy.
            By bringing the reunion here to Urbana-Champaign for what very well may be the last for these men, now in their 90s, I’d hoped we would give them a reception as they received at last year’s reunion on the Big Island of Hawai’i where they had trained for Iwo Jima. Everywhere we went on the island, the group was greeted with appreciation. But the one occasion that sticks in my mind is the day we went to Parker School in Waimea, where the Marines used to go for concerts and social events when they had liberty.
            As we turned down the street toward the school, you could see the elementary school children lined along each side of the street, waving American flags. More than one of these old Marine veterans had tears rolling down his cheeks at the sight. And when we got off the bus to go inside for the program, most of the veterans spent several minutes talking to the kids about how much they appreciated what they were doing and asking the kids about their lives.
            We have a great program planned here for the 69th annual reunion of the Fifth Marine Division Association (see schedule in Spring/Summer 2018 Spearhead), and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Arnold Shapiro has helped make it better by giving us, gratis, the right to show at the Virginia Theatre his 1985 Return to Iwo Jima film, hosted by Marine veteran Ed McMahon, that helped set up the annual “Reunion of Honor” trip to Iwo Jima where the Americans and the Japanese, once mortal enemies, came together in peace.
            For the record, 6,821 American died in the 36-day battle, more than 17,000 were wounded, about 21,000 Japanese died, and a total of 2,251 damaged planes landed on Iwo Jima—the first one while the battle was still raging on March 4 on the way back to the Marianas from bombing raids on Japan, saving the lives of 24,761 crew members who would have otherwise gone down in the ocean and undoubtedly died.
            A sign on a sea ration carton at the entrance to the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery (where the division buried those killed in action) put the sacrifices of the Iwo Jima veterans in perspective for those airmen and for the people at home whose freedom was maintained: “When you go home, tell them, say, we gave all for their tomorrows for all of our todays.”
            Like the passengers on United Flight 93, these men were heroes.
            Arnold Shapiro is not a veteran, but he went to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for an Iwo Jima memorial service in the early ’80s and met a number of Iwo Jima veterans. He raised the question to four of them about going back to Iwo Jima. There had been a veteran-organized trip to Iwo Jima for the 25th anniversary of the battle in 1970 just after the island had been returned to Japan to strengthen ties between the two countries, but nothing after that. A few weeks after meeting at Pendleton, a group of the veterans formed a committee to make the going back a reality and asked Arnold to write the initial letters to the State Department and others to get the ball rolling.
            For his part in that first official “Reunion of Honor,” Arnold produced the film that will be shown at the Virginia Theatre at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20, during this year’s reunion—no charge for admission, although we will accept donations to pay the theater rental and insurance costs. He is coming from his home in California to introduce the film and participate in a panel discussion with the Iwo Jima veterans afterward.
            When Arnold said we could show the documentary at no cost, I asked him if he would come back to introduce it. He’d just retired and moved away from L.A. and a 52-year television career in which he had produced 29 series and nearly 100 documentaries for every broadcast network and 14 cable channels and said no. Then he called and asked how far Urbana-Champaign was from Springfield, where he’d like to visit the Abraham Lincoln sites. The proximity to Springfield made up his mind to attend the union.
             In addition to producing the 1985 documentary, he raised $30,000 from the John Wayne Foundation via his friend, Michael Wayne (John’s son), for the monument that sits on the invasion beach, and wrote the words that are in English facing the ocean where the annual “Reunion of Honor” is now held annually and written in Japanese facing the interior of the island. The words Arnold wrote and gave me the OK to use in my novella, Iwo Blasted Again, follow:
            “Reunion of Honor on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima, American and Japanese veterans meet again on these same sands, this time in peace and friendship. We commemorate our comrades living and dead, who fought here with bravery and honor, and we pray that our sacrifices on Iwo Jima will always be remembered and never repeated. February 19, 1985, Third, Fourth, Fifth Division Associations: USMC and the Association of Iwo Jima.”
            He told me he’d written that in about 15 minutes and it was the best writing he’d ever done. Of all his work during his career, he says Iwo Jima is his favorite subject. He has traveled back to Iwo Jima several times for the “Reunion of Honor” and has often contributed funds for Iwo Jima veterans to make the trip back to the island. And in addition to the film we’ll be seeing at the Virginia, Arnold also wrote and produced the 2001 Heroes of Iwo Jima (a 96-minute documentary hosted by Danville native and Marine veteran Gene Hackman) and wrote and produced as his final project the 2015 Iwo Jima From Combat to Comrades (a 55–minute documentary hosted by Ryan Phillippe) shown on PBS on the Marine Corps birthday Nov. 10, 2015.
            For the last one, Arnold asked me to check the script for military accuracy, and because of his work in prisons with Scared Straight and other work about prison life, I asked him to read my prison novel, With the Silent Knowledge, and review it. The review is posted on Amazon where the book is available.
            Before I show the short trailer of Return to Iwo Jima, I want to read a piece I used in my novella from a Marine you will see in the documentary—you’ll also see the monument on Iwo Jima. But I got William Norman’s words from the letters of Dr. Luther Lowrance from Robinson, Ill., a graduate of the University of Illinois who was treating wounded Iwo Jima veterans in a hospital in Hawaii. I secured the letters from the doctor’s family for the University of Illinois Library’s Rare Book Room:
            “The sight that met my eyes as I set foot on the beach is one that I shall never forget,” Norman wrote in the hospital after he was wounded. “Dead Marines were so thick that we had to sidestep them in order to move forward. I have withstood heavy enemy bombardment that lasted all night on Saipan, but never have I seen men who died so violently. Men were blown to pieces, one leg here, an arm there, and strings of guts that were several feet long. These men had scarcely set foot on the beach. But to us, this was a reminder that we would have to fight, and pay in human lives and blood, for each foot of this barren island.”
            Men like William Norman and the Iwo veterans, like those on Flight 93 who gave their lives to save the seat of our government, are the real heroes in this world.
            While the veterans, families and friends are in Urbana-Champaign Oct. 16-21, they will also learn about the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education at the University of Illinois, the history of the university’s ROTC program and the current Naval ROTC program; visit the Vermilion County War Museum and the Fischer Theatre in Danville and the Ernie Pyle Museum in Dana, Ind.; and the Abraham Lincoln Home, the Tomb and the Presidential Museum in Springfield.
            Hope to see you at the Virginia next month. We also have tickets for the banquet that Rotary member Betsy Hendrick’s Hendrick House will be catering at the Hyatt Place Hotel—see registration for banquet in the Spearhead issue. Paul Lewis, Marine Embassy guard who spent 444 days in captivity during the 1979-81student revolution in Tehran, will be the keynote speaker, and Art Leenerman, one of 14 remaining survivors of the USS Indianapolis, will be a special guest at both the film and banquet.

August 6, 2018

Cottage cheese, ketchup and ‘My Kitchen Prayer’

Not long after my father died in 1997, my mother (who was confined to a wheelchair and had been for several years) came to live with us. Our daughters, Jessica and Caitlin, were ages 3 and 1. Caitlin doesn’t remember her grandfather, and Jessica barely does. But we’d been down to Bellair, the small village where my parents lived (near the Moonshine Store of hamburger fame) the week before Princess Diana was killed in the car crash in Paris.
            One memory from that visit remains in our family: Jessica had heard my father say his favorite expression when something annoyed him or even amused him: “Thunder and Mud!” We were all in the living room watching television when she walked up to him and said, “Papaw says, ‘Thunder and Mud!’”
             He laughed and slapped his leg as he sometimes did when something tickled him. Later that night after we had gone to bed, he came to the bedroom door and told us about Princess Diana. He had a heart attack and died a week later. For a few weeks after the funeral, a neighbor looked after Mother. But my sisters and I decided it would be better if she came and lived with my family.
            Both my wife and I worked, and the girls were in day care. Mother was able to care for herself to an extent and got around in the wheelchair. The girls were with her much of the time when they were home. That was particularly true after we widened the door of the cottage next door so Mother could be nearby but have the autonomy of her own home. She could still cook and take care of herself with help. As time progressed and they got older, she also took care of the girls at times.
            She cooked some for them, read to them, watched television and patiently answered the endless questions they thought up for her.
             I came home one evening, and she was propped up in her hospital bed with Caitlin sitting on her lap and Jessica standing beside the bed directing the whole show: They had rouge, powder, eye shadow and lipstick all over her face and were still going strong.
            “Here,” I hollered when I walked in the house. “What in the dickens are you kids doing to your grandmother?”
            “Leave them alone,” Mother said, smiling. ”They’re having fun.”
            They loved being with her, and I thought it was great that they had that time with their grandmother.
            Not long afterwards, Mother was in the kitchen getting the girls supper. I don’t know what she’d gotten for them, but the story goes that Jessica had some cottage cheese that she apparently didn’t want, so she smothered it with ketchup, thinking she wouldn’t have to eat it. Mother had other ideas.
            “Now you eat that, young lady,” she said.
            Jessica had other ideas, too. She looked up at the plaque Mother had on kitchen the wall that read:

My Kitchen Prayer 
Bless my pretty kitchen Lord
And light it with Thy Love
Help me plan and cook my meals
From Thy heavenly home above.
Bless our meals with Thy Presence
And warm them with Thy grace;
Watch over me as I do my work,
Washing pots and pans and plates.
The service I am trying to do
Is to make my family content,
So bless my eager efforts Lord
And make them heaven sent.

            She started singing the words to the little poem and taught Caitlin to sing with her, believing that their grandmother would be so happy to hear it that she wouldn’t make her eat the ketchup-covered cottage cheese. As I recall, it didn’t work.
            When Mother died a year or two later, both Jessica and Caitlin were devastated. They’d known her all of their lives and couldn’t remember when they didn’t know her. Their other grandmother had died when they were only 3 and 5. They hadn’t really known death.
             At the funeral, I was to give the eulogy for Mother. Jessica asked if she and Caitlin could be a part of it and sing “My Kitchen Prayer.” I agreed and stood listening as they sang the song from their hearts. Though there were tears during much of that day and the days around it, the music was a comfort, a piece of her that they got to keep.
             “Singing that little song as young girls was just our way of contributing to a ceremony dedicated to honoring a grandmother we were so close to,” Jessica says, “but today when I look back on that poem, it means something more. The role of homemaker, the act of being in the kitchen for hours a day … Sometimes it’s seen as this less-than, diminished role for women. But food was a huge part of how Grandma cared for her family and showed them love. It was how she gave strength, both physically and emotionally, to a family of hard workers with long days.
            “That prayer, which I still know all the words to, personifies that quiet strength that Grandma and so many of the women of her generation showed in small ways every day. I still think of her every time I taste a dish of hers that someone brings to a family gathering, and I bet I’d think of her if I were ever forced to eat ketchup-doused cottage cheese again, too. But it taught me that you have to lie in the bed you make, so you better make it well.”