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.
“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.
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.