By: John Carlson—
For more than a year-and-a-half, back in the waning days of my newspaper career at The Star Press, I wrote a weekly feature story about World War II veterans.
This fed a natural hunger on my part, one that began with hearing the stories I begged my own father to tell about his combat service as a Navy gunner in that war. But it was also an attempt, as those veterans’ numbers were quickly dwindling, to engage in a larger effort to capture as many of their stories as possible before it was too late.
Everyone realized that time would soon be at hand.
Thinking back now on those eighty or so soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen interviewed, what strikes me is how common they were. All approaching or in their 90s, almost without exception they were quiet men, as were the women, living modest lives and often suggesting there was nothing unique about the roles they had played. When that war interrupted their lives, they’d simply done what they had to do.
No big deal, they seemed to be saying.
Then they’d begin reminiscing, and I couldn’t scribble notes fast enough to keep up with stories that often left me amazed.
Looking back now after the passage of several years, I regret that those stories are all running together, forming a montage of images in my mind. Among many snippets there’s the B-17 flight engineer, now a grizzled old man, describing how the protective Plexiglass of his top gun turret was shot away, leaving him exposed to the raging air at 30,000 feet over Nazi Germany. There’s the old sailor whose battle station high above his ship’s superstructure left him in a hot seat criss-crossed with gunfire, “friendly” and otherwise, during Japanese air attacks. And of course, there are the hellacious stories of infantrymen existing routinely on the cusp of devastation, rallying again and again to slug it out, sometimes literally, with enemy troops in war at its most brutal level.
Almost without exception, those common men and women’s stories smacked of uncommon heroism. What they would often say, though, was that the real heroes were the ones who never made it home.
This Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember the ultimate sacrifices of America’s war dead, we all should be humbled by the cost in blood these men and women paid or our freedom, our ideals, our way of life. But it’s a good reminder to thank our living military veterans, too.
From the Korean War through the Vietnam War to our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these veterans reveal the same quiet heroism shown by the generations gone before. There’s that veteran of the “Frozen Chosin” who fought Chinese hordes and Korea’s numbing cold. There’s my good friend George Bennett as a young Marine, under intense fire with the casualty count rising, fighting for his very life on a bloody ridge in Vietnam. There’s the young former GI, interrupting his lunch in a downtown eatery, trying to convey the horror he witnessed walking through an Afghan market just minutes after a bomb blast ripped through it. Then there’s “Sarge” in his garage outside a small town south of here, casually talking about the action that cost him a hand, diligently pounding a reluctant car part into shape with the hammer built into his prosthesis.
These, too, are common men who, when they needed to, showed uncommon courage and fortitude, those qualities that mark them as special. In all truth, the debt we owe them can’t be repaid.
We can try, though.
Come Monday, you can bet they will think of their comrades who fell, who didn’t make it home. Hopefully, as the mournful notes of “Taps” fill our ears and the sight of flag-draped coffins fill our eyes, so will those of us they selflessly fought to protect. For many of us, this red, white and blue day will pass with more than one lump in our throats.
Still, come Memorial Day, I will also reflect on another image, one devoid of the Stars and Stripes, yet one that truly captures the day’s meaning for me.
It will be a summer evening in Elyria, Ohio, rounding the end of a quiet street walking past the tidy brick house where a nice kid named Bo Cameron once lived. In memory, I always see him as a ghostly figure behind a screen door, but he’s always a friendly one, reaching out to tip me a buck whenever I’d collect for my paper route. This day, though, my new image of Bo is a shocking one, and a tragic one, his smiling image in an Army uniform filling a newspaper clipping with news that he had stepped on a land mine in Vietnam and died.
Somehow, in thinking about Bo, it seems unlikely that going off to war had been in his life plans, but go he did.
And now, walking at night, I approach Bo’s house to find the faint shape of his mom and dad visible in the dark, no flags, no uniforms, just the two of them huddled in each other’s arms on their front stoop. And “Taps”? No, that will come later. Now, against the hum of summer insects and the traffic rushing past on Cleveland Street, there is just the soul-wrenching moan of his mother’s soft sobs.
This, too, is the sound of Memorial Day.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.