Old and Dead Warriors

Memorial Day 2007: Are we still a grateful nation?

This Memorial Day the living, as well as the dead, have weighted my soul and torn at my heart. Those who fell in past wars–that the rest of us could live free–and those who now fight in distant, dangerous Iraq, for the same reason, were on my mind constantly and in my prayers every moment of this solemn day. And never more so than during a quietly poignant ceremony held this morning in a small park in the center of a Texas retirement community called Sun City.

I am certain passersby would have noticed only a small gathering of elderly men and women clustered near a white stone wall formally inscribed to remind us of those who paid the ultimate price. As for me, I saw them as old warriors, soft now with paunches and besieged with aches, pains, and bad eyes. But eyes filled with tears as a moment of prayer gave way to the plaintiff notes of Taps played on a lone bugle. “Go to sleep, Go to sleep”.

The sad refrain echoed across the Texas hills and faded quickly to leave only a murmuring breeze and a light drizzle as the few who had gathered stood silent and straight, eyes gazing back to another time, another era. The moment was about remembering. And I found myself wondering who or what they saw; what they heard reaching through the long past years to touch them so profoundly and freeze them in place like so many brittle statues. Oh the stories they must have lived and the tales of valor and selflessness they can tell.

It must be the self-oriented times we live in now that so many Americans will causally ignore a day honoring those extraordinary men and women who gave their lives in defense of our nation. It’s hardly on the people’s minds, if it’s given a thought at all between grilling in the backyard, the lake, or the mall. Unless of course, you were there in places like Iwo Jima (WWII), The Chosin Reservoir (Korea), Khe Sanh (South Vietnam), and most recently, the deserts of Iraq and the terror of Baghdad. Then you know. You know because you walked the walk as well as talked the talk. You went, you did your duty, and you came back burdened with memories almost sacred in that they were so good and at once so bad.

But the rest of us? We can only guess at the nature of war, our conceptions (or misconceptions) shaped and amplified by movies like “Band of Brothers”, “A Bridge to Far”, or “Twelve O clock High”. Or maybe we gained a sense of it from our own fathers who never liked to talk about it, but did so on rare occasions. Still, we will never come close to knowing and understanding the nature of the glue that deeply and irrevocably binds men of arms.

Author William Manchester (best known for his three volumes on President John F. Kennedy) fully understood it. He served with the Marine Corps during WWII and participated in the battle for Okinawa in one of the most pivotal battles of the war: the 10 day non-stop fighting to wrest control of Sugar Loaf Hill from an entrenched Japanese force of thousands.

Much later in life he would characterize those fierce days of battle as the “central experience of my youth” and the singular moment that defined the balance of his life. Here is how Manchester described the battlefield experience of a lifetime. It is a graphic, account, but comes as close as anything I have read that may help the rest of us comprehend what warriors do that we may live free. In his own words….

All greenery had vanished; as far as one could see, heavy shell fire had denuded the scene of shrubbery. What was left resembled a cratered moonscape. But the craters were vanishing, because the rain had transformed the earth into a thin porridge—too thin even to dig foxholes. At night you lay on a poncho as a precaution against drowning during the barrages.

All night, every night, shells erupted close to shake the mud beneath you at the rate of five or six a minute. You could hear the cries of the dying but could do nothing. Japanese infiltration was always imminent, so the order of the day was to stay put. Any man who stood up was cut in half by machine guns manned by fellow marines.

By day the mud was hip deep; no vehicles could reach us. As you moved up the slope of the hill, artillery and mortar shells were bursting all around you, and if you were fortunate enough to reach the top, you encountered Japanese defenders, almost face to face, a few feet away. To me, they looked like badly wrapped brown paper parcels someone had soaked in a tub. Their eyes seemed glazed. So, I suppose did ours.

Japanese bayonets were fixed, ours weren’t. We used the knives, or, in my case, a .45 caliber revolver and M1 carbine. The mud beneath our feet was deeply veined with blood. I was slippery. Blood is very slippery. So you skidded around, in deep shock, fighting as best you could until one side outnumbered the other. The outnumbered side would withdraw for reinforcements and then counter attack.

During those ten days I ate half a candy bar. I couldn’t keep anything down. Everyone had dysentery, and this brings up an aspect of war even Robert Graves, Siegfried Sasson, Edmund Blunden, and Ernest Hemingway avoided. If you put more than a quarter million men in a line for three weeks, with no facilities for the disposal of human waste, you are going to confront a disgusting problem. We were fighting and sleeping in one vast cesspool. Mingled with that stench was another—the corrupt and corrupting odor of rotting human flesh.

Manchester left the war a few weeks after Sugar Loaf due to wounds received when a Japanese six inch rocket dropped on his position. A Marine buddy blocked the explosion with his body saving Manchester and leaving him with the indelible image of his friend’s viscera coating his own wounded body with slime and blood. He carried that image along with his friend’s bone slivers and Japanese shrapnel embedded near his heart until his death in 2004. It was the battlefield surgeon’s decision to leave in the bone and steel. Those bone fragments meant more to William Manchester than his medals.

From now on, I may have fun during the first two days of the Memorial Day weekend, but on Memorial Day itself I will always make time to participate in ceremonies remembering the men and women who fought and died in the service of our nation for each and every one of us. I will honor and remember, with somber appreciation, their gallantry while keeping in my torn heart those they left behind. Shouldn’t we all do that?