Thoughts for a Memorial Day

memorial-dayAnother Summer is upon us!  As always, the quasi-official start of Summer is marked by the three-day Memorial Day weekend and its rituals of beach days, barbecues, and neighborhood parties.

It is no doubt the most favorite time of the year for Americans from Georgia to Oregon, Minnesota to New Mexico.

As Americans however, it is also important that we take a bit of time during what looks to be a glorious weekend in the greater Philadelphia area to remember the meaning of Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor the sacrifices made by thousands and thousands of citizen soldiers since the founding of the United States of America in 1776.

Common people – not unlike many of us - chose to leave families, to forego careers, and to risk the opportunities that a full and vibrant life offers in order to preserve those same possibilities for their fellow Americans.  It’s a Choice many of us, be it through luck or timing or fortuitous periods of peaceful coexistence, may never have had to face.

This post is dedicated to those who faced the danger, to the sacrifices they made, and to the loved ones they too often left behind.

There but for the Grace of God …

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One Congressional Medal of Honor posthumous recipient only recently returned home after 50 years lying in a North Korean grave.

Army Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr.

Army Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr.

Army Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr. of Washington, Indiana

At the time of his death, Faith and his unit — 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment — were attached to the 31st Regimental Combat Team as it advanced along the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.

During attacks by the Chinese People’s Volunteer Forces, Faith assumed command with his supervisor missing, and he continuously rallied his troops, personally leading an assault on an enemy position.

He was seriously injured by shrapnel on Dec. 1, 1950, and died a day later from those injuries. However his body was not recovered by U.S. forces at the time.

In 2004 a joint U.S.-North Korea team returned to the spot where Lt. Col. Faith was last seen and recovered his remains.  He was returned to his family and interred on U.S. soil just this past April.

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Throughout American military history, there have been 15 Congressional Medal Honor recipients who earned The Medal for actions taken on the date May 27th.  Eleven of those 15 Medals were awarded during the American Civil War, five of which were earned by crew members aboard the Union ironclad U.S.S. Cincinnati when the ship was shelled and sank during a maritime assault on Confederate gun emplacements in the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

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U.S.S. Drexler (DD-741)

U.S.S. Drexler (DD-741)

On May 27, 1945 - Okinawa, Japan - American forces attacking southward, continue to encounter heavy Japanese resistance. Japanese aircraft begin a two-day series of strikes against the Allied naval forces around the island. The destroyer U.S.S. Drexler is hit by two kamikaze planes and sinks so quickly 158 sailors are killed.

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One particular Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam era caught my attention for his selfless bravery.

CHARLES CLINTON FLEEK

Rank and organization: Sergeant, U .S. Army, Company C, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division. Place and date: Binh Duong Province, Republic of Vietnam, 27 May 1967. Entered service at: Cincinnati, Ohio. Born: 28 August 1947, Petersburg, Ky.

UnknownCITATION:  For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sgt. Fleek distinguished himself while serving as a squad leader in Company C, during an ambush operation. Sgt. Fleek’s unit was deployed in ambush locations when a large enemy force approached the position. Suddenly, the leading enemy element, sensing the ambush, halted and started to withdraw. Reacting instantly, Sgt. Fleek opened fire and directed the effective fire of his men upon the numerically superior enemy force. During the fierce battle that followed, an enemy soldier threw a grenade into the squad position. Realizing that his men had not seen the grenade, Sgt. Fleek, although in a position to seek cover, shouted a warning to his comrades and threw himself onto the grenade, absorbing its blast. His gallant action undoubtedly saved the lives or prevented the injury of at least 8 of his fellow soldiers. Sgt. Fleek’s gallantry and willing self-sacrifice were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

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The purpose of these posts during our most American of holidays is not to spoil the mood of a dawning Summer or to lay guilt at the feet of those of us who benefitted from selfless acts in far, far away locales.  It’s simply a reminder that as you enjoy your long weekend, take a moment or two to reflect on those – both living and deceased – who have made good times and fun weekends possible.

Lifting-an-Inflatable-Tank-620x412In closing I leave you with a happier story.  It’s about a group of soldiers in World War II, known as The Ghost Army, whose actions were purported to have saved many American lives in the lead-up to the invasion of Normandy, France and later in battles across western Europe

These soldiers were responsible for the creation of fake Army units designed to mislead German intelligence-gathering efforts and the tactical decisions that would result.  The unique way in which they were able to deceive enemy strategists was through the use of inflatable forms in the shape of tanks, vehicles, airplanes and artillery.

Although there is no definitive way to determine how many Allied soldiers might have been spared over Ghost Army efforts, one would conclude that the efforts German units undertook to destroy what amounts to an Army of Balloons, including artillery bombardment and air attacks, certainly had the desired effect on enemy decision-making!

And with that, I send wishes for a glorious Memorial Day weekend!

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On Bravery, Honor and Commitment at Gettysburg

My eldest son and I just spent a day-and-a-half exploring the Battlefield at Gettysburg, PA.  This was a very typical Guys Weekend, doing the things we enjoy or simply find interesting and provocative.  We spent Saturday in Washington, D.C. witnessing the Phillies loss to the Nationals on our first visit to Nationals Park.  On Sunday we drove out to Gettysburg.

Historic-type excursions were not something we did much when the kids were young.  It’s difficult to justify dragging three children through an age-old battlefield when you’re the only one who finds it “interesting and provocative”.  The kids and the wife get bored; you feel rushed and more than a tad selfish; and it ends up not being a very enjoyable time for anyone.  Yet I was embarrassed by the fact that I had never visited Gettysburg, despite living in Pennsylvania my entire life.

Recently Mike Jr. started reading up on Civil War history; something I did somewhat intensely around 10 years ago.  Suddenly we had a new and fascinating subject on which we could talk and share opinions, insights, and information.  A few months ago, we agreed to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park together.

George Gordon Meade

The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest land battle ever fought on the North American continent.  Fought during the Civil War, it was a major turning point in Abraham Lincoln’s heroic efforts to preserve the Union of the United States.  Over 165,000 men converged on Gettysburg in late June 1863 in a dance of movement and counter-movement with which both armies were well acquainted.

Although there were no plans to engage at Gettysburg (Jubal Early‘s Confederates had raided and left Gettysburg days earlier.), the vagaries of war, where many men under different commands spread out over a wide area, resulted in a dramatic confrontation that lasted three days.  All that was needed to set off the conflagration was the rumor that Gettysburg had a supply of shoes, a cherished commodity for the often shoeless men of the Southern Armies.

General George Gordon Meade led the Union’s Army of the Potomac despite having been promoted from his Corps command to replace General Joe Hooker just three days before the battle.

The combined engagements were the bloodiest of the Civil War.  Over 7000 men were killed, over 33,000 wounded.  And almost 11,000 were listed as missing or captured.  Yet despite fighting that surrounded a well established town of 2400 people, only one civilian was killed.  Mary Virginia Wade died when a stray shot ripped through the door of her sister’s house.

When we arrived at the National Park, we headed out to visit the sites of the first day’s battles, all the while reliving scenes from the well-known historically based movie Gettysburg.  When you begin to get an overview of the battleground, you begin to realize the size and scope of the event.  Those of us without military experience fail to appreciate how much ground is involved in a major military engagement.  The depth and breadth of space required to accommodate major armies is truly impressive.

George E. Pickett

But the true magnitude of what occurred in Gettysburg in that hot, humid July in 1863 does not hit home until you visit the sites of fighting that occurred on Day 2 and Day 3.

Since we were saving the bulk of the Day 2 fighting (particularly Little Round Top and Devils’ Den) for our second day, we decided to take the walking tour of Pickett’s Charge (also known as Longstreet’s Charge), as provided by a National Parks Ranger.  If you ever have the opportunity, this is a great way to get both an overview of events as well as insights into the small individual feats and personal stories that underscore the drama.

As we stood on Cemetery Ridge looking west towards Seminary Ridge you suddenly realize the difficulty of that final charge made by elements of Longstreet‘s First Corps (Pickett in charge with Andrews’ and Pettigrew’s Divisions).  Across roughly a mile of wide open ground, exposed to artillery and then musket fire along the entire route.

Nowhere to hide, few places to take cover, against Union forces behind low reinforced battlements on high ground with undisputed command of the field and unobstructed fields of fire.  The dedication, courage and sense of honor necessary to march into that Field of Death is – simply put – unimaginable!

James Longstreet

Regardless of your views on the Confederate struggle, you cannot help but be awestruck by the bravery demonstrated that day by those wearing the ragtag uniforms of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee.

At times I have found myself embroiled in heated discussion about the legitimacy of the South’s struggle. Not from the viewpoint of defending slavery, but in trying to place into perspective the role of everyday Southern farmers, artisans, college students, and back woods folk who did not own slaves themselves, but believed they were fighting to define their Right to Self-Determination.  Their allegiance was to their State as their Country at a time when the U.S. of A. was still trying to define itself as a Country of States.

Too many people want to boil it down to the preservation of slavery as the only motive behind The Civil War.  But that’s an over-simplification.  There were other issues at stake …  a strong centralized government vs. a weaker national presence in favor of strong, independent States; the economic interests of the agrarian South (slavery) in the face of a more populous, industrialized North; the Right of individual States to come and go as they chose, depending on their agreement with National policies and actions; and the State Nullification of Federal Laws when States disagreed or were disadvantaged by said laws.

Both sides in the conflict were pushed to war by fiery speeches and political posturing that portrayed “the other side” as threats to the existence of the other.  In the end, it was mostly the common man who paid the price on blood-soaked fields defending their homelands or in not-so-distant sister States.

Our second day was spent on a paid two-hour car tour led by an elderly gentleman named John Everude.  For a reasonable $65 (not including tip) we received an interesting and enthusiastic overview of the entire three-day battle as well as events leading up to the largest land battle on American soil.  This is well worth the price should you ever decide to visit Gettysburg.  (Reservations must be made at least three days prior to your visit.)

We spent the rest of the day exploring the sites of the Day 2 battles at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard.  We visited the site of the 20th Maine‘s heroic stand and bayonet charge down Little Round Top as made famous in the aforementioned movie, Gettysburg.

Joshua Chamberlain

When you walk and gaze upon a terrain broken by boulders the size of cars piled atop and massed together in the low-lying Slaughter Pen and along the heights of Devil’s Den, you acquire an appreciation for the hardships both sides faced as they struggled to control the far left segment of the Union line, as it was attacked by Longstreet’s Corps.

Mike and I marveled at the terrain held by the Joshua Chamberlain‘s 20th Maine and over which it executed its bayonet charge against John Bell Hood‘s 15th Alabama Regiment.  You cannot imagine how the 15th charged up that rugged hill, let alone how the 20th Maine could possibly have charged down it!

It’s only when you walk this ground that you realize it’s impossible to comprehend the Bravery needed to Honor one’s Commitment to Country and to comrades.  Yet these men did it to the ultimate betterment of us as a People and as a Country.

Friday musings …

  • The pictures and stories out of the Pacific Rim this morning are both frightening and awe-inspiring.  Nature in its most primal form is downright overwhelming.  Hopefully the people of Japan, familiar with and prepared for deep earth violence, will not suffer huge losses; will get all the necessary assistance they will need from the international community; and will bounce back quickly. 
  • Been checking in with my brother, who lives in Long Beach, CA, on the progress of the tsunami.  Was a bit apoplectic when he texted me saying he was sitting in the parking lot of the marina!  Fortunately at the time he had a few hours to kill before the lot might become a lake.      
  • Made The Philadelphia Inquirer Letters to the Editor on Wednesday with a message about Lincoln’s struggle with slavery.  Always nice to see one’s name in print!
  • Courtesy of Kim, who e-mailed me on the above letter … If you haven’t discovered The New York Times series Disunion, a day-by-day accounting of the news and reportings on The Civil War and the months building to Fort Sumter, you should check it out.  Any history nut would LOVE this retrospective.  I just started trying to catchup with the series that started in October, and already I’m hopelessly hooked!
  • Another neat website, stumbled upon via the NYT Disunion series, is this for the Architect of the Capitol.  The site provides virtual tours of D.C. buildings, a commemoration of Lincoln, and education on the National Hall’s collection of statuary.
  • The crocuses are popping through the chilly soil and our Phillies tickets arrived in the mail!  Spring must be right around the corner!!
  • My oldest son, a Millersville University student, sent me a Facebook message in semi-jest that he was going to bill his mother and me for the added costs on his future tuition because we supported Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania’s new governor, who announced significant reduction in education subsidies for the next state budget cycle.  Of course being the good liberal my son is, he neglected to mention that the only reason his recent college costs had been mitigated is the fact that education in the state had been subsidized by the stimulus packages granted by the federal government.  Since that financing is no longer available, Pennsylvania education subsidies are simply returning to 2008 levels.  My no-jest response was that he could deduct the costs from his drum corps bill, which was in the thousands for the three years he competed. 
  • By the way, he’s currently vacationing in Punta Cana.  And I’m sitting here … in chilly, wet Pennsylvania! 
  • After my recent rant about my inability to enjoy no boundaries, no limits jazz, I found it quite possible to enjoy Yusef Lateef’s album, Eastern Sounds.  Of course it did have a bit more in structure and boundaries than did Wynston Marsalis.

Was slavery the only issue in U.S. Civil War?

The following was written as a letter to the editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer in response to several letters (See fifth letter down.) in the past week or so protesting commemorations of The Civil War as “glorifications” of slavery (i.e. commemorations in the southern U.S.).

I really do not understand all the sudden angst over observances related to the American Civil War.  I do not understand the insistence on framing the war totally within the context of slavery.  Anyone, who has taken the time to study the development of the American experiment through the 18th and 19th centuries and the origins of the hostilities that broke out in 1861, recognizes that slavery was not the only issue that defined the war.   

The American republic had many more issues before it than the horrors of slavery.  The questions of states rights, the strength of a centralized federal government, the interests of agrarian vs. industrialized economies, even the success of a Lincoln-led administration were all factors of immense national interest at stake.  As such, both the North and the South had legitimate vital interests in the conflict that went beyond the insidious practice of slavery. 

Slavery as the only issue related to the war does not explain Lincoln’s own admission that he would have resolved the conflict – if he could – without freeing a single slave.  It also does not account for the fact that hundreds of thousands of poor, non-slave owning Southerners fought willingly against the overwhelming advantages of the North.  The fact is that hundreds of thousands died in that war with no stake on the issue of slavery.  Many of them unemployed immigrants fighting for the North just for money to survive in a new world. 

There is no reason to restrict “glorification” of a preeminent event in American history solely to the issue of slavery.  To do so dismisses so much more that can be learned about how the United States stayed a united nation and the experiment continued on its epic journey.  

Mike —-

 All the angst seems motivated by the fact that the wrong people – Southerners – might want to commemorate an event that was also crucial to the history and development of that region.  Not to mention the fact that hundreds of thousands died there also, many of them dirt-poor farmers who did not own and could not afford slaves.

This is so much more about Liberal guilt over American history than it is any attempt to put that event into its proper historical context.