By Joe Darby
Memorial Day is coming up towards the end of this month but rather than wait until the week of the observation, I thought I’d write a little bit about it now, giving us time to think about the importance of that day.
As you know, Memorial Day is the time to honor our war dead, from the American Revolutionary War, now about 240 years gone, to the latest casualty from Afghanistan. Veterans Day, which occurs in November, honors all who wore the uniform, but Memorial Day, again, is for our fallen warriors.
We owe every such man and woman an incalculable debt which of course can never really be paid. Freedom, as they say, is not free. We exist today — as do many other countries that have received our protection over the years — as a free nation because of the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers sailors, marines, airmen and coast guardsmen.
I think that even warriors who survived combat but who have passed on, as so many World War II veterans are doing every day, also should be remembered on Memorial Day.
I had the extraordinary privilege, when I was working at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, of interviewing many World War II veterans. They would gather in New Orleans, a popular convention city, for reunions of their military units, or their Navy ships, to renew old friendships, perhaps lift a beer or two, and enjoy telling and hearing once again the fascinating stories that arose out of the war.
It seems that for many years, veterans were reluctant to talk about their combat experiences but as the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the battles came around, in the 1980s and ’90s, they felt more comfortable about opening up, particularly when surrounded by their buddies at the reunions. (And speaking of anniversaries, can you believe that next month we celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the June 1944 invasion of Normandy?)
As I said, it was my great good privilege and fortune to get to know, however briefly, these true American heroes. Heroes is a term that’s much overdone these days, but with the guys who saw combat in WWII, we’re talking about the real deal.
I will never forget, a reunion of Marine veterans who fought on Iwo Jima, probably the most intense battle of World War !!, when the Marines fought for many days to take a small, but vital island, not far from the Japanese homeland in early 1945. One gentleman had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor on Iwo.
As anyone who has studied the military history of the war knows, any Marine who fought on Iwo is due all possible honor and respect. For someone who was awarded the Medal of Honor for action on that tiny island, words do not seem sufficient to describe the tribute that we should wish to bestow on such a man.
And yet when I asked the gentleman if I could talk to him about his combat experiences for a news story, his answer was “Well, I didn’t do anything special.” The ones who didn’t come back were the real heroes, he told me.
Well, he did eventually talk to me about his actions. This was not only a man of exceptional bravery but one of incredible modesty. Just as you’d expect a hero to be, I suppose.
Another touching reunion was when former crewmen of the destroyer USS Kid, now berthed at Baton Rouge, came to the capital city to have their meeting on board. Once more, they were trodding the very same decks of the ship that took them to war and brought them home again.
However, they were remembering more than 30 shipmates who didn’t make it back home. The Kidd was struck by a Japanese kamikaze plane in April 1945, off of Okinawa, inflicting the casualties. The old sailors were happy and proud to be back on their ship. But they missed those shipmates who will be eternally on patrol.
On a lighter note, one of my favorite interviews was with the entire 10-man crew of a B-17 bomber, which flew against Hitler’s Europe from a base in England. I and my photographer had lunch with them, sitting at a huge round table in the hotel in which their unit reunion was being held.
The guys told us the story of the time their plane was pretty well shot up over Germany, an engine was out and they were limping dangerously back to base. The pilot ordered the crew members to jettison everything they had, such as machine guns and ammunition, to lighten the load of the plane and to make sure they could safely cross the channel and make it home.
Tossing out such heavy items as guns and ammo no doubt helped their cause. But those of us at the table cracked up when the navigator informed us that he did his part by throwing his pencils out of the machine gun ports.
Almost certainly almost all of those wonderful old men that I met 20, 30 or 40 years ago are gone now. The youngest of them would be in their mid 90s. I consider myself so lucky to have had the opportunity to speak with them, men who by their service and sacrifice, kept us free.
Happy Memorial Day everyone, even if it is a little early!
By Joe Darby