Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

American Military Cemetery Cartage, Tunisia


American Military Cemetery, Manila-16,631 at rest.

American Cemetery Luxembourg

Memorial Day is a day to remember those who have given their lives in the service of our nation. For anyone who has served, the day takes on a special meaning because we shared the same bond of service. I have written before of those we remember  on this day. This year, I want to share a passage written by Rick Atkinson author of Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943. This excerpt from the prologue is one of the most moving passages ever put to ink.
Twenty-seven acres of headstones fill the American military cemetery at Carthage, Tunisia. There are no obelisks, no tombs, no ostentatious monuments, just 2,841 bone-white marble markers, two feet high and arrayed in ranks as straight as gunshots. Only the chiseled names and dates of death suggest singularity. Four sets of brothers lie side by side. Some 240 stones are inscribed with the thirteen of the saddest words in our language: "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God." A long limestone wall contains the names of another 3,724 men still missing, and a benediction: "Into Thy hands, O Lord."
This is an ancient place, built on the ruins of Roman Carthage and a stone's throw from the even older Punic city. It is incomparably serene. The scents of eucalyptus and of the briny Mediterranean barely two miles away carry on the morning air, and the African light is flat and shimmering, as if worked by a silversmith. Tunisian lovers stroll hand in hand across the kikuyu grass or sit on benches in the bowers, framed by orangeberry and scarlet hibiscus. Cypress and Russian olive trees ring the yard, with scattered acacia and Aleppo pine and Jerusalem thorn. A carillon plays hymns on the hour, and the chimes sometimes mingle with a muezzin's call to prayer from a nearby minaret. Another wall is inscribed with the battles where these boys died in 1942 and 1943 -- Casablanca, Algiers, Oran, Kasserine, El Guettar, Sidi Nsir, Bizerte -- along with a line from Shelley's "Adonais": "He has outsoared the shadow of our night."
In the tradition of government-issue graves, the stones are devoid of epitaphs, parting endearments, even dates of birth. But visitors familiar with the American and British invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and the subsequent seven-month struggle to expel the Axis powers there, can make reasonable conjectures. We can surmise that Willett H. Wallace, a private first class in the 26th Infantry Regiment who died on November 9,1942, was killed at St. Cloud, Algeria, during the three days of hard fighting against, improbably, the French. Ward H. Osmun and his brother Wilbur W., both privates from New Jersey in the 18th Infantry and both killed on Christmas Eve 1942, surely died in the brutal battle of Longstop Hill, where the initial Allied drive in Tunisia was stopped -- for more than five months, as it turned out -- within sight of Tunis. Ignatius Glovach, a private first class in the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion who died on Valentine's Day, 1943, certainly was killed in the opening hours of the great German counteroffensive known as the battle of Kasserine Pass. And Jacob Feinstein, a sergeant from Maryland in the 135th Infantry who died on April 29, 1943, no doubt passed during the epic battle for Hill 609, where the American Army came of age.
A visit to the Tunisian battlefields tells a bit more. For more than half a century, time and weather have purified the ground at El Guettar and Kasserine and Longstop. But the slit trenches remain, and rusty C-ration cans, and shell fragments scattered like seed corn. The lay of the land also remains -- the vulnerable low ground, the superior high ground: incessant reminders of how, in battle, topography is fate.
Yet even when the choreography of armies is understood, or the movement of this battalion or that rifle squad, we crave intimate detail, of individual men in individual foxholes. Where, precisely, was Private Anthony N. Marfione when he died on December 24,1942? What were the last conscious thoughts of Lieutenant Hill P. Cooper before he left this earth on April 9, 1943? Was Sergeant Harry K. Midkiff alone when he crossed over on November 25,1942, or did some good soul squeeze his hand and caress his forehead?
The dead resist such intimacy. The closer we try to approach, the farther they draw back, like rainbows or mirages. They have outsoared the shadow of our night, to reside in the wild uplands of the past. History can take us there, almost. Their diaries and letters, their official reports and unofficial chronicles -- including documents that, until now, have been hidden from view since the war -- reveal many moments of exquisite clarity over a distance of sixty years. Memory, too, has transcendent power, even as we swiftly move toward the day when not a single participant remains alive to tell his tale, and the epic of World War II forever slips into national mythology.
Tens of thousands of Americans lay like those above; in cemeteries, unmarked loam and jungle sand, far from the place of their birth. I can attest for every one, that in their youth, none imagined their bones would rest forever so far from home. Today, the nation goes to extraordinary measures to bring their fallen sons and daughters home. For most of the nation, the wars of the past decade have not left them wounded with the loss of a family member or even anyone they have personally known. The lives lost in earlier wars are distant and fleeting, only remembered if those lost were a parent or a relative.

Hopefully, this post and those by other unfettered hands posting scores of tributes on this medium and across the social media, will give pause to everyone to remember how much their current lives were impacted by fellow citizens who gave their lives to insure the freedom of the next generation. I am especially speaking to the millions born and those who have come to these shores in the years since World War II and the wars spawned of the Cold War. Your lives would not be the same without the sacrifice of souls like those remembered above.

So I say, lift your glass just once this long weekend, and pause and utter a small remembrance to those who made it possible for you to have the chance to live in a world of opportunity versus a world of permission. The greatest redemption for their loss, is making sure your life is worthwhile.

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