Memorial Day meditation

'Memory  n.  1. The mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experience; the ability to remember.  2. An act or instance of remembrance; a recollection... see smer in Appendix.'   'smer — to remember.  In Germanic murnon, to remember sorrowfully, in Old English murnan, to mourn.'

I remember Chuck Meerholz and the day I was supposed to drive.  After four months with B Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor; four months of on—the—job—training for a guy trained as an infantrymen, I was being taught to drive our tank.  B Company was to participate in a big operation centered on the village of Ky Son.  Then Specialist 4th Class Meerholz, a trained tanker, joined our company.  On April 21, 1968 he got the assignment and was driving tank B21 as it formed part of an assault element moving towards Ky Son.  He was killed in action.  There but for fortune go I.

My R&R (rest & recreation) destination was Manila.   Six miles south of the city on a plateau is the American Cemetery and War Memorial.  One hundred and fifty—two acres hold 17, 206 war dead from various Pacific campaigns, plus men killed in the China—Burma—India theater. Among those interred there is Philadelphia native, PFC George Benjamin Jr., who earned the Medal of Honor on June 28, 1945.  He was a radio operator with A Company, 306th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.  On the Philippine island of Leyte his company encountered a well—defended Japanese strong point which impeded the battalion's progress battalion's progress. When a rifle platoon supporting a light tank hesitated in its advance, Benjamin, voluntarily and with utter disregard for his personal safety, left his relatively secure position in the rear and ran across fire—swept ground to the tank, waving and shouting to the men to follow him.  Carrying his bulky radio and armed only with a pistol, he fearlessly penetrated intense machine gun and rifle fire to the enemy position, killing one Japanese in a foxhole before moving on to annihilate the machine gun crew.  Heedless of the terrific fire now concentrated on him, Benjamin continued to lead the assault, killing two more enemy and exhorting the other men to advance, until he fell mortally wounded.  After being evacuated to an aid station, his only thought continued to be the American advance.  Overcoming great pain, he called for the battalion operations officer to report the location of enemy weapons and valuable tactical information gained during his heroic charge.  He died before he could know that his valor contributed in large part to the battalion's successful mission.

George Benjamin now lies in eternal rest in that beautiful, peaceful cemetery.  Walking through the rows I thought long thoughts.  The pure, hot sun shone down upon that sacred place and an edged sea wind came winging over and up.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day.  Three years after the Civil War ended the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans led by Major General John A. Logan, established it as a day for decorating the graves of the war dead. In May 1868 the first major observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery.  However, towns in both the North and the South such as Waterloo, NY and Columbus, GA claimed to have been first to commemorate their fallen soldiers.  Who was first is of no consequence, only that they were united in their desire to honor them.  On May 30, 1870 Maj. Gen. Logan gave an oration towards the end of which he said:  'Let us then all unite in the solemn feelings of the hour, and tender with our flowers the warmest sympathies of our souls!  Let us revive our patriotism and strengthen our loyalty by the example of the noble dead around us.'

And the eloquent dead.   With resonant clarity they speak to us about valor and self—sacrifice, loyalty and perseverance.  On March 4, 2002  during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, a recon team was sent out to snow—capped Takur Ghar in the Shah—I—Kot mountains. Ten feet above the landing zone, the big Chinook helicopter carrying the team was hit by an RPG rocket that severed a hydraulic line.  Near the open rear door, Navy SEAL Petty Officer Neil C. Roberts slipped on the spilled fluid and fell out, down to the Al Qaeda—infested terrain below.  Finding a bit of cover, Roberts, armed only with his rifle, held off the advancing enemy to the last round before being overrun and killed. He was later awarded a posthumous Silver Star.  In a letter he left his wife he wrote:  'I consider myself blessed with the best things a man could ever hope for.  My childhood is something I'll always treasure.  My family is the reason I'm the person I am today... my time in the Teams was special... I loved being a SEAL.  If I died doing something for the Teams, then I died doing what made me happy.  Very few people have the luxury of that.'

On Memorial Day we commemorate the noble and the eloquent dead.  There is sorrow, yes, but also great reverence and pride in these exemplary Immortals who gave their last full measure of devotion; in knowing that this great country, anchored in liberty and freedom, produces such men and women as these.  And there is inspiration that reverberates within our very being, the call to revive our patriotism and strengthen our loyalty.  We are reminded to do everything within our power to support our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen deployed around the world in the global war on terror.

The bugler stands now and begins playing 'Taps.'   Its elegiac notes take wing, rising ever higher, burnished by sunset hues, ever upward: 'Rest in peace, Soldier brave, God is nigh.

John B. Dwyer is a military historian.