May 28, 2007
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 April 4, 2003 Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith, 11th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy near Baghdad International Airport. On that day, Sergeant First Class Smith was engaged in the construction of a prisoner of war holding area when his Task Force was violently attacked by a company-sized enemy force. Realizing the vulnerability of over 100 fellow soldiers, Sergeant First Class Smith quickly organized a hasty defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers. As the fight developed, Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons, and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnel carrier struck by a rocket propelled grenade and a 60mm mortar round. Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, Sergeant First Class Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. During this action, he was mortally wounded. His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack, and resulted in as many as 50 enemy soldiers killed, while allowing the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers. Sergeant First Class Smith's extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Third Infantry Division "Rock of the Marne," and the United States Army.
On May 25, 2005 David N. Wimberg, Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps (Reserve) earned a posthumous Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving as Squad Leader, Company L, Third Battalion, Twenty-Fifth Marines, Regimental Combat Team 2, Second Marine Division in Al Anbar Province, Iraq During Operation New Market. While on patrol in the city of Hadithah, an enemy ambush pinned down Sergeant Wimberg and his Company's Command Element in the street. In an attempt to eliminate the source of the ambush, Sergeant Wimberg left his covered position, maneuvered through intense small arms fire, and scaled a wall in order to gain access to the courtyard where the source of fire was originating. Although twice driven back by high volumes of enemy fire, on his third attempt, he opened the gate and allowed his squad to enter. He then provided suppressive fire into insurgent positions in an adjacent house until his fire team was in position. After two failed attempts to breach the front door, and without regard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Wimberg kicked in the door and gained entry to the house. Finding himself face to face with four insurgents armed with AK-47 rifles, Sergeant Wimberg engaged the enemy at close quarters, firing his M-16A4 rifle until he was shot and fell to the ground unconscious. His heroic actions severely wounded one insurgent, stunned the other enemy fighters and created the momentum needed to break the ambush. Many Marines' lives were saved as a result of Sergeant Wimberg's decisive and selfless actions. By his zealous initiative, courage, and total devotion to duty, Sergeant Wimberg reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
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.
[editor's note: a slightly different version of this essay has appeared on previous Memorial Days.]
John B. Dwyer is a military historian.