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D-Day, Midway and a Nation at War: Thoughts on History as the Greatest Generation Passes Away

d-day-orderDwight Eisenhower speaking with men of the 101st Airborne Division before they jumped into Normandy

“At the end of the twentieth century the contributions of this generation would be in bold print in any review of this turbulent and earth-altering time. It may be historically premature to judge the greatness of a whole generation, but indisputably, there are common traits that cannot be denied. It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order. They know how many of the best of their generation didn’t make it to their early twenties, how many brilliant scientists, teachers, spiritual and business leaders, politicians and artists were lost in the ravages of the greatest war the world has seen.” Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation

I was born in 1960 and thankfully for whatever reason I developed a love of history and heritage. I began reading history books as early as second and third grade. The American Heritage Publishing Company had a Junior Library series that I could not get enough of awhile another publisher (it may have also been American Heritage) had a series of biographies which drew me into the lives of many famous people. From 3rd grade on I spent every spare moment at school in the library, even frequently cutting geometry class in 10th grade to explore the history reference books that I could not check out and take home.

tumblr_lahyzakLSB1qbjz0go1_500Marine Colonel Francis I. Fenton, kneeling prays at the foot of his son’s grave on Okinawa 1945

I think that anyone that knew me then could probably associate me with a big stack of books that I lugged to and from class and back and forth from home to school. The ironic thing is that as I pack for work or to come home every day at the Staff College my back pack from my tour in Iraq is filled with the books that I am reading or using for research. Maybe it is not ironic, maybe it is the fact that some things never change. For me the quest for knowledge and historical, philosophical, or scientific truth is something that I cannot get enough of, nor be content to think that I know everything on any given subject.

This little introduction takes me into today’s subject. For those that don’t know we are coming up on the anniversaries of two of the most amazing historical events of the past 100 years next week. They are the battles of Midway, June 4th through June 6th 1942 and the the invasion of France, or D-Day, June 6th 1944.

ts8The pilots of Torpedo 8, only one survived Midway

I have always been amazed by the men who faced the Japanese at Midway, a battle that by any reasonable means should have resulted in a Japanese victory as well as them men that stormed the beaches at Normandy just two years later. When I first started reading about these battles many of the veterans were still alive, many not much older than I am today. However today not many are left, and the few that remain generally served as junior officers or enlisted personnel, none in high command.

Both battles are remarkable because an American or Allied loss could have changed the course of history. Had the United States Navy been defeated at Midway it could have brought about a Japanese victory, or more likely made the ultimate American victory much more costly and drawn out. Had the Allies been repulsed at Normandy it could have split the allied coalition or given the Germans the chance to renew their fight against the Soviet Union and possibly change history.

Thus when I look at these two events, battles that for most are now ancient history I am in awe of the men who fought them. They are not academic exercises for me, but as someone who has served at sea and on land in war I feel a certain camaraderie with these men.

I remember reading Cornelius Ryan’s classic book “The Longest Day” and seeing the movie of the same name in grade school, and reading Walter Lord’s classic on Midway “Incredible Victory” when I was in 7th grade. Both are excellent books which have stood the test of time and though I have read and done much more research and writing on both battles I still keep a copy of each book and probably re-read each every few years and consult them for any new projects. Likewise have been fortunate enough to meet some of the men who served in both of these battles, and even in my time as an Army chaplain be with them in their declining years. Men like Frank Smoker and Henry Boyd, both Normandy vets who have since passed away mean much to me.

442ndRCTThe 442nd Regimental Combat Team

Today when I see a World War Two veteran, no matter where I encounter them, I make sure that I thank them for their service. They are part of an amazing generation of Americans who bequeathed those of us who live today so much, both during the war and after the war. Many millions served in the military, while many more served in war industries. All contributed to war bond drives, victory gardens and yes even increased taxes and decreased civil liberties to win the war.

The fact that Japanese Americans served in the most highly decorated Army units of the war despite their families being incarcerated in American versions of concentration camps is a testimony to sacrifice.

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Likewise the efforts of African Americans who went to war despite being second class citizens and discriminated against under the Jim Crow Laws, which even Nazis like Hermann Goering recognized were only different from the the Nazi anti-Semitic laws and persecution in manner of degree.

That was an amazing an unique generation of Citizen Soldiers. With few exceptions they were not the professional career soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who serve today. Most would not have considered themselves “warriors.” They were there to do a job, win a war and go home. It was part of who they were as Americans.

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How many today would do any of those things? Today we have well under one percent of the population who have served in the wars of the past 13 years, fewer who have served in combat or in a combat zone. Likewise the population in general and in particular the bankers, businesses, lobbyists and defense contractors are not asked to sacrifice anything, instead when the country was attacked the President and others decried the fact that war might prevent people from doing business, shopping or living a normal life. For God’s sake, were at war and that attitude would have been incomprehensible to those of the Greatest Generation who for the most part either went to war, or supported the war effort with their work and other contributions. For them patriotism was not a bumper sticker.

Rachel Maddow said it well in her book Drift The Unmooring of American Military Power:

“When civilians are not asked to pay any price, it’s easy to be at war – not just to intervene in a foreign land in the first place, but to keep on fighting there. The justifications for staying at war don’t have to be particularly rational or cogently argued when so few Americans are making the sacrifice that it takes to stay.”

scan002411-483x600Jimmy Stewart and his Bomber Crew

Because of the sacrifice of people of the Greatest Generation I am grateful for them. I believe that we can learn so much from them. Even A-List Hollywood stars and professional sport heroes left their careers to serve their country. Clarke Gable, Audie Murphy, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Feller, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio just to name a few sacrificed major portions of their careers to serve. With the exception of Pat Tillman who died in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan which was covered up by the Army and Bush administration, how many of the 1%, the A-List or professional athletes can you name that have left sacrificed their fortunes to serve in the front lines? I can’t name any others, but in the Second World War even the 1% had skin in the game so to speak, the Kennedy’s, Roosevelt’s and the Bush’s to name just a few.

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I think that is why I am in awe of those of the Greatest Generation and why as the anniversaries of Midway and D-Day approach I am extra thoughtful, quite reflective and very thankful for those who through their sacrifice made so much of what we have today possible. What bothers me today is how few, especially of those who either advocate for war, lobby for it or profit from it no matter what their political, economic or religious persuasion is, offers to serve or pay for the cost of war.

Today those costs are borne by a tiny minority of Americans, military professionals of the all-volunteer military, both active duty and reserve who have endured deployment after deployment as the bulk of the nation stood by, mostly cheering them on. Of course as one who had his father serve in Vietnam and entered the military not long after had to endure the jeers of Americans, cheers are nice. They are much better than being called a “Nazi” for wearing your uniform to class. However, sometimes I think that many that cheer us on are able to due so because vicarious patriotism is easy. Vicarious patriotism anything, someone else serves, and someone else dies while they “support the troops” without actually doing anything.

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Now please don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of good people who have never served in the military and who do care. Men and women who take action to support the troops, both those serving and the veterans, including those disabled in some way by war. For them I am grateful, they donate time, money and personal effort to care, and I do not care if the are conservatives or liberals, Republicans, Democrats or Independents, religious or atheist. They are Americans who are doing something. Likewise I do not disparage those who take the time to learn the issues that the nation faces and the domestic policies that impact the country and in a healthy body politic it doesn’t mean that we have to completely agree with each other to be patriots. Such an understanding would have been unthinkable to our founders much less most of the Greatest Generation. Veterans issues are important but national security also involves so much more, everything from the infrastructure that the Greatest Generation had the vision and wherewithal to build to the environment.

I have been to Normandy as well as other World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. I can only agree with Tom Brokaw who wrote: “there on the beaches of Normandy I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives were laced with the markings of greatness.”

So, when you read anything I write or re-publish during the next couple of weeks, be it about D-Day, Midway or even Gettysburg, please read what I write though those lenses. It is not that I am bitter. I have chosen my life in the military, but I wonder why so few of us bear the burden. It is a question that every citizen must ask themselves and their political representatives.

Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn, a Navy Chaplain serving with the Marines gave a eulogy at the dedication of a cemetery on Iwo Jima that puts it all in perspective.

“Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores.

Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor . . .together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many men of each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price. .

We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.”

Since the last members of the Greatest Generation are passing away at an ever increasing rate and few will remain among us; I will ask you to ask yourself the question posed by the World War II veteran and hero John F Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, national security, Political Commentary

Memorial Day 2009- Thoughts and Musings

I am again at the Medical Center on duty, but this not a bad thing.   Before I begin my post I want to direct you to the post of the Abbess of the Abbey Normal and her thoughts on this Memorial Day.  Her post is linked here: http://abbeynormalabbess.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/memorial-day-musings/

I Have also posted several links in this article. Peace, Steve+

ports hosp cemetary 2Conaway Cemetery Portsmouth Naval Medical Center

I have been thinking a lot about the significance of Memorial Day the past week.  I think about it more now than I used to.  Now I have always thought a lot of it and observed it the best that I could.  Yet having now been “boots on the ground” in Iraq travelling about the battlefield to take care of the spiritual needs of American Marines and Soldiers serving as advisers with the Iraqi Army, Police and Border forces it has more meaning.  I am now a combat veteran.  Last year I joined the VFW.  I came back from the war different, PTSD kind of goons you up sometimes.  I spent most of the past 15 months dealing with this, not sleeping and being in chronic pain.  I’m now doing much better.  In part this is due to the support I have at home and a work and the fact that I am no longer isolated.  Being on staff at our Naval Medical Center has been good for me and I do not resent being the Duty Chaplain on this Memorial Day.  I have far too many wonderful people I work with here to think anything like that.  It is an honor to serve here with such fine people, Physicians, Nurses, Chaplains and other medical and support staff.

ports hospt cemetary 1Another View Conaway Cemetery

Today has been really good no matter how the night goes.  I participated in the annual Memorial Day observance at the historic Naval Cemetery on our grounds.  It is but a mere two acres of land and dates to 1838 when it was established to allow the remains of those who died far from their homes repose. It has Navy Sailors, Marines and their families.  It also holds the remains of Sailors from Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Japan and Brazil who died in the Norfolk area.  Additionally the remains of Sailors of the Confederate States Navy are buried here.  The service was organized by the Local Chapters of the Fleet Reserve Association, supported by the local Boy Scout troops and attended by veterans, active duty members and dignitaries from the City of Portsmouth City Council and a State Senator.   It was a simple yet moving ceremony which involved a wreath-laying as well as Amazing Grace played on the Bagpipes and Taps.  Our Color Guard presented the colors and our Commanding Officer, Rear Admiral Kiser was the guest speaker.  Local news services were on hand to televise it, just as they televised others services throughout the region.  One of these was on the Battleship USS Wisconsin which is the centerpiece of the local maritime museum at Norfolk’s Nauticus venue.

Our hospital is interesting.  It dates to 1826 and is the first Naval and for that matter military hospital in our country.  The motto here is First and Finest. Building One is the original hospital.  It has a glass dome which at one time lighted the operating theater.   It now is our command building with other administrative offices.  The hospital has served in peace and war and was instrumental in the 1850s in caring for the victims of the Yellow Fever epidemic.  It is now a teaching hospital and multi-faceted medical center with a national reputation.

The time at the service was neat as I mixed with our veterans of World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the current wars.  Many proudly displayed their medals, ribbons and badges.  When the National Anthem was played these men and women saluted as smartly as when they were on active duty.  Many are involved with local veterans groups and some are volunteers at our hospital taking time to care for the needs of our patients and families.  Among the dignitaries was Councilman Charles Whitehurst who is a member of the small historically black Episcopal Church where I worship.  Mr. Whitehurst enlisted in the Marines in 1955 and rose through the enlisted ranks to Sergeant, was appointed as a Warrant Officer and the Commissioned as an Officer.  He retired as a Major after Vietnam.   Afterward Admiral Kiser was the Grand Marshal of the Portsmouth Memorial Day Parade, which is the oldest and longest running in the nation.   A link to a local station’s coverage of this event is here: http://www.wvec.com/video/index.html?nvid=364992&shu=1

I was able to catch a glimpse of President Obama’s wreath laying at Arlington National Cemetery where in in short and solemn remarks he noted: “Why in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of narrowest self-interest have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others,” he said. “Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?”

“Whatever it is, they felt some tug. They answered a call. They said ‘I’ll go.’ That is why they are the best of America,” Obama said. “That is what separates them from those who have not served in uniform, their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.”

I think that his remarks were perfect and honored those who serve now and those have gone before us.

The last service of this type that I attended was at the US Cemetery at Belleau Wood, France. It is the site of the battle in which the Marines in their first battle of World War One turned back the assault of the German Army which was advancing on Paris and launched a counter-attack.  I was with Marines of the Marine Security Forces who were conducting a joint memorial service with French Marines.  The next day I visited Normandy with the Marines and taught classes to them on the battle, looking at it from the German perspective.  The day prior to the service I taught parts of the “staff-ride” of the battlefield discussing various aspects of World War one tactics, weaponry and equipment.

me at normandyWith Marines at Normandy

This is also most likely the last Memorial Day that my father will be alive.  He served as a Navy Chief Petty Officer and retired in 1974.  In 1972 he served “boots on the ground” at the city of An Loc which was surrounded for 80 days by the North Vietnamese Army.  He was my inspiration to serve in the military.  There are many veterans of World War Two, Korea and Vietnam who like him are in the twilight of their lives.  I do pray that all will be remembered this Memorial Day.  I was able to be with him the week before last.  I expect it will be the last time that I see him.

McCains Special BaseballTed Williams as USMC Aviator

One interesting thing that I want to mention before I close was the effort that many professional ball players made back in World Wars One, Two and Korea.  Some of the top players of all time gave up some of their prime playing years to serve.  Christy Matthewson served in the Army in France during World War One. He was gassed and developed Tuberculosis and died at the age of 45 in 1925 never playing again.  Yogi Berra served as a Navy Gunners Mate at D-Day.  Ted Williams served in both WWII and Korea as a Marine Corps fighter pilot.  He lost nearly 5 seasons to his service. One who studies statistics in baseball might want to extrapolate the numbers that Williams might have had if he had played on instead of serving.  Hank Greenberg the first Jewish Major League superstar was drafted in 1940 and released just before Pearl Harbor when Congress voted to send men over 28 home. He then re-enlisted, was commissioned and served in the China-Burma-India Theater.  Joe Dimaggio enlisted in the Army Air Force and served 2 ½ years from 1943-1945. Bob Feller volunteered for the Navy on December 8th 1941 and spent 4 seasons on the USS Alabama as a gun captain. Pee Wee Reese served in the Navy in the Pacific while Jackie Robinson served as an Army Officer and Larry Doby served in the Navy before breaking the color barrier to play Major League baseball.  Whitey Ford, Willie Mays, Eddie Matthews and Ernie Banks were all called up for Korea along with Williams.  Roy Gleason of the Dodgers was the last player to earn the Purple Heart as an Army Sergeant in Vietnam. Of course the world has changed.  We have an all volunteer military no current Major League players, or for that matter NBA, NFL or NHL players serve in the military but many donate time and money to support military members and their families including Giant’s pitcher Barry Zito and Orioles pitcher Jamie Walker.  Working with USAA these men have founded a non-profit group called “Strikeouts for Troops.  A link to that organization is here:  http://video.yahoo.com/watch/3462236/9644105

Pat Tillman a defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals enlisted after 9-11 and was killed during a “friendly fire” incident while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan.  He has been the only NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA player to volunteer for active duty in the current war.

Here are a few links to some baseball and veteran stories:

Link to video of Baseball Hall of Fame Player Monte Irvin talking about his service in World War Two: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKERxyAbg1w and link to Indians and A’s player Lou Brissie’s WWII experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFwAXNR9q-k Jerry Coleman on his Marine Corps time as a dive bomber pilot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUlBgBxaWoY

Bob Feller’s, Buck O’Neal and Phil Rizzuto’s WWII memories:  http://video.search.yahoo.com/video/play?p=bob+feller+american+veterans+&n=21&ei=utf-8&js=1&fr=yfp-t-105&tnr=20&vid=0001463818096 and here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRyILkx_c2U

Link to Rick Monday’s saving the flag at Dodger Stadium in April 1976:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrV8QPQAhxo&feature=related

goldstar

Let us remember our veterans, especially those who gave the last full measure to serve our country. Support the Honor and Remember flag campaign as well as the “Blue Star” and “Gold Star” families whose loved ones currently serve or have died on active duty in this time of war.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under Baseball, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military, PTSD, vietnam