When my husband was last deployed, he had the rare opportunity to take a trip to Iwo Jima, the scene of arguably World War II’s most iconic photograph, Joe Rosenthal’s ‘Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi.’ Crammed together on a Navy 737, 60 Marines clustered together for the three-hour flight from Iwakuni, Japan to the tiny, but much penned about island. ‘When we landed on Iwo Jima, it was hot and bright as only the atmosphere that exists in the tropics of the Pacific. There was a sense of excitement and expectation among my comrades, leaning over one another to see out the windows the airplane. There were the still present hulks of sunken ships in the bay and the gunmetal colored sand of the beaches. The airfield was black asphalt and was, in many respects, a typical military installation with concrete block houses of modern Japanese architecture and a tarmac complete with maritime patrol planes.’
Iwo Jima is not just another island in the Pacific; it is hallowed ground, the final resting place of heroes. The airfield is at the opposite side of the mountain. He and his fellow Marines started hiking across the hot, flat lowlands toward the mountain. The trail ran through open fields, but as the bulk of the mountain loomed large, they entered jungle. The trail itself is steep, climbing in snakelike switchbacks up the mountain. The most difficult section is near the base where the mountain is steepest. As they moved toward the top, the slope became gentler, and so did the trail.
‘Periodically along the trail we would stop at memorials left by either Japanese or American units. The memorials bore testimony to the horrible, bitter fight. The Marines transitioned from excitement at the momentous trip and the labor of hiking to solemn respect. Marines carry within their institutional memory the horrors of the battle in stories, and when we talked about it, every Marine was quiet and attentive.’
We honor those that came before us and gave all during Memorial Day. We remember their sacrifices, their dedication, their honor and their ethics. Yet we often forget something on Memorial Day- these brave men and women are just like us: humans, but humans who went above and beyond.
This week, my father, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, takes a plane to do business in Germany. He debarks on same grounds over which his father and uncles fought in World War II. His plane takes him over the fields and cities in which so many of our own fought valiantly, even to the very last second. It is amazing how time passes and we move on, it is amazing how we forget.
My grandfather tries to piece together a puzzle in which his younger brother, a radioman on a ship, was lost at sea. The cause was likely a mine near the Panama Canal He honored his memory by using his brother’s name as part of his eldest son’s, my father’s.
Days before he passed, my maternal grandfather recalled the beaches of Okinawa when there was little edifice there aside from an aviation tower and military tenting. Much of his adult life was spent recalling those who never made it home. ‘The War’ loomed large in his memory, so much so that his children and we grandchildren wondered if he’d ever lived in the present.
My mother gave birth to my brother alone in a Naval hospital in Virginia. Months before, as she shielded her eyes with an upturned palm against the blinding sun on the sea’s horizon, she wondered where her husband was sailing, what he was doing at that very moment, and was he safe? I think she might have said a prayer that he returned safely, but at her very young age, she had already channeled steely bravery and independence from the depths of her soul, the ritual of so many military spouses before… and after. Even to this day, she notes that she was one of the lucky ones, able to hold her beloved when he returned safely.
Unlike his predecessors, my father talks about his time during Vietnam very little. He sees no room for sea stories; he is a humble, quiet man, known for his intelligence, hard work, and above all, kindness. He was able to see his infant son only as he accompanied home his friend who had passed. Growing up, I did not know of the sights he saw because I suspect he did not want me to know them. I suspect he’d like to forget.
‘I remember thinking that the young men hiking and sweating in the tropic sun were more or less the same young men who had sweated and charged and died together on the sands some sixty five years before,’ my husband notes. ‘And I remember strongly the legacy left by the men who, in joining the service, became something greater than the sum of their individual parts.’ These were the men who gave it all, the men who didn’t return home to the young brides, the children, the parents. They were not so different. They are not so different.
‘History repeats itself, because we often don’t pay attention to the lessons it teaches,’ or so the saying goes. The truth is, Memorial Day is not only a day for us to remember those who came before, but also to realize that those men and women who came before don’t merely deserve a place in the history books-they are part of our DNA, of America’s genetic makeup. We should not ascribe to ourselves personal glory in their accomplishments, but we should revere them for making the sacrifices that allow us the freedom to share their stories with pride, gratitude and humility and most importantly, without fear.
It is not simply the physical buildings and memorials that compel future civilizations to recall the past, but the men and women who constructed them. We are a species of stories, of cultures bound together by the words of those who came before us. This Memorial Day, let us not break the chain of their story and remember that those who ‘gave all’ did not make that sacrifice only for the love of the fight, but perhaps more for the hopeful optimism of peace.