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Memorial Day: The Price of Freedom and The Debt We Owe.

30 May

Price of Freedom

American Soldier, Continental Army.  Outside Yorktown, Virginia Colony – October 1781

Abner Johnston was frightened.  He was 18 years old, and had only been a member of the Continental Army under General George Washington for a little over three months.  He had left his family’s home in Virginia and joined after reading a handbill posted in the public square of his town.

On this night, he and the other members of his platoon were advancing their trench yard by painful yard toward the British Redoubt known as Redoubt 10.  It was already turning cold…Fall having started the inevitable slide into Winter, yet here they were in the muck digging and digging toward the British lines.  As he worked his shovel, Abner thought back to the final view he had of his home, his Family.  His Father had approved of him joining Washington’s forces.  It was ‘A noble cause’ in Father’s mind.  The King had gone too far and since the declaration of War some six years prior, too many Colonists had been put to death for no reason other than they were in the way of the British Army.  His Mother on the other hand, she had barely been able to look at him….her eyes drenched with tears.

But that was six months ago.  Now, in the shadow of the enemy army, the operative word was ‘quiet’.  General Washington had made it known that as they advanced yard by yard toward the British lines, all soldiers were to take all possible care to make no noise enough to alert British sentries.  So, ever so slowly, Abner pushed the shovel into the soft earth and silently removed the dirt into a wicker basket to be slowly removed by another soldier.  On and on, through the hours, day and night the digging continued.

Finally, word was passed:  They were finished digging the trench.  That night, they would attack the British in concert with their French Allies.  Hopefully, after all the years of Bloodshed, Destruction, and Pain, they would be able to put the final defeat on the Kings armies and be free.  That evening, Abner lay awake.  Much time that night had gone into thoughts about the looming Battle.  Abner now took time to say his Prayers, asking God for his continued protection, but also laying his destiny in God’s hands.  He also prayed for his Family, especially Mama.  How he longed to see her smile again.

The night peace ended, as the Cannon fire from American artillery began.  The platoons advanced toward the Redoubt under the cover of fire.  Suddenly, as Abner and another scout were chopping into wooden British barricades with Axes to clear the way for the entire force, a challenge was called out “Halt!  Who goes There?”  when no answer came, just as Abner was in the process of ducking *CRACK* came the sound of the discharge of a British Musket……..a sudden impact with his chest……..pain, so much pain as his body, seemingly no longer under his control crumpled to the ground.  A sensation of wetness…..the cool earth.  His fellow platoon mate saying something that could no longer be heard over the thunder of more guns…..and the thunder of his heart trying to keep beating……until…….breath isn’t coming….what…….Mama…………and the view of the trench faded to black.

 

  U.S. Airman, B-25 Bomber aboard the U.S.S. Hornet somewhere West of Japan – April 1942

 The time had finally arrived.  Walter Jones and the rest of Doolittle’s ‘Raiders’ were going to strike back at Japan.  Four months of defeat had followed the surprise attack so dastardly conducted on the Pacific Fleet anchorage on a quiet, peaceful Sunday morning.

Since that day, all members and units of the U.S. military had been training and preparing to strike back.  The main issue was that the Japanese had removed any bases close to the home islands.  But in a stroke of sheer genius, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle had come up with the idea of launching medium bombers from one of the Navy’s carriers. Approved by President Roosevelt, the strategy created plans which meant hard training.  That training now completed, Walter and the rest of the aircrews waited for time to launch.

As they waited, Walter’s thoughts drifted back to his home, a small farm in Central Ohio.  Already 21, Walter had wanted to see the world and do more than spend his life as a Farmer.  So when he’d made his decision in 1940 to join the Army Air Corps, the decision was met with Sadness from his mother and siblings and anger from his Father.  In the month over Christmas after making the decision known, his father had said nothing to him.  Saddened, but resolute in his decision, he said his goodbyes and prepared to hitch a ride to Columbus to catch the train to his Basic training assignment in Texas.  But as he was walking out the door, he was shocked to see his father waiting for him in the family sedan.  No words were spoken, until they arrived at the station.  Then, his Father, eyes welling with tears said “Be safe son.  I understand.”  Then he hurriedly got back in the car and drove away.

While the memories drifted across his consciousness, there came sudden shouts, followed by the loud concussion of cannon fire from one of the escort destroyers.  The crews were rapidly called to muster around Doolittle’s plane.  “Men, the taskforce has been sighted by a Japanese ship.  Rather than cancel this mission, we are going to launch early.  Pilots, make sure you use the utmost care in using the most fuel-efficient flight profiles.  We are going to be pushing our range to the brink.  We owe the Japanese these Bombs and we will deliver them.  But I must tell you, I fear that launching early may prevent some from making it back home.  My prayers are with each and every one of you.  God bless and Man your planes.”

One by one, the Bombers struggled into the air and headed for the Japanese Home Islands.  One by one, they dropped their small but massively symbolic bomb loads on Japanese factories.  One by one, they turned toward their hoped-for destination of China,  rescue, and return to the United States.  One by one, they found places to land, or ran out of fuel and crashed.

Walter’s final moments were spent trying to sight landmarks in the upper gun turret of his aircraft.  As he viewed a landscape so different from that of his Ohio home, his thoughts drifted back to a simpler time.  A time where the days were long, the work was hard, but at the end of that day….family.  He could see their smiles, and as the plane crashed into the side of a hill in fog, he could see his Father reaching out his arms.

 

 Marine Rifleman 2/26th Marines Khe Sanh Combat Base, Vietnam – January 1968

This sucks.  What a way to begin the New Year.  It had originally been hoped that there would be a cease-fire that would hold.  This would’ve allowed the remote combat units to rest and reorganize after extended periods of combat.  But the North Vietnamese had instead used this New Year, known as ‘Tet’ in Vietnamese for cover and struck all along the Northwest corner of South Vietnam.  For Marines like James Smith, this meant days of almost constant shelling from North Vietnamese Army (NVA) gun positions in the hills surrounding Khe Sanh, and a growing number of night raids by mixed NVA and Viet-Cong units.

James had enlisted in 1966 in order to prevent his younger brother Sam from being drafted.  Sam was younger by a year, but had struggled through his life to this point with some kind of Mental slowness.  His father having passed two years ago, left only Sam for his Mother back in Texas.  So, as the draft regulations said that only one sibling from a family would be required to serve, James took it upon himself to enlist.  He still remembered the tears in his Mother’s eyes and the Look of sadness on Sam’s face as he boarded the Bus which would take him to the regional In-Doc center, then on to Marine basic training in San Diego.

But now was not the time for such thoughts, as screams of “Incoming” echoed across the revetments and sand-bag bunkers.  James jumped up and sprinted to the nearest slit trench and dove in just as the first sounds of incoming artillery rounds begun to be heard:  The sound of ripping linen of the rounds in flight, followed by earth shaking explosions.  Over and over the ground shook, dirt and mud flew, all accompanied by curses of frightened Marines and screams of the newly wounded.  Prayers were said over and over that the next one not have anyone’s name on it.

Finally, quiet returned as the NVA gun crews scrambled to move their guns on the hills surrounding Khe Sanh, as U.S. Artillery answered accompanied by numerous airstrikes.  Meanwhile, the Dead and wounded were collected, and soon loaded on one of the few daily C-130 resupply flights after the transport had dropped it’s load of fresh ammunition and supplies.  Just another day in ‘The Shit’ as was the common Marine curse for Vietnam.  Life was hard here, but James knew he was doing the right thing.  He kept his brother safe to accompany their mother, and the President had made it clear that Communism must be stopped here.

As dusk fell, a few naps were taken, but for most of the Marines at Khe Sanh, it was a time for preparation.  New concertina or razor wire was strung at the perimeter of the combat base.  New sandbags were filled and placed to shore up a weakness exposed in the last raid.  Magazines were loaded, rifles and M-60 Machine Guns were cleaned.  Abbreviated dinners of K-rations were eaten.  Bibles were read by the light of the fading sun.  Night was coming….and the Night belonged to Charlie.

James and his fellow platoon mates settled in for the night.  Duty in the outer-ring of firing trenches was a dangerous assignment.  As darkness fell, the ability to stay alert became harder to maintain.  Equally stressful were the multitude of sounds produced by the Jungle at night…natural to the animal inhabitants, but also used to cover any advance of NVA or VC soldiers.  The night was a time of fear, of hyper-alertness, of longing for home.

Suddenly, 400 yards to the right, the early-warning clank of K-ration containers strung on the razor wire was heard.  After seconds of silence, a parachute flare was fired….it’s uneven glow the only possible light source available.  In the fading light, the VC were spotted and firing commenced.  But as the VC often did, the first contact was a feint, with the real probing attack yet undetected.

New magazines were loaded in weapons, sips of water were taken from canteens as newly wounded were tended to.  Minutes slipped by, and James began to wonder how many more attacks were to come this night.  Suddenly, directly to his front, less than 50 yards away, bamboo ladders were thrown over the razor wire to flatten it and Vietnamese sappers threw small bags of explosives into the wire to open attack lanes.  As the Marines turned their fire to the new threat, James hear the platoon Radioman screaming out ‘Sector 3 Red, Sector 3 Red’ letting the CP know of the breach.  As he sighted and fired his weapon, James began to realize the enemies were getting closer and closer.  Suddenly, an oblong device was thrown through the air directly at him……slowly rotating end over end……landing…..LIGHT,… FIRE,…. PAIN………………Nothingness.

 

What you have just read are ‘faction’.  Stories that have made up people inserted in real historical events, with as many facts mixed in as could be discovered in a short time.  My reasons for doing this is simple:  Far too many think of History as just dead people and dates in dusty books.  But Memorial Day is far too important to let that mindset stand.  So I endeavored to make real historical events more human and hopefully on some level easier to connect with the actions of the true people who Lived through the events, and more importantly bring home the enormity of the sacrifices made by many.  These were living, breathing sons, fathers, children, daughters and Mothers.  They had hopes and dreams of their own.  But in the most selfless of moments in their lives when it counted the most, they laid down their one and only lives so that we could remain free.

We sit in our comfortable homes surrounded by excess.  True, we earn it by working hard.  But how many of us ever stop to consider the Ultimate sacrifices made by the American Servicemen over the years?  Do you think of these things, or do you turn up your nose when you see a soldier on the street?  Have you ever said ‘Thank you for your service’ to one of the living but damaged, or do you consider this day just another extended weekend?

Do you ever stop and consider where we’d be if so many had not made their selfless sacrifices?

The answer has never been given any better since stated by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, on the Battlefield of one of the most important Battles of the American Civil War:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Remember………

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