A bullet pinged past the soldier’s ear as he crouched behind bushes near the frontlines. A soldier near him suddenly lurched forward, letting out a horrible scream as he crumpled to the ground and died. All gave some, some gave all.
On Memorial Day, we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice that we might be free to have "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as Thomas Jefferson expressed it — or, as Tom Petty put it, to be "runnin’ down a dream."
All of us likely have a link to our American military, past or present. Mine begins at the Battle of Trenton when Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise the slumbering Hessians the day after Christmas, 1776. My ancestor, John Hair, and his Bucks County (Pa.) Militia were waiting to join General Washington, but, by then, the river was too choked with chunks of ice for boats to cross. Sgt. Hair saw action in other battles in the American Revolution.
David Acheson, a family friend, and my ancestral cousin John Burns were with the 140th Pennsylvania Regiment at Gettysburg in 1863. They were thrust into battle in the infamous wheat field, golden grain running red with blood. Capt. Acheson took intense fire from his flank, reeling as a bullet found its mark. He died almost instantly.
Darkness descended, scores of wounded soldiers laying helpless on the battlefield. As moans and groans and prayers floated upward, they painfully crawled toward each other, gathering in small clusters to encourage each other to survive till morning. Farewell messages for their families were passed on, to be delivered by those who did survive.
When the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898, my missionary cousin saw freeing Cuba from Spanish control as America’s entry onto the global stage. He wrote: "The war with Spain marks a new epoch. America is on the course of righteous empire. God gives his people the power and intelligence to carry his will into execution. Americans proposed for Cuba, but God disposed for all mankind." World War I provided the opportunity for this vision of America’s global power to materialize.
Uncle Carroll Hosbrook, an Ohio farm boy, joined Gen. John Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force in 1918 for the deadly trench warfare of northern France. Months later and just hours after the Armistice was signed on November 11, Carroll sat on the steps of a bombed-out church whose bell was still able to ring out victory, writing a letter home. "The Yanks gave the Huns a good hot chase. They will now think twice before going to war again. I never thought one’s part in a war would be such a small part. But it is true when you say you are going to do your bit — it is a little bit."
The D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, was the pivot point of World War II. My friend Hal’s unit landed the next day, June 7, and he was tasked to return to Omaha Beach to retrieve a piece of equipment. Tears welled up in Hal’s eyes as he related the story to me, reliving being there alone on the beach with hundreds of dead comrades who had given their lives for our country. All gave some, some gave all.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, my brother’s best buddy, Leigh Whitaker, was sent there as an army medic. His unit was overwhelmed by a pre-dawn attack south of Seoul, Leigh being one of the few survivors. For 38 months, he was listed as an MIA, missing in action, dropping to 85 pounds while tending to wounded prisoners. I was listening to the radio late at night in August, 1953, when the final few lists of returning prisoners were being read. "Charles Leigh Whitaker, Ohio."
I jumped out of bed to wake up my parents and sister. "Leigh’s coming home."
Of course, many did not come home, some 36,000 in Korea, 58,000 more in Vietnam, lesser numbers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But the total sacrifice of our American military in all wars is a staggering 1.3 million men and women. Many lay buried overseas and some in the sea, including at Pearl Harbor (our family’s first house was bought from a man who lost two sons, his only children, on the USS Arizona). We honor the sacrifice of all these heroes on Memorial Day. May they rest in peace.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.