- J.A. Willoughby
A Day For Our Veterans
("A Day For Our Veterans" was first published April 29, 2008)
It was an unseasonably warm day for April and uncharacteristically bright and sunny as well. It was a perfect day for a road trip to our nation’s Capitol. I was one of many guests traveling with a group of Veterans on a bus trip to the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. The trip was sponsored by the American Legion in Danville, PA and was open to any veteran of any conflict and one guest each. I went with my father who served as a member of the U.S. Army Military Police, 36th Infantry Division, 796th MP Battalion and stationed at HQ Vienna, Austria at the end of the Second World War.
Two buses steered off the main highway, pulled in front of us and their brakes squealed and hissed, bringing them to a stop. The doors opened and the drivers got out and opened the underslung baggage compartments as Legion volunteers stocked it with ice coolers of water, baseball caps and other complimentary items of comfort.
The men and women climbed aboard the vehicles, as they must have done so many times in the many decades before. It was then that I felt a detached perspective of what was happening around me. I became an observer. I saw very obvious parallels between what was happening at that moment and what had happened many years before to this same group of individuals. And that perspective was to be my sight for the rest of the day.
I saw younger versions of themselves in the uniform of their branch of the service climbing aboard a bus, a plane or into the back of a truck and forcing a look of confidence, bravado or even cockiness that was surely masking true feelings that were quite the opposite. Undoubtedly scared, unsure, lonely teenagers all.
They must have wondered where their transports would take them or what was going to happen to them once they got ‘there.’ Today they knew the outcome. Today they would go to see the names of the ones who didn’t come back. And they themselves would return home yet again – without them.
We continued on a two-lane state route until we came to the Interstate highway- the same type of highway system that their then-Commanding General Dwight D. Eisenhower saw in Germany during the war. He was so impressed with its efficiency of design (for military purposes) that as President he commanded the structure of it in this country - something that arguably would not have happened when it did had these men and women not crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
The highway eventually crossed the state line and I wondered had not they fought as they did, in an alternate history, that our buses could easily be stopped and each of us would have to produce our ‘papers’ and travel permits for German or Japanese-speaking border guards. Not so today because of their dedication to and decision to fight for their country. This, I thought, as everyone on our bus looked out the windows and so nonchalantly marveled at a flock of geese landing on the surface a pond.
A passenger jet aircraft streaked overhead in front of us at a high altitude leaving contrails in the sky. This too was a technology that we assimilated from the Germans because of their involvement in that conflict. As well as the rockets that put the satellites in orbit around the Earth to guide our onboard GPS devices.
As a military re-enactor, I attend events that give me the good fortune to meet and talk with a lot of veterans. And every one of them has a story to tell. To listen to them is riveting to say the least and I have never forgotten them. We all need to hear what they are telling us. The stories they tell are our history as told by the survivors. But there is a consensus or commonality of declaration among the stories like a thread of a fabric that binds them all together.
“We are not heroes. The heroes are the guys that never made it back.”
“We were just doing our job.”
“If we didn’t do it right, somebody else would have to go back and do it.”
And then the inevitable joke or witticism, as if it were a way to put it all to rest or out of mind or just to bring the topic to a close.
“Hey, did you hear the one about the…”
After a breakfast at a predetermined location along the way, we eventually arrived in Washington DC. The passengers disembarked and some of the veterans and their guests went on to the other memorials, including the Korean Conflict and Vietnam wall and Lincoln Memorial which are located nearby. Housed in a kiosk-like information center is a group of elographic (touch screen) computers that contain a database honoring all who served. After a quick search, my dad and I found the name he was looking for- William Wyant, Jr., KIA, Iwo Jima.
Bill Wyant was one of my dad’s best friends. Being a ‘farm kid’ who lived miles out of town with no form of transportation, dad lived with the Wyant family during the week out of necessity. He could attend high school, work a part time job during the week and play football on Friday night. Then he would go back to the farm for the rest of the weekend. Bill joined the Marine Corps and got sent to Iwo. He never returned home alive. He was killed by a Japanese sniper on March 21, 1945.
The World War II memorial itself is a fitting tribute in layout and design and it accommodates the older visitor with gently sloping accesses rather than steps. Aesthetically, it is pleasing in its circular pattern ringed by fifty-six Roman numeral-like double ‘I’ columns with the names of each state and United States territories (as of 1945) and metal laurel wreaths affixed to the top of them. In the center is a vast pool symbolizing the world’s oceans. At either end, appropriately, the Atlantic and Pacific pillared alcoves. In each, located high above your head are magnificently sculpted and cast eagles posed as if frozen in mid flight.
My Dad walked under the Pacific pillars and met up with a group of his friends. A few of the men were wearing caps indicating their respective branch of the service. We all exchanged handshakes and they started talking. They became engaged in conversation and I started to take pictures of the area around us and wandered away. As I started down the ramp I heard,” A guy goes home to his wife one night and he’s got a duck under his arm…” There it was – the inevitable joke. And it was so old he probably heard it for the first time during his time in the service. A wall of falling water and stars got my attention and I walked on.
“…I was talking to the duck!” came the punch line and I heard the men laugh heartily as I walked away.
Along one low wall, just at eye level, was a columnar symmetrical array of large gold-colored pentagonal metal stars. I glanced at the informational brochure in my hand. All identical in design, it said each star represented one hundred dead. One hundred human lives lost for each one. And there are four thousand forty-eight of them.
Being a musician, a lyric or melody almost always instinctively enters my brain and accompanies a powerful moment like that for me, as we are so conditioned to evoke and link emotional responses to music. And this moment was no different. It was a song from a time not of WWII but much later and all too chillingly appropriate for any conflict. In this case a lyric by Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills Nash and Young and the melody hauntingly reminiscent of a spiritual ballad. A simple two-line song that says:
Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground,
Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down.
“What are all those stars?” my dad queried breaking in on the silence my private refrain.
“The brochure says each one represents one hundred deaths,” I answered.
“One hundred,” he exclaimed. He looked back at the wall and I watched him do a quick count across the rows and do the math in his head.
“Why that’s almost half a million,” he said shaking his head.
We turned from the wall and walked up the slope towards the Atlantic pillars. An active duty soldier in desert camos and a beret approached my dad and extended his hand. My dad instinctively stretched out his and the two strangers shook hands.
“I just want to thank you for doing what you did,” the young soldier said to him.
Dad, taken by surprise, just smiled and kind of chuckled and said “Huh, oh yeah, okay…” and the soldier walked on.
We kept walking and he looked at me and said,”Who the hell was that?”
“Just someone who wanted to thank you,” I answered.
“For what?” he asked.
“For being there,” I offered.
This happened a few more times before we left. And eventually I think he was starting to get the idea of the genuineness of the gratitude of the people who attended the memorial that day – or any day for that matter.
What stimulated my imagination that day and made the historical connections from another time to the present, was probably more than what anyone else saw – even though it was in plain sight. Maybe it was looking at the world for a few hours with ‘time goggles,’ never forgetting who or what has come before us. Maybe it was just seeing what we all should not take for granted on a daily basis. But I saw some special things that day. And things that will stay with me for a long time to come. Because what I saw was a group of veterans going to join their friends at a memorial that was maybe too long in coming. One that many of that group may never see again. I saw those things because I stopped what I was doing for a day and decided to look at what they did and saw the world through different eyes. ~ JW
Author's note: My dad died April 26, 2012. I am grateful to the American Legion organization in Danville PA, their contributors, sponsors and membership for providing the opportunity to share the experience that my dad and I had that day. He enjoyed the trip and visit to the memorial, as well as spending the day with friends past and present.