VETERANS’ DAY

Except for the last two paragraphs the following paragraphs are excerpts from the excellent book Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson.  I have made several very small edits to help link together the excerpts, but I have made every effort to retain the power of Mr. Atkinson’s moving words.

Among Dwight Eisenhower’s comments at a ceremony on June 12, 1945 upon receiving the thanks of the British government and monarchy – “humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.”

Two thirds of the soldiers commanded by Ike in Western Europe from D-Day until the end of the war were Americans.  Of those 60 divisions thirteen suffered 100% casualties and another five suffered 200%.  Casualties totaled 587,000.  Of the 361,000 wounded there were 1,700 left blind, 11,000 at least partially paralyzed and nearly 18,000 amputations.  This does not include the mental scars carried by both the wounded and the “unwounded.”

Another 75,000 Americans had been listed as missing or captured during the European campaign; thousands still were not accounted for at war’s end, leaving their loved ones with the particular anguish of uncertainty.  An estimated 25,000 GIs lay in isolated graves around the Continent, many of them hidden or lost.

No sooner had the ink dried on the surrender documents than mobile teams fanned out across Europe to seek the dead and the missing.  In three years, European fields, forests, orchards and cellars would yield 16,548 isolated GI dead.  These dead and all GIs interred in cemeteries on German soil were re-interred in 38 temporary European sites of which ten would eventually become permanent American cemeteries.  On May 30, 1945, Memorial Day, at the Ninth Army cemetery in Margraten, Holland, Dutch citizens gathered flowers from sixty villages and spread them like a brilliant quilt across 17,000 graves.

In 1947, the next of kin of 270,000 identifiable American dead submitted Quartermaster General Form 345 to choose whether they wanted their soldier brought back to the U.S. or left interred with comrades abroad.  More than 60% of the dead worldwide would return home, at an average cost to the government of $564.50 per body.  Each affected grave was opened by hand and the remains sprinkled with an embalming compound.  Wrapped in a blanket each body was then laid on a pillow in a metal casket lined with rayon satin.

The first of twenty-one “ghost” ships, the Joseph V. Connolly, departed Antwerp bearing the remains of 5060 American soldiers.  Thirty thousand Belgians bade them adieu from the docks, while pledging to look after those remaining “as if,” one man vowed, “their tombs were our children’s.”

On October 27, the Connolly berthed in New York and the caskets were removed in specially designed slings.  Most then traveled by rail across the republic for burial in their hometowns.  Among those waiting was Henry A. Wright, a widower living on his farm near Springfield, Missouri.  Gray and stooped the elder Wright watched as one by one his three sons were carried into the bedroom in which each had been born.  Neighbors kept vigil overnight, carpeting the floor with roses, and in the morning they bore the brothers to Hilltop Cemetery for burial side by side by side under an iron sky.

Many years after the war the daughter of a Major buried at Colleville, just above Omaha Beach wrote of seeing his headstone for the first time.

“I cried for the joy of being there and the sadness of my father’s death.  I cried for all the times I needed a father and never had one.  I cried for all the words I had wanted to say and wanted to hear and had not.  I cried and cried.”

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As a child my Dad took me along to my uncle’s house where he was helping my uncle build a garage.  It was a hot summer day and my uncle removed his shirt as they worked.  I still remember my shock upon seeing the scars of the grievous wounds suffered by my uncle at Anzio.  But at least I got to know him.  I never met my father’s younger brother.  He disappeared with his PT boat in the Pacific.  I guess his epitaph would be the same as his boat – “overdue and presumed lost.”  Freedom is indeed not free.

If you pass a soldier or an ordinary citizen wearing a ball cap identifying them as a veteran please thank them for their service.  If you have a few minutes ask them about their experiences.  I passed a very old gentleman in the grocery store wearing a cap identifying him as serving on the USS Randolph, a WW2 aircraft carrier.  When I asked him what his job was his demeanor totally changed.  He seemed 50 years younger as he described his experiences.  I’m not sure which of us was more uplifted by the exchange.

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