PILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
-- Carl Sandburg
In my 21 years as a naval flight officer, I never knew anyone who died in combat.
A classmate from Aviation Officer Candidate School was in the right seat of a P-3 Orion when the guy in the left seat flew the plane into a mountain in the Philippines.
On the first day of my first cruise on the USS Ranger, a young enlisted guy got blown off the flight deck by jet blast from an A-7 Corsair preparing to taxi to the catapult. We never found the young enlisted guy, but months later, while we were in port at Subic Bay, divers working over the side on the hull found pieces of his flight deck cranial helmet wedged into the hub of one of the ship's propellers.
Later that cruise, we had an engineering main space fire that took all day to put out. Six of the ship's engineers managed to flee the conflagration in their workspace through the escape trunk, but they neglected to don the emergency breathing devices available to them at several places along their egress route. By the time they made it to the safety of the hangar bay, they had inhaled so much smoke that their red blood cells could no longer bond with oxygen molecules. The docs laid them in stretchers on one of the aircraft elevators, where they peacefully suffocated under a clear Pacific Ocean sky.
During my first Mediterranean Sea cruise, an S-3 Viking shot off the catapult, went nose down, and flew to the bottom of the ocean. We never found the S-3 or its three crewmembers. Not long after that, an H-3 helicopter returning from shore simply disappeared over deep water halfway back to the ship. We never found those guys either.
Later on that cruise, an F/A-18 Hornet pilot flying a training mission in Oman turned left when he should have turned right, and crashed into the wall of Star Wars Canyon. We couldn't find enough of him to send home to his parents.
On my second Mediterranean cruise, we saw combat action in both Kosovo and Iraq. I think we flew over 3,000 combat sorties with no casualties to air or ground crew. After all the shooting and bombing were over, some machinist's mate on one of our destroyers was doing a routing maintenance job when the piece of power equipment he was working with flew apart, and part of it flew through his head. Circumstances led me to share a helicopter ride from the fleet into Bahrain with this young sailor. I was in a passenger seat, wearing a flight suit. He was in the back of the plane, wearing a body bag.
Later that deployment, as we were returning home, a young sailor was killed in a bizarre accident involving a test fire of one of our ship's anti-aircraft batteries. I was in the ship's dimly lit combat direction center, looking at radar displays, when I heard over a headset that one of our flight deck observers had been cut in half by a piece of the wire used to tow the airborne target.
A young lieutenant commander did a bang up job in a ground billet for me on that cruise while going through a messy divorce. He fell into a good relationship with another officer during that tour, and he was thrilled when he got orders to return to flight duty. He positively beamed when he spoke at the farewell luncheon we threw for him.
The next I heard of him was almost a year later, after I had retired. An e-mail from a shipmate said that the young lieutenant commander had disappeared, along with his airplane and the rest of its crew, in the vicinity of Puerto Rico during a naval exercise. Never found: no lieutenant commander, no airplane, no fellow crewmembers. Somebody in the old crowd let his girlfriend know what had happened. I was glad it didn't have to be me.
When it comes to direct experience with fallen comrades, I got off pretty easy. Great wartime leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and Chester Nimitz lost millions of men and women under their commands--sometimes tens of thousands in a single day. One war story says that after one of the big island battles of World War II, Nimitz was so distraught over the number of Marine casualties that he briefly considered resigning and turning control of the entire Pacific war effort over to Douglas McArthur.
Over the past two weeks, I've read a lot of op-ed pieces on the meaning of Memorial Day. Many of these editorials pretend to decry using the holiday as a platform for political speech, but are, in fact, flimsy pretexts for supporting Mr. Bush's war in Iraq and attacking people who are opposed to it. Simply put, these kinds of diatribes are not about sacrifice--they're about glorifying wars, past, present and future. They're political speech flimsily disguised as non-political speech.
To hell with all that. My Memorial Day is about the thoughts I've already shared with you, and in three quotes from Dwight Eisenhower I'd also like to leave you with.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.
I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it.