Sunday, May 27, 2007

My Memorial Day

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.

25 comments:

  1. Jeff, I know, as do you, anyone that glorifies war has never experienced war...

    My son used to think I was some kind of hero for my service in the Corps, I tried to tell him, we weren't heroes, we were scared kids doing everything we could to keep from crapping out trousers, he didn't believe me...

    Then he spent a year on combat motor patrol on Route Irish in Baghdad, Route Irish is the Airport Highway running out to BIA...

    His unit lost 32 troops in that deployment, and once my son came home safe to me, we could talk as men of war can talk, and in many instances, we didn't have to say a word, he wasn't a little boy wanting to go play at war any longer, he was a grown man that had seen the horrors of war and had been blessed to survive them, and he came away with an entirely different perspective of war too I might add...

    A safe Memorial Day to you Jeff, to you and yours, my thoughts and prayers are with those that didn't come home, for whatever reason, and with their families that love them and cherish their memories...

    Semper Fi Sir...

    ReplyDelete
  2. My sons used to rant and rave about me and my adventures over seas. I told them much the same as TexasFred. We, I, was simply trying to stay alive and bring as many of my friends home with me. I was in the first Gulf War and many many other conflicts. My job took me "in country" most times.

    Now my sons, both combat wounded (not terribly thank our Lord) war veterans can speak about it in a different light. They know, as I do, what goes on in war. Our talk? Very little. Its something in all of our eyes that speaks volumes without a word being uttered.

    Thanks Jeff, for a great commentary.

    Scott...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous9:05 PM

    just wanted to say thank you, for your memories, written here, and for your service.

    jordan

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, everyone for sharing your stories here.

    Best,

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jeff, it's strange that your list mirrors my own in many ways. Friends lost in meaningless accidents and exercises. I took comfort in only one thing during my years on active duty (and afterwards too), that they passed doing something they loved, being part of Naval Aviation. They lived their dream, and died by it too.

    I am glad I never have to go to another funeral service for a squadron mate on EL-1 in my whites, and listen to the Chaplain and watch the waves consume my friend.

    Peace.

    Jo

    ReplyDelete
  6. As a fellow "un-patriotic traitor" and former Marine currently on In-active duty, I salute you Sir, for your courage and commitment to ending not just this war, but all wars.

    Semper Fidelis, Commander.

    d.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I guess that there is no need to explain that strange ache that rises in the throat and behind the eyes, when living with the truth of war: "----only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."
    War has become a rich man's game. It's time for justice!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and commenting.

    ReplyDelete
  9. apostrophe1:05 PM

    Powerful words, Sir!
    As a non-American, may I suggest that you consider running for President? It would be good to see a human being in that office.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Apostrophe,

    The only thing I'll run for is cover. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Anonymous6:06 PM

    Thanks for your thoughts and reflections on this Memorial Day. Service members need not be memorialized this day because they died in combat, but in service to their country. You provided us with your rememberance of them and that means so much more.

    Fleet Admiral Nimitz in his retired years, lived in Berkeley and was known to take long hikes along a ridge line trail in Tilden Park (now named after him) planting wildflowers. Now I know why.

    As always, Jeff. Thank you.

    Left coast

    ReplyDelete
  12. Read. Wept. Read again.

    Peace.

    ReplyDelete
  13. LC,

    Yes, I've always heard he was a fine old gentleman. As I understand it, he refused to write an autobiography because he would have had to say some things about subornates he fired that he didn't wan't to say. Turned down over a million bucks, real money at that time.

    Human,

    Thanks, and peace.

    Best,

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  14. Anonymous3:11 AM

    September 11, 2006

    “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 cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . . we cannot 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.”

    Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln, spoken on the occasion of the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. They still resonate today. We need to apply these words not just to the honored dead of the American Civil war, but to those who have either lost or laid down their lives on September 11, 2001 and beyond. We cannot consecrate the ground upon which they breathed their last. They have consecrated that ground, both with their sacrifice, and with the lives that they lived before they were called.

    Celebrate those lives. Remember them with fondness. But do not give the dead a voice, for the voice with which they speak will not be their own. You ask, if it is not their voice, who speaks? What are the qualities of that voice?
    It will be a voice that will bring tears; it will be a voice that instills righteous anger. It will be a voice that calls us to take comfort in the belief that our system is the best and our God is the righteous God. It will be a voice that calls us to action without analysis of what really happened. It will be the voice of those who would manipulate tragedy in order to further political and economic ends that will ultimately benefit only those who manipulate. It matters not whether you are a flag waving patriot, a devout Muslim or even a tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist. It is that voice that will be motivating and driving you, and it will not be your own.

    Each person that has died tried, at least at some point, to improve his or her lot on this planet, and most tried to better the lots of others. Nonetheless, they are gone, and we are still here. It is up to us, those who are left behind to craft lives worthy of our souls, or lacking that, the souls that we wish we still had. Remember the dead fondly, but they are gone. We, the yet still living must go forward and craft an existence worthy of our human spirit.

    Be wise as serpents, but gentle as doves.

    Best regards,

    Daniel A. Smith
    MeMyselfEye

    ReplyDelete
  15. Sorry I missed this. Saw a couple sea stories and thought I'd contribute.

    During a FOD walkdown at MCAS Iwakuni in 1964, witnessed one of my strikers walk through the prop of a P2V-7S during turnup and emerge on the other side without a scratch. If it had been just me who saw this I'd have put it down to bad beer the night before, but ten or twelve shipmates from different vantage points saw the same thing, all shouting his name before his miraculous feat. Couldn't hear us, of course. Unfortunately, he had a bad temper and no sense of humor; knifed a guy who tried to tell him about it later. Luck couldn't save him from six, six and a kick, as we used call it.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks for the story, Sam.

    ReplyDelete
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