For some, Memorial Day means a day off work, grilled food, ice-cold beer, and friends and family. It’s also the day to remember the war dead and their ultimate gift of life itself.
Although many in my family have served, they have not paid with their lives, and we are living in a time when, in spite of some scandals, the respect for our military is high. This respect has not always the case as Vietnam Veterans have told me repeatedly.
I learned as a child that not all soldiers come home in pressed uniforms, proudly wearing campaign ribbons and medals: It was the Korean War Era, and my beautiful neighbor, Patsy Duckworth, had married her high school sweetheart, Charles Ullery, a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. I had observed their courtship, their marriage, and the birth of their son. At the time I believed in fairy tale endings because in all of the stories I knew, the hero appeared on a white stallion, swept the beautiful maiden off her feet and carried her away to a magic kingdom where they lived happily ever after.
This time, however, the hero came home to his wife and son prone in a black hearse. Charles Ullery had been serving as a navigator with a test pilot in Florida when the plane failed, and a quick decision had to be made: bail out and allow the plane to crash in a heavily — populated area or fly to a remote area. They opted for the latter and all aboard died in the crash. Lieutenant Ullery earned the Airman’s Medal , given to members of the U.S. Air Force for “a heroic act usually at the voluntary risk of his life and not involving actual combat.”
It took me a while to realize that those who serve in the military have signed a blank check made out to the “United States of America” in which they have pledged to give all that is asked of them, up to and including their lives. Some disagree with me on this as they say, “Vivian, you don’t want to interview me. I really didn’t do anything.” An array of cooks, truck drivers, accountants, and all manner of men and women is essential to support those on the front lines in war zones.
As we prepare to honor our military on Memorial Day, I want to share with you brief stories of three World War II veterans who were at the Battle of the Bulge.
The Battle of the Bulge took place from Dec. 16, 1944, until Jan. 25, 1945. This was the last major German offensive of the war, and although our Allies won, the battle was fierce and bloody. The cost was high: 19,000 Americans killed, 47,500 Americans wounded, 23,000 Americans captured or missing in action.
Harry Christy, 95, of Piqua, Ohio, a part of General Patton’s Third Army was a staff sergeant in charge of a field artillery section that arrived at the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 20th. Although on the front lines, his unit lost only one man, a combat medic who was shelled and died as he went to help the wounded. About 35 in Christy’s unit were among the wounded.
PFC Anthony Barga, 92, of Sidney, Ohio, was at the Bulge as well, but he went over with an “old Virginia National Guard outfit, a loaned battalion, also in Patton’s Third Army. I was in a service battery, We laid telephone wires by hand, communication between A Battery, B Battery, and C Battery. We had a switchbox that we guarded at night so the units could know where everybody was. One of the men in that unit was 56 years old! We were first one place and then another. Nobody died.”
Captain Robert Tweed, 96, lives on a farm outside of Troy, Ohio, As a farmer, he was not drafted, but in 1943 he was talked into volunteering for induction. He hoped to join the Army Air Corps, but that didn’t happen.
By December of 1944 he was at the infamous Battle of the Bulge. And his account of his unit bears no resemblance to the accounts given to me by Christy and Barga.
“I was a sergeant, a squad leader. We were an orphan unit, attached to one unit and then another. We went into the line on Christmas Eve with the Seventh Army near Strasburg. It was a three-day battle attack. We were cut off and hit by Tiger tanks, the Cadillac of the German Army with 88 millimeter guns, best muzzle velocity, best gun in the whole God-damn war.
“We had no defense. One of the screw-ups was the day before the attack our bazookas had been taken out for modification. We ran out of ammo. There was no food. It was colder than hell, snow all over the ground. The upshot was that we lost two thirds of our men at the battle: killed, captured, wounded.”
I think a good deal about the men with whom I talk, their youth, their innocence, their fear, their bravery. They educate me in a way all those undergraduate and graduate American history courses I took in college never did. At times, I cry, but most of the time I realize on a very deep level what sacrifice means, what belief in the principles of American democracy means, what the size of the debt we owe our military is, and what responsibilities we have as civilians to stand up and be counted when some in our government would cheat them out of what they are due.
As Memorial Day of 2017 approaches, these three men have given voice to what they witnessed and survived. They speak for their friends, neighbors, classmates and men and women in arms who died. Think on these matters.
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The writer is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.