Senator John McCain called Colonel George “Bud” Day, “The bravest man I ever knew.” Day (1925 -2013) was a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. A Medal of Honor recipient, Day was shot down in his F-100 Super Sabre over North Vietnam in August of 1967. Ejected from his jet and severely injured, he continued to be a thorn in the side of the North Vietnamese for the remainder of the war. Tortured ruthlessly for information, he was a leader of the organized American resistance in the Hanoi Hilton Prison.
I frequently noted in the field, how chaplains – to a man – sought out front line action. And I assume that was because, as one put it, at the time: ‘There is where the fighting man needs God most – and that’s where some of them know him for the first time. – U.S.M.C. Commandant A.A. Vandegrift, 1945
The last two decades has seen a surge in interest in popular historical study of America’s role in the Pacific and Europe during World War II in films and books but little to no individual attention has been given to the role of military chaplains. There were never enough chaplains to serve American soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, but as Dorsett points out those that served found innovative and courageous ways to reach the men. “They can’t say that the church forgot them, when they were called into service and henceforth in their lives they will forget the church,” declared Lutheran Chaplain Edward K. Rogers. “They may forget the church and God, but the church and God’s pastors or priests did not forget them.” Chaplains were integral to America’s victory in Europe and the Pacific. This is the argument put forward in Serving God and Country: US Military Chaplains in World War II by Lyle Dorsett.
Outside of the famous four U.S. Army chaplains who sacrificed their lives to save fellow military and civilian men when the transport Dorchester sank in 1943, there is very little popular historical assessment of the enduring role of chaplains in the war and how they helped shape a post-war society. Chaplains broke new ground when it came to racial desegregation in training classes and contributed to greater ecumenical understanding between churches, denominations, and synagogues. “The clergy integrated well and became pioneers in the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces before President Harry S. Truman’s executive order 9981 of July 1948,” declared Dorsett.
Integration of ideas and practical ecumenicsm also flourished. For example, some Protestant pastors, while well educated, previously may have had limited interpersonal contact with other traditions and faiths like Judaism or Catholicism. As one chaplain pointed out, “It was harder to speak ill of one’s faith when that person was a friend.” Chaplains also had to be trained in the basic rudiments of other faiths in order to offer proper religious counsel for servicemen.
Undeniably, the United States on the eve of Pearl Harbor in 1941 was remarkably less secular than today. Chaplains or “chappies” were, with very few exceptions, Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Jewish. Parents, especially mothers, were comforted by the fact that their sons had professional shepherds to guide them in the field and throughout their military service. World War II was the first American conflict where published images, especially from the Pacific at bloody battles like Tarawa, would relay disturbing images to Americans at home. Chaplains were pressed to the limit on both fronts of the war, but the savage fighting of the Pacific island hopping campaign tested military chaplains to minister in what many combatants called “the depths of hell.” “By their patient, sympathetic labors with the men, day in and day out and through many a night, every chaplain I know contributed immeasurably to the moral courage of our fighting men,” added Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. (more…)
The history of America is filled with heroic tales of courage and sacrifice. At the outset of World War II, most of the world was under tyranny. Sixteen million Americans served the country during World War II. Four hundred thousand of those Americans died in the war. They made history at places like Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Salerno, Normandy, and the Ardennes. Most of the men who freed the world from Nazi and Imperialist Japanese aggression have now passed from this earth. But while almost 1,000 veterans of the conflict die a day, there are still about a million living in this country.
The “Honor Flight” documentary is an incredibly moving film about a few of these men from the Midwest. It captures American history and pride, and their trip to visit some of our nation’s monuments in Washington. And for many of them, this will be a last day of tribute that they will remember in their lives.
A recurring theme throughout the film is that many veterans did not talk about their experiences when they came home from the war. This fact was touched upon in a previous PowerBlog post about Marine veteran E.B. Sledge, who was a great writer and author of With the Old Breed. Admiral Chester Nimitz paid tribute to Americans like Sledge when he said of the men who took Iwo Jima, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”
Fortunately over the last couple of decades there have been a number of popular books, films, and new museums that have raised awareness of this war and its importance for liberty around the world for a new generation. There are great places like the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and the book and film Band of Brothers, which tells the riveting and heroic story of “Easy Company” and their combat experience in Europe. “Honor Flight” is another important tribute that raises the awareness of the heroics of many of these men and the sacrifices they made for America and the world.
The goal of the Honor Flight program is to help “every single veteran in America, willing and able of getting on a plane or a bus, visit their memorial.” Since it is at no cost to the veteran a lot of money has to be raised. This film touches on some of the monumental fundraising efforts that made this trip possible.
Featured in this film are the stories of Harvey Kurz, Orville Lemke, Julian Plaster, and Joe Demler. These are humble men. Almost humorously, the film features footage of Kurz, holding down a job and bagging groceries at his local Pick n’ Save. Kurz, of course, is probably at least in his late 80s. Demler, also known as “the human skeleton,” wasted away to 70 pounds in a German POW camp during the conflict.
What is so amazing about this film is the way it brings veterans and families together to reap so many memories and moments of joy. So many men are reunited and given a worthy and tremendous tribute. They share stories for the first time and take us back to a time when the world was at war and American blood was shed on the soil, beaches, skies, and oceans across the world. This film is worth seeing and while many have come before “Honor Flight” to give World War II veterans their due and tell their story, this is a reminder of just how many we are losing and that they are indeed “The Greatest Generation.”
Quoting former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Mitt Romney was right to make the point that the federal deficit is the biggest national security threat to our country. Romney has also been critical of President Obama for failing to resolve significant cuts to defense spending under the Budget Control Act. Both political parties agree these cuts would be a disaster and they were implemented primarily as a motivational mechanism for real budget reform.
While cuts to defense will not solve our budget crisis, considering the depth of our spending mess, defense cuts can’t be ruled out entirely. Acton’s own principles for budget reform declare, “While no federal spending measures should be immune from cuts, our funding priorities should reflect the constitutional responsibilities and duties of the federal government.”
The defense budget was raised dramatically over the last decade to combat terrorism and fight two wars. Certainly as some forces draw down, savings can be made along with new investments for national defense and readiness. At home, we also have a moral obligation to care for our wounded warriors, which I addressed at greater length in a 2009 commentary, “Veterans First on Health Care.”
The challenge of course is securing savings while not compromising our constitutional charge to defend the country. Defense spending and defense budgets are a complex subject, but there are areas for savings. The military has a fairly long tradition of acting in one degree or another as a social laboratory. Military social programs continue to swallow up even more of the defense budget. I leave you with these words offered by Allen Baker in a discussion I had with him this morning. Baker, a combat veteran, served as a naval aviator:
We are three aircraft carriers short of providing absolute minimum coverage. When the “Arab Spring” sprung, guess what wasn’t in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in a half-century? (Hint for Pres Obama: It’s a ship where airplanes take off and land). Ditto when terrorists murdered our ambassador in Benghazi. No U.S. carriers nearby (despite the clearly elevated threat). That’s because we have too few, and the ones we have are either worn out, or are wearing out at a faster-than-programmed rate due to the extremely high operations-tempo . . .
They are building multi-million dollar child development centers in places like Columbus, Miss. while the Training Squadrons have broken jets sitting idly on the ramp for lack of parts and maintenance . . .
The Army needs new tanks. Smaller, faster, cheaper. New helicopters, too. Less child development and ‘total warrior support’ and just more warriors and weapons. Simple stuff, really.
Last week I wondered about the student protests here in Quebec and the logic of the welfare state. In some conversations on these topics, I was challenged to consider the social meaning of phenomena like this (e.g. public protests of one kind or another). I’ll have some more to say about that later this week, I think, but for now, I think that it is true that from a certain point of view, regardless of the merits of an individual case or instance, the right to assemble, associate, protest, and campaign for a particular viewpoint is one of the curious strengths of modern democracies.
It’s a point especially worth considering on Memorial Day in the United States. The Transom (a fine publication that is well-worth its subscription price) passed along comments from this past February, delivered by Lt. Gen. John Kelly, USMC, Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, to the Gold Star parents. The whole thing is worth reading on and reflecting on in full. But these lines stuck out to me in particular:
And you know that any one of them could have done something more self-serving with their lives as the vast majority of their age group elected to do after high school and college, but no, they chose to serve knowing full well a brutal war was in their future. They did not avoid the most basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen — the defense of country — they welcomed it.
Our kids were the best of the best of their generation, and in their unselfishness put every American ahead of themselves. All are heroes for simply stepping forward, and our people owe a debt they can never fully pay. Their reward for service is the legacy they left behind: selfless valor, the Country we live in, and the freedoms so many take for granted.
What are the freedoms we so often take for granted? They include the right to peaceful demonstration (a key word here being peaceful). This is a right that is respected and fought for by those who may not share the sentiments of those who demonstrate or protest. This is a feature of public space in much of the developed world that is unique to modern democracies: the rights of minority viewpoints to make their case in a public forum.
Indeed, a very common sentiment you’ll hear from military service members is something like this: “I don’t agree with you, but I’ll fight and defend your right to disagree.”
From this perspective, then, even something as morally odious as the demonstrations of the Westboro Baptist Church, and certainly more mundane demonstrations like those of disaffected students, are unintended testimonies to the sacrifices of those that have served, suffered, and died in military service. In the case of Westboro, the very soldiers that the protesters use as an occasion for grandstanding have sacrificed to protect the protesters’ right to be so greatly mistaken.
This, I think, is something worth remembering this Memorial Day.
One of the powerful things about Memorial Day is that we live in a community and an America that is worthy of sacrifice. Many feel, for good reason, the foundational ideals of our Republic are in peril. The proclamation of the first Memorial Day by General John A. Logan in 1868 stated the importance of guarding the graves of those slain in battle with “sacred vigilance.” It is a calling bestowed upon all of us to toil for improvement of the common good and a better nation. We should constantly ask ourselves how do we sustain freedom and what can we do to spread liberty across our land? The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia bears an inscription that comes from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
The men and women of the Armed Forces often remind us of the best aspects of our nation. It is beneficial and a blessing to educate ourselves on the military history of this country. Lexington and Concord, Antietam, Belleau Wood, Tarawa, Khe Sanh, and Ramadi, Iraq are just a few of the places covered by American blood. In Europe, one can easily be overwhelmed by row after row and cemetery after cemetery of American dead from the great wars of the 20th century.
In so many ways America stands at a precipice. Our debt is crippling the nation, we have a bloated moral deficit, and we no longer share a common purpose. These are all serious and seemingly overwhelming obstacles. But America has faced overwhelming odds before.
One of the most moving books I ever read was The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour by James D. Hornfischer. Hornfischer, a naval historian, called it the greatest upset in the entire history of naval warfare. But of course victory came at a tremendous price. Known as the Battle off Samar (island), it is an epic David vs. Goliath story. Take time to learn the sacrifice of those sailors and what they endured for our country. The book of Deuteronomy declares, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past.”
Take time this weekend to remember and give thanks for the sacrifice of our Armed Forces, especially those who paid with their life in defense of this land and its ideals. Remember to pray for peace and for the families who recently lost loved ones in defense of this country. Below is an exceptional and haunting video with still photos from Arlington National Cemetery:
Since April is a time for Spring cleaning, the Washington Post asked a handful of writers what “unnecessary traditions, ideas and institutions” we should toss out with other clutter in our lives. Thomas E. Ricks, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, thinks we should discard the all-volunteer military. (more…)