Saturday, May 25, 2013

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day: A Time We Honor Those Who Keep Us Safe and Free

A vintage postcard honoring Decoration Day, which was the early version of the Memorial Day we celebrate this weekend.

I'll be going to Alta Mesa Memorial Park this weekend to freshen the flags at my father's grave. William Ashley Chapman graduated with an ROTC commission from Auburn in June 1941 and was called to active duty in July 1941. After that, he was in World War II "for the duration" as they used to say. For him, the war lasted almost five full years.

Then he served honorably in the Army Reserves much of the rest of his life, retiring as a full Colonel in the 1970s, at which point he was given Retired Reserve status that allowed him to be called up again if he were needed. "It was the greatest honor of my life," he wrote his commanding officer, "to serve my country in the U.S. Army."

The phrase in this vintage postcard, "Glory's meed" is an archaic English phrase meaning "glory's reward." You can see that the man's uniform is from the Civil War era.

He was one of the lucky ones. He died an honorable death in peacetime at the age of 90, after a long, active and fulfilling life. He often talked of his friend, Captain Raymond O. Kidd, who served with him on Ascension Island from 1942-1944, and served with him again in 1945 in the Battle of Okinawa. It was there Capt. Ray Kidd died one night when a Japanese Zero got through the Navy pickets and attacked Ray's unit encamped on Ie Shima.

Dad with fellow company commanders on Ascension earlier in the war. Ray Kidd is at front left kneeling. My father is at right in the back. Herb Schiff front right is 93 this year and still hanging in there in Sarasota, Florida.

Kidd heard the alert sirens and got his men into shelters before the attack. Anti-aircraft guns were booming and the Japanese pilot was probably already hit when he dropped his stick of bombs and went down himself.

The bombs, unfortunately, scored a direct hit on Capt. Kidd's shelter and the men in it were killed instantly. I learned most of this when I found, after my parents deaths, my father's wartime letters to my mother.

You can tell from my father's letters that he is cheerily downplaying the dangers he faced (especially as you read the parallel history of his unit which is much more harrowing). He makes it sound as if he and his men are on a sort of Boy Scout camping trip most of the time--all this because, as an officer, he knew that one of his jobs was to "keep up morale on the home front."

Dad looking sunburned and crumpled, on Ie Shima about May 1945. The 1902 Engineer Aviation Battalion built airstrips and other buildings for the Air Corps, so even though he was in the Army Corps of Engineers, I found his records in the Air Force Archives.

He was unable to do it the day Ray died. He warned mother in a postscript to a letter he posted the morning after the raid that "there had been an accident, but don't worry I'm okay." And for the first time during all the days he had been overseas he did not write her a letter for the next two days.

"Sorry I didn't write," he said in the next letter. "I don't have any excuses." I realized as I read those words that he couldn't write because it was just too hard to pretend to be cheery. He served in the honor guard for his friend's burial party and he grieved with comrades as they sat the next night sharing a bottle of comandeered hooch. He just could not write this to my mother. 

My father on the right with Capt. Raymond O. Kidd.

Ray Kidd was from Virginia and a few years older than my father. Kidd had married his hometown sweetheart Betty before my father met my mother and both Ray and Betty were in my parents' wedding in Spokane. On the fifty-two-day odyssey the engineers took by ship from Seattle to Ie Shima, Ray's wife delivered the Kidd's son, David, whom Ray was destined never to meet. 

All deaths is war are terrible and this one seemed especially so as it came to this handsome new father so late in June 1945, just a short time before the war ended in August. My father said when news of the war's end came to Ie Shima, they did not celebrate. They gathered in small groups to talk about home and to remember.

And that is what this weekend is all about. Yes, there will be picnics, and boating, and sales at department stores, and cookouts and race cars and sunny days with family. Life is for the living. But the holiday--literally a "holy day"--began during the Civil War as a day to take family to cemeteries where they decorated the graves of our honored dead. 

Dad and the pyramidal tent that was his home for six months during the Battle of Okinawa (after he got out of the slit trench, that is).

Today we must stop and take a few minutes off, as our ancestors did, to remember those who have given their lives in all the terrible wars we have been forced to fight.  

As long as cruel dictators, militaristic mad men, and religious fanatics are out there wanting to take our freedom away, it will ever be thus. To those who've lost our best and brightest in our latest wars, my heart is breaking with you today. But we must go on, as they would want us to do, and continue to defend our nation and our values.

Until we find our own peace in death and join our loved ones and study war no more.

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