Indebted to those who died for our freedom
We pause today and remember all persons who served in the United States armed forces. We also recall those who died serving.
Here in Europe people remember, too, particularly with this being the 100th anniversary of the Armistice following World War I. That terrible war wiped out a generation of men who fought on their home turf.
My friend Val preached a sermon one Veterans Day during which he quoted Christ’s simple words which are as poignant today as they were when first spoken: No greater love is there than for a man to lay down his life for another. Certainly there are war memorials in the Hazleton area that bear testimony to that brand of love.
Of course, pacifists also may quote Christ, who taught his followers to turn the other cheek and love their enemies. But does being called to love our enemies mean we must allow them to run roughshod over the weak and the vulnerable? Think of the Holocaust before you answer that.
There are no more veterans of World War I, few from WWII, and a decreasing number from Korea and Vietnam among the crowds, representing a range of conflicts, from Chateau Thierry to the current war on terror.
Each person reading this newspaper, worshipping in our churches and synagogues or not, for in our country freedom of religion is first cousin to freedom from religion — we who are slaves to no one, today we are deeply indebted to those who serve our country.
On Nov. 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the first Armistice Day, later renamed Veterans Day by Dwight D. Eisenhower, to acknowledge the sacrifice made by the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who served in American wars, signifying our gratitude. Tragically, many cannot acknowledge our thanks from their graves scattered across the world. For those of us who grew up around here, the occupants of those graves all too often are our fathers, uncles, neighbors and friends.
Kids graduating in the 1930s and early ’40s were the first to be called up to fight in World War II following a day that still lives in infamy, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Consider Charles “Ozzie” Prokopic. Ozzie, who died in 2010, was a 1939 graduate of Hazleton High School and the last surviving member of the 1937-38 state championship basketball team. For years, working men in sidestreet bars recounted the events of that championship game like Welsh bards recalling the glory of some longago tournament. As the surviving boys aged and became old men, they recalled the dead’s names reverently, like a liturgical chant.
A World War II veteran, Ozzie served 4½ years active duty overseas in Europe, coming back to town to marry his pretty high school sweetheart Florence Reed, and live to be 90. In 2000, he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2007, the championship team was inducted into the Hazleton Area Sports Hall of Fame
But as I say, not all the Hazleton area athletes returned from war. And their families never forgot them. I’ve heard that old timers cross themselves and lift a shot glass in memory of those who never returned from the killing fields.
As any “Devil Dog” will tell you, Belleau Wood was a proud chapter of U.S. military history written in the blood of the United States Marine Corps. Records show that between June 1 and 26, 1918, U.S. forces suffered 9,777 casualties, with 1,811 killed. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly cried his determined challenge: “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” as he led a charge against German troops.
Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, famously said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle!”
The fight eventually spilled out of the woods and into the nearby wheat fields where concentrated hand-tohand combat ensued, making it more like a medieval battle.
My family explored the simple stone Belleau Memorial Chapel in France, built over the front-line trenches. We saw countless marble memorials, dotted white against green. Every 60 minutes, a bell tolled the hour, but at 1 p.m. precisely a carillon chimed out songs popular in 1918, tunes all the boys would have known and loved. It hit me like an Atlantic breaker that these jazzy melodies were played for the countless dead who surrounded us.
Perhaps I’m not qualified to talk of these matters. Many of my friends served during the Vietnam era and in later conflicts while I blithely went off to college and began my teaching career, taking my freedoms for granted. I am a man of few regrets; however, I regret that I never put on the uniform to serve when I had my chance.
Today, many Coal Region families are again watching and praying for their sons and daughters to come marching home. This time from Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. Troubled by global conflicts, confused by the complexity of the War on Terror, I’ll seek out a memorial service today, and I’ll bow my head quietly, giving thanks for the sacrifices made by the men and women who served, saying, “Thank you; your sacrifice was not in vain.”
But I’ll also pray that the wars will end, for as any vet will tell you, war truly is hell. The families of the dead and wounded will add their amen to that fact.