In­debted to those who died for our free­dom

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - OPINION - michael apichella MICHAEL APICHELLA is a for­mer Hazleton res­i­dent. Con­tact him at apichel­las­

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.

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