One sunny Saturday many years ago, I had duty during a port visit to Liverpool, England. It was a “visit ship” day, and as part of Standing Naval Forces, Atlantic, we were obliged to take visit ship day very seriously. In my whites and my combination cover that I always felt made my head look like a spaceship was landing on it, I smiled and made small talk with the people as they came and went across the flight deck. I had even changed my old corroded surface warfare pin for the shiny anodized one in honor of the occasion.
An old woman shuffled up to me, and my first thought was to wonder how she had made it across the brow. She moved slowly, with the dignity of old age, and as she came up to me, she put her hand on my arm and I bent down to hear what she had to say. “I just wanted to thank you boys for coming over here,” she said. With a smile, I told her it was our pleasure, and that we were glad she was able to visit. She smiled and continued, “I mean during the war. You boys came over and you saved us. I’ve never forgotten it; none of us have. Thank you.” She then proceeded to give me a hug.
The British “stiff upper lip” was nowhere in evidence, and I realized that the Naval Officer’s Guide had nothing to say about this! I hugged her back and said essentially the same thing I had said before: “you’re welcome. It’s our pleasure.” Those 30 seconds remain as one of the most enduring images of my military service.
Both my grandfathers fought in World War II. One grandfather fought his way up the Italian peninsula with the Eighth Army, and the other was a Seabee who survived Iwo Jima. The ship in question was the USS Stephen W. Groves, named for a young man who won the Navy Cross, and lost his life, in the skies over Midway. On reflection, I thought it fitting that their grandson should receive onboard such a ship the thanks that they all had earned, and if what my priest says is true they know what happened on the flight deck that day.
As Veterans Day approaches, I remember that episode with the old lady. But what I remember even more is a trip that my wife and I took to Flanders many years ago. We were still dating at the time (in fact, we got engaged the very next day) and as part of a trip through England, France, and Germany, we rented bikes and rode through Flanders fields.
We found a section of trenches that still existed, we found several military cemeteries, and we found the heart-wrenching Menin Gate Ypres. These 3 things, each more poignant than the last, together brought Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day as it is known elsewhere in the world, home with an intensity I have rarely found rivaled.
The trenches had mostly filled in, but one could imagine life there, with death a strip of no man’s land not far away. The cemeteries were beautiful parks, as befits their care by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but each stone was a silent testament to the ultimate sacrifice by men who, on the whole, were younger than we were as we contemplated the scene. The Gate at Ypres brought tears to our eyes – on it are inscribed the names of over 54,000 men of the Commonwealth who died in the battles around Ypres, many “with no known grave.” This didn’t include another 34,000 on a nearby memorial – 90,000 men in one series of battles gone before they had seen the years we had. “Sobering” does not do the feeling we felt justice.
Better writers than I have chronicled the suffering and death brought on by the First World War. The phrase “the lost generation” serves as a reminder of the sacrifices the entire world paid from 1914 to 1918. The fact that the First World War led directly to the even more deadly Second only compounds the tragedy.
This Veterans Day will come, wreathes will be laid, parades will be walked, speeches will be made, heroes, living and dead, will be remembered, and then we’ll all go back to our day-to-day lives. Take a moment to imagine a field in Flanders were men drowned in mud. Take a moment to imagine the brilliant poets Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen, whose poetry provided us some of the more moving glimpses of life in those trenches. Owen suffered from shell-shock, but bravely returned to his unit where he died just days before the November 11 armistice. Think too of the generals, schooled in a way of war that was obsolete, who sent so many young men to their final rest, not knowing the Pandora’s box they were opening. This is a tragedy far greater than anything the Greeks could have ever devised, and the sacrifices of those men have been repeated, generation after generation to this very day.
Think, too, of our own President Lincoln. He was a great man in so many ways, but some words he spoke at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania embody the spirit of Veterans Day, I think, better than many that have come since:
“The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”
Lincoln was talking of our Civil War, but his words resonate well beyond our borders and well beyond that conflict. It is not enough to remember only on Veterans Day. We owe it to our veterans, living and dead, to make sure we never take their sacrifices for granted, and that we work together to make the world they have given us a better place for everyone. Men and women breathe free air in England, France, Poland, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan; almost no place on earth can you find people who don’t enjoy the fruits of our veteran’s sacrifices. Thank you, friends and comrades, and Happy Veterans Day.
“Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.” – Siegfried Sasson