Once upon a time, I remember a speaker at Chelsea Parade memorializing the dead veterans.
He said, “We will never forget your sacrifice.” Looking back, I have heard so many speakers on Memorial Day, and at various veterans’ affairs, claim that “We will never forget,” and, the truth is, we rarely remember.
Life in the military is hard, and it is impossible to imagine the suffering the men of the American Revolution, the Civil War, the War of 1812, World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq have endured.
Most veterans, I think, served this nation as I did, as a regular Marine with no combat. But my service did enable the fighting forces to do their job. I understand that it takes seven men, or as many women, to keep one person in combat, yet, everybody’s service is considered equal in the simple term “veteran.”
Monday we celebrate Memorial Day, and there will be speeches from coast to coast and border to border. The orator will shout “We will never forget,” but that simply isn’t true. We do forget, and we remember the sacrifices made on our behalf far too infrequently.
As a boy growing up in Norwich, I remember Memorial Day was taken more personally, and the graves of everyone, not only veterans, were decorated.
Memorial Day started years ago in the South and was known as Decoration Day. Many of the southern women would decorate the graves of fallen Rebel soldiers. The name was changed to Memorial Day, and it was Lyndon Johnson who declared that the idea was born in upstate New York, which I fear is not true, despite the celebrated recognition.
In days gone by, when people had to decorate graves at Maplewood Cemetery, it would require a trolley ride to the East Great Plain four corners and then a walk for more than a mile to the cemetery. Of course, the veterans would place an American flag on the graves of all veterans, especially those who served in the Civil War.
There have been some great sacrifices made by the men of Norwich who served our nation proud. There is a monument in the Little Plains Park, down Broadway a bit from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which celebrates the courage and valor of the 26th Connecticut Regiment. It will be 146 years ago Wednesday that proved to be one of the most tragic days in the history of southeastern Connecticut.
There was a battle fought on the banks of the Mississippi River in the town of Port Hudson. Union forces had blockaded Savannah and Charleston, and the southern armies were moving supplies up and down the Mississippi and over land from Port Hudson.
May 27,1863, was probably the most tragic day of all times for Norwich and New London as 142 were wounded and 52 were killed. Yet, except for a few, we have forgotten that sacrifice. Those going to Mass at St. Patrick’s walk by that monument, and how few know what suffering it represents.
Also from the Civil War, there is a flag that flies day and night in the Yantic Cemetery representing a shameful prison camp known as Andersonville, where 30 Norwich men were held prisoners. Of the 30, 15 died of starvation, or illness or brutality. Those bodies that could be identified were reinterred in Yantic Cemetery, buried in a circle with a cannon in the center and a flag that flies day and night. How few of us know of that shameful tragedy.
No, the truth is we don’t remember. Maybe for the moment, but then they are forgotten for another year when again their sacrifice is mentioned. Let us vow this Memorial Day that we will remember the suffering of the American Revolution and the Civil War, where there was no anesthesia to comfort the men, badly wounded… where the surgery was such that it was usually fatal.
In Iraq today, we have field hospitals that perform miracles every day. While many thousands come from home Iraq wounded, the men do walk and live, when in past wars they would have been casualties.
America has had more than its share of wars, and though many are critical of the wars we fought, the world would be quite a different place without America. Hitler would have overrun Europe, but for the millions of Americans who put on the uniform and fought the Nazis. The Pacific would be quite different today if the Navy and Marine Corps hadn’t stopped the Imperial Japanese Army. Driving Iraq out of Kuwait and toppling Saddam in Iraq will have value that only future historians will be able to appreciate fully.
Though we make mistakes, our purpose is always noble, and so many good men and women die for the good of others around the world.
Monday, we remember the veterans and their sacrifices. Say a prayer, shed a tear or decorate a grave, but do remember, for too many fought the cost of the freedom we all enjoy.
Bill Stanley’s prize-winning, latest book, “The 9-Mile Square,” is available at Lawrence and Memorial and Backus Hospital gift shops, all branches of the Dime Bank, Chelsea Groton, Eastern Federal, People’s Bank, Johnson’s Flowers & Gift Shop in Norwich, Wonderland Books in Putnam, or credit card by calling 1-800-950-0331