Memorial Day, 2000
By Charles Rush
May 28, 2000
follows is a first. I come from the generation that spat on
our soldiers as they returned from Viet Nam. I also come from a
religious tradition that, 400 years ago, refused to serve in the
armies, in part because of their convictions for pacifism, in part
because they had been victims of religious wars and would not condone
it any more.
I am not interested in the glorification of war but over the past
couple decades, I have come to a humble gratitude for the sacrifice
that ordinary people went through in the Second World War that
prevented the spread of tyranny the planet over. When I was in
graduate school, someone had finally published Hitler's last speeches.
Apparently, there was quite a debate over whether they should be
published because some of them contain instructions for a future leader
that will rise out of the ashes of a destroyed 3rd
Reich and reconstitute the Reich again. He even has directions on
where he wants monuments placed to him in Berlin.
One thing that is clear in reading those speeches. The Nazi regime
never would have stopped. The genocide of the Jews was just the first
phase. They would have also exterminated all Slavs, Africans, Chinese,
and Indians, except as they were useful for slave labor. As horrific
as the genocide was in WWII, it was only the first bud of a full
bloom. They had an elaborate plan and timetable and the total vision
was even more macabre than a bad science-fiction novel.
I am grateful that it did not come to pass. I am grateful for the
very broad response of ordinary Americans, Brit's, Frenchmen, Dutch,
Australians, and others that embodied a simple heroism and gave their
lives in combat.
It was an enormous mobilization and a truly national scope of
involvement. "By 1944, there were 12 million Americans in uniform; war
production represented 44% of the Gross National Product; there were
almost 19 million more workers than there had been 5 years earlier, and
35% of them were women" (Brokaw,
The Greatest Generation
, p. 11).
The level of sacrifice was profound and it was genuinely impressive
about that generation, as Tom Brokaw has recently captured in his book
about the era, is how widely sacrifice and duty were assumed. It was a
time of many honorable acts, not only on the front lines, but also at
The human cost was great. "292,000 Americans alone were killed in
battle, and more than 1.7 million returned home physically affected in
some way, from minor afflictions to blindness or missing limbs or
paralysis"(ibid. p. 18)
There is no way to articulate gratitude and respect for loss on
that scale, so men and women came home from the war and did the next
best thing, settle down to living lives committed to what was really
important, family, community, church, and work.
I think Tom Brokaw is right that what is striking about that
generation are the ordinary human stories that embody sacrifice, honor,
and duty. A couple months ago, I was visiting a man in the hospital, a
relative of someone in the church. It turns out, that 10 minutes
before I went to see him, his medical team had just left, giving him
some grave news. They told him that his heart was failing and there
was nothing they could do about it and that he was entering the last
chapter of his life. That is pretty sobering. Just then, I happened
to walk in. He felt like talking about that report, his life, and the
I asked him a simple question, "Are you ready to die?" He was
silent for a long time. Then he said, December 24th,
1945. I was on an LST in the Sea of Japan. Macarthur had given
orders to return Japanese nationals to the mainland from all of the
islands. We were going around, rounding people up and bringing them
back to Japan in order to rebuild the country.
Our boat was full that night with people. I was the officer on
deck. A terrific storm blew straight at us, swells crashing over the
bow of the boat. LST's are designed to get in shallow so they don't
draw a lot of water. The boat was 328 ft. long. Every time a swell
would lift up the bow of the ship, the wind would get underneath the
bow, turn the boat 90 degrees to the side and flop it down on the sea
with a crash. After 12 hours at sea, we had traveled only ½ knot
All night long, I stood on the deck of the ship watching it heave
and hoist into the sea. Those boats were not bolted together. The
decks were just welded. Every time that boat went up in the air, the
deck on the boat bent and twisted as it was flopped back down in the
ocean. The wind was freezing. The water was freezing. I sat there
all night long just waiting for that ship to come apart at the seams
and break up in the ocean. There were no boats nearby to rescue us.
There was nothing to do but wait it out.
Long about 5 a.m., the storm began to calm. The wind died down.
At dawn, we pulled into Tokyo Harbor, Christmas morning, 1945, the best
Christmas I had ever had."
Then he looked straight at me and said "Chuck, every day since
then... has been plus one."
I said to him, "Have you ever told that story to your children?"
He said, "No".
I said, "It's time".
We talked about God and family for a little bit. I kept asking him some
questions about his length of service and where he had been. I've
known for forty years, you don't talk about this subject directly
with the men and women of that generation. And you don't have to if
you read enough about what happened. In the next few minutes, he
relayed that he had been involved in somewhere around half a dozen
major invasions in the Pacific. I know the battles. The fighting was
intense, the casualties high. I'll bet that less than 20% of his
platoon made it home.
Our scripture lesson this morning, juxtaposes the ordinary virtue
of a regular soldier with the decadent vice of a man on the top- really
over the top. Our passage does not condone war and it does not condemn
war. The reality of battle is simple accepted as a given on the map of
David, you may remember, earned his reputation as a general who
fought with his troops. He slept in the field with them, led them on
guerilla attacks. Like Hannibal of Carthage and Alexander the Great,
he was an extraordinarily young general. Also like them, he is
remembered on several occasions for being at the very front of the
attack in battle.
Now he is older. He has conquered. He has time on his hands. We
are told that his army is fighting but he is not with them. He is back
in the big house, enjoying the good life, and apparently bored. From
his vantage point, the highest point in the city, he sees a woman
bathing. Sends for her, sleeps with her.
She sends a one-line message, the same one-line message that
continues to alter history and relationships from before the mists of
time right down to the present. 'I'm pregnant'.
David is crafty. He sends immediately for her husband. Calls him
back from the front. Asks him how the battle is going. It must have
been a little odd. It would be like Bill Clinton calling a sergeant
back from the front for a personal report on the action. What's up
David hopes he'll go down and sleep with his wife. But he
doesn't. He only says, "as long as my men are in the field, how can
His men live with him. He is honorable. It is a profound and
Mary Louise Roberts Wilson grew up in Mississippi. Her father died
when she was a child. Her mother took his job. She raised the family,
graduated high school early to go to work. Went to nursing school, got
promoted to operating room supervisor, supported her mother, her
brothers and sisters on her salary.
She volunteered for the army because, she said, "it was my
patriotic duty to do it." By Easter Sunday, 1943, she was ashore at
Casablanca and assigned to follow the 36th, 88th,
and 90th infantry divisions of the 5th Army.
The women of the Army Nurse Corps wore helmets, fatigues and
boots. They had to take grief from the chauvinists all around them who
thought they didn't belong there. It wasn't easy duty.
Her corps followed the invasion at Anzio beach. The fighting was so
intense that the CO called the nurses together to recommend
evacuation. Mary remembers that there was a male officer who wanted to
leave with the nurses. When the nurses voted to stay in support of the
troops, the male officer turned sheepish and agreed to stay too."
They worked 15-hour shifts around 8 operating tables, never sitting
down except to eat. She wrote a note home "such young soldiers... 19
years old... They so patient and they never complain. Can't write
now. Here's why "Bed 6 penetrating wound of the left flank,
penetrating wound face, fractured mandible, penetrating wound left
forearm. Bed 5 amputation right leg, penetrating wound left leg,
lacerating wound chest. Bed 4, massive penetrating wound of abdomen.
On February 10th, 1944 the heat of battle was very hot. As
Mary Louise Roberts
supervised several operations under way, German shrapnel started
ripping though their surgical tent. She said, "We had patients on the
table and we wanted to at least get them off. I said something like
'Maybe we can keep going before this gets too bad.' I went on for 30
minutes or so. We just kept working.'"
The CO recommended her for the Silver Star, along with two other
nurses. It was not, she says, an auspicious occasion. "We went to the
ceremony in our operating clothes. It took 20 minutes. It was a
quickie because we were needed back at work. Certainly I am proud of
it, but others deserve the credit, too. Everybody in our group deserved
the medal. I didn't win the medal. I just accepted it for all who
deserved it"(See Brokaw, pp. 174-179).
Someone sent the commencement speech given by Marine General Charles
Krulack at the Naval Academy in 1998. He shared the example of an
ordinary soldier who embodied the simple, yet profound virtue of honor.
The soldier was Pharmacist Mate 2 John Bradley. You've probably seen a
picture of him. He was one of the five men in the most famous battle
photograph ever taken... the raising of the American flag on Mount
Surbachi in the battle for Iwo Jima. The photograph was later
commissioned by the Marine Corps and cast in a granite monument, all
five of them raising the flag. Beneath the monument the words are
inscribed 'Where Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue'.
The battle for Iwo Jima was one of the most intense of the 2 nd
World War. "It is a hot, bubbling volcanic atoll that to this day,
still has active sulfur vents. During February and March 1945...
during a 36-day campaign to take the island, a Marine fell to Japanese
fire every two minutes... every two minutes for 36 days a Marine was
killed or wounded. It was the only battle in the history of the Corps,
where Marines suffered more casualties than the enemy.
If you go visit the war Memorial, you will be able to recognize
John Bradley; "he is the one with the empty canteen pouch. When the
sculptor of the Marine Corps War Memorial, asked John Bradley what had
happened to his canteen- John couldn't even remember... in the heat of
battle, he had completely forgotten. But, the surviving Marines of
Bradley's unit knew... and they remembered... and they told the
sculptor the story.
Prior to climbing Mount Surbachi, Corpsmen Bradley gave the last of
his water to a dying Marine... On the hot bubbling sulfur island, John
Bradley would go the next 24 hours without water. That afternoon, he
and the other soldiers were struggling to climb the fire swept heights
of Mount Surbachi. The next day, he braved enemy fire to aid to
wounded soldiers. A few days after that he rushed to the aid of two
other wounded Marines, and then shielding them with his body, he tended
to their wounds. This second time, General Krulack noted, he didn't
exactly rush, he hurried. Actually, he crawled because minutes before
he had been shot through both of his legs.
John Bradley was later awarded the Nation's second highest medal
for bravery- the Navy Cross. And this is the point that the General
made. 'What I want to talk to you about goes beyond bravery... goes
beyond sacrifice... I want to talk to you about selflessness. John
Bradley was a brave man and he sacrificed greatly, but most of all, he
was selfless. His brave acts were not done for any reward... nor were
they intended to be captured by News Cam 4 or CNN... There was no
public glory in what he did. In fact, men under fire rarely speak of
glory... instead they speak of 'who can be counted on and who cannot.'
Above all, they speak about and remember the small individual acts of
selflessness. Selflessness is unforgettable... even small acts of
selflessness are unforgettable.
"Over the chapel doors at the United States Naval Academy is a
simple Latin inscription- Non Sibi Sed Patria- 'Not for self, but for
country.' Simple, but powerful. Selflessness takes time to develop.
Rarely does a man or woman develop on a battlefield (or wherever they
happen to be serving). Rarely does a person develop a sense of
selflessness in a single moment in time. Spontaneous selfless acts
rarely happen. Instead they are built on a strong moral foundation and
then carefully layered by doing the right thing... time and time
"All of you possess a strong character... strong morals... and a
strong sense of duty. Let me encourage you to add to those strengths a
spirit of selflessness. That spirit is within you now... draw from
it... and use it... and encourage it from others. Use it to lead...
to build your team... and to serve those you know and those you do
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