Many of my family are or have been servicemen and women. There are uncles, cousins, and grandparents, too many too count, from many different countries, who have fought on foreign fronts, and in some of history’s greatest and most significant wars. No doubt their stories are full of drama, valor, sacrifice, and heartbreak, enough to fill several volumes; yet there is much of their stories that I know little of.
There are three circumstances that challenge efforts to preserve the histories of forefathers who fought for freedom and country, and which contribute to obstructing my own knowledge of some of those whom I remember on Memorial Day.
My mother’s great uncle Eldon Dunlop is one who comes first to mind. From New Brunswick, Canada, he went to fight in the Great War, World War I. Serving in the 2nd Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, he fought in Belgium and was killed in 1916 just before the beginning of ThirdBattle of Ypres. He is buried there now, at the memorial Maple Copse Cemetery, in what was called the “killing fields” of Flanders. It was death that separated me from ever fully knowing his story.
My grandfather Delwin Long fought in the Pacific Campaign of World War II. Assigned to the Marine Fighter Squadron, he was at the 1944 Battle of Guam and the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima, the most famous battle in U.S. Marine Corps history. Who knows all the hair-raising details of what he faced in Guam and Iwo Jima? He never spoke of it. But he had risen to the rank of sergeant at the time of his discharge, after just a few years. We never saw the few relics remaining from his service years, his E.G.A. insignias, until after his death.
My maternal great grandfather Ralph York fought in the World War I American Expeditionary Force under General Pershing. In 1918, he took part in The Battle of Saint-Mihiel and The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, known as the largest battle in U.S. military history. He also came home unable to speak of his experiences on the battlefield, but suffered from shell shock, or PTSD, for the rest of his life. It was the darkness of the suffering they experienced in war that prevented the stories of these two from being heard.
Great grandfather Douglas Page was with the 4th Light Horse Brigade of the Australian Imperial Force. He fought in the Middle East during World War I, and was wounded at the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in 1916. Returning to Australia, he lived a vigorous and successful life after the war, and doubtless spoke of his wartime experiences often. But distance kept me from being more familiar with his story.
So it is that even as we set out to remember our fallen military heroes this Memorial Day, so many circumstances threaten to fade out the memory of their stories and their sacrifice. But that will only happen if we choose to allow it.
For example, despite the silence that surrounded the lives and service of the men named above, my family has been able to piece together the details and uncover their stories. Now we have names, dates, faces, events, even tales of their battle experiences. With that, we can more fully honor their service and ensure that their stories are remembered and passed on.
So, there are ways to counteract the deteriorating effects of death, darkness, or distance and preserve the knowledge and honor of their legacy:
Keep the living alert. Death does not have to mean a story forgotten. While the fallen are memorialized, the living must remain aware and grateful of the significance of their deeds, and vigilant to recognize and preserve their victories.
Keep a light on. The darkness and devastation of war does not have to be left to prevail. Support and care for servicemen, the families of the fallen, and those broken and wounded by war.
Keep the right focus. Knowledge of those who served may be faint, whether because the distance of time, location, or relationship. Pay attention, then, to those who are near in the present, and make efforts to learn and appreciate their stories. Also, keep past and future in sight, recognizing all that has been done and the cost of continuing to preserve it.
The battle is only lost when we have forgotten.