|Memorial Day thoughts
A shooting war was lurking in Asia on
the morning of April 11, 1963, though of course none of us knew it. Memories
of the missiles of October lingered, and we were impatient young cold warriors
-- finally about to move on from the U.S. Navy's submarine school at New
There were 30 or so in our class; we'd
studied together, and gone to sea on occasion, for close to three months.
They'd told us all about the risks of service in submarines -- and, indeed,
even trained us to meet some of them. Duty aboard any warship is a gamble,
but the boats were deemed especially problematic -- for good reason, as
we were about to learn.
It was 8 a.m. Our instructor, a World
War II combat vet with the colorful ribbons and pins to prove it, entered
the classroom, turned to face us -- and quietly announced the loss, with
129 officers and men, of the USS Thresher.
And then he wept.
His tears fell softly, with dignity.
The submarine service is tightly knit, and old friends had died ungently
the day before. We sat motionless, not precisely having heard angels' wings
in the instructor's words -- but now there wasn't a man in the room who
didn't know in his bones how fragile a reed life can be.
That afternoon, on schedule, we received
orders to the fleet. I would serve aboard two submarines in the ensuing
36 months, never to dwell on that April morning -- quite deliberately so
-- but never to forget it, either. There would be tense moments, but no
In that we were lucky, myself and my
America lost two other submarines during
the Cold War: USS Cochino, in the Norwegian Sea in 1949 with seven dead;
and USS Scorpion, in 1968 off the Azores with all hands -- 99 officers
Fifty-two boats went to sea during World
War II, and failed to return: USS Shark, lost to a Japanese warship in
the Celebes Sea with a crew of 59 on Feb. 21, 1942, was the first; USS
Bullhead, sunk by aerial bombs with 84 officers and men in Japanese coastal
waters on Aug. 6, 1945, was the last.
All in all, 3,505 American submariners
were lost to combat -- fully 20 percent of those who served in the boats.
Proportionally, casualties in the silent service were the heaviest in the
Pacific campaign -- exceeding even those of the justly storied U.S. Marine
On this coming Memorial Day, all across
the nation, submarine veterans will gather quietly to memorialize their
own. Bells will toll -- 52 times, to mark the lost boats of the Pacific
War; then thrice more, for Cochino, for Thresher and for Scorpion. Wreaths
will be cast upon moving waters.
This is meant, principally, to honor
departed heroes. But there is also an implied celebration of community:
A commemoration of shared experiences, of commonality of purpose, of a
time when circumstance sometimes demanded the extraordinary from quite
ordinary men -- who did not disappoint.
These are the happy few, who gave some,
gathered to remember their brothers, who gave all.
Not so long ago, Americans accepted
wartime service for what it is -- a cruel lottery. Men under arms present
themselves, more or less randomly, to mortal danger: Some are killed; others
are wounded; most live to fight another day -- and, eventually, to return
to a grateful nation which never thought to doubt that honor attaches to
all who go in harm's way for honorable purposes.
Walk a dusty mile along Cemetery Ridge,
which commands the gently upswept meadows where Lee's Army of Virginia
effectively was broken -- and the fate of a great nation was decided --
in heat and smoke and blood and horror on the afternoon of July 3, 1863.
Read the big monuments, one by one and
unit by unit.
Here, chisled into the cold stone, you'll
find the names of the soldiers who fought upon that day -- from general
officers to drummer boys.
Yes, battle deaths are noted. But not
In the national consciousness there
were only heros at Gettysburg, and the memorials reflect this. So, too,
do those honoring what brave men did at Belleau Wood; at Midway and D-Day
and Bloody Tarawa and in the Hurtgen Forest; at Pusan and Inchon and in
the hellish retreat from the Chosin Resevoir.
Some were braver than others, of course,
and some were not brave at all. That's the way of war. But America made
no real distinctions: Memorials -- in village squares, small-town halls
and big-city church vestibules -- list together the men who went to war
together. And, just as at Cemetery Ridge, appropriate note is taken of
those who died.
The utility of this is subtle, but significant:
Properly, the fallen are commemorated -- but in a context which validates
the sacrifices of all who served America in times of grave crisis.
Vietnam, of course, was different.
Vietnam produced The Wall -- which honors,
if that's the appropriate word, those who died in America's longest war.
But -- pointedly -- not those who served
and came home.
And this is an important, equally subtle,
distinction -- one certainly worth keeping in mind today as Memorial Day
images fill the nation's television screens.
The name McManus appears seven times
on The Wall: There's Charles Verne, from Woodland, Alabama; Frank Joseph,
from Jackson Heights, Queens; Jerry Doyne, from Atlanta, Lousiana; John,
from Manhattan; Mark Lawrence, from Los Angeles; Michael George, from Bridgeport,
Michigan; Robert Francis, from Wayne, New Jersey, and Truman Joseph, from
How many McManuses actually went to
Vietnam? I haven't a clue. Am I grateful that I wasn't one of them? Yes,
And this seems almost to be the purpose
of The Wall.
By focusing solely on the 58,202 dead,
the monument stirs relief in those who were not called. It helps those
who were, but who refused to answer, to rationalize their behavoir. And
-- there is no euphemistic way to put this -- it casts those who went and
died as, principally, victims.
Where is there a wholly honest national
representation of the 8.7 million young men who went to Vietnam between
1964 and 1973, acquitted themselves with -- yes -- honor, returned and
got on with their lives?
Certainly the Three Soldiers statue
forced upon the Vietnam Memorial by veterans who clearly understood the
real purpose of The Wall seems purposefully to underscore the victimization
theme. How else to characterize the three infantrymen's vaguely heroic,
but obvious, distress?
This just underscores, for future generations,
the message of The Wall itself: That service in Vietnam somehow was tinged
Surely, the Vietnam Memorial disconnect
will make it harder to fill the ranks the next time -- just as The Wall's
morbid fascination with death to the exclusion of all else will concentrate
disproportionate attention on potential casualties when future conflicts
In this sense, then, it fairly can be
said that The Wall is the final, and arguably the most significant, victory
of the anti-war movement. Scores of thousands of Vietnam veterans resolutely
pay no heed to any of this. of course. Nor should they. On Memorial Day
they'll go to The Wall, or to church, or just to a quiet place, to hold
fallen comrades in their thoughts, if only for a moment or two.
Know this well: They do not believe
the men they honor to have been victims, nor themselves -- and neither
should you. Most surely they were not. But what a pity that still these
veterans stand alone, 25 long years later.