Memorial Day and Our Veterans

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It takes hard work and dedication to keep the faith alive–especially during a time when traditional observance of Memorial Day has been diminishing.  In fact, sadly, many Americans have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day.  At many cemeteries...the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected...and forgotten.  Many towns no longer hold Memorial Day parades. 

 Memorial Day was first proclaimed by General John Logan, national commander of the Army of the Republic and it was first observed on May 30, 1868.  At first, Memorial Day was focused on the Civil War. 

 It’s no surprise that the Civil War was the backdrop for the start of our Memorial Day tradition.  For 110 years the total number of men who died in the Civil War has stood at 618,222.  But according to an article in the New York Times in April 2012, that figure has been revised upward to about 750,000.  The total population of the U.S. in 1860 was about 31 million.  So about 2.5 % of the population in 1860 died as a result of the Civil War.  By today’s standards, with a population of about 300,000,000, it’s the equivalent of a war that resulted in 7,500,000 American casualties. So, against the backdrop of a conflict that resulted in about 2.5 percent of the population being killed, most Northern states continued to celebrate Memorial Day primarily to honor those that died in the Civil War.

 But decades later, with the tragedy of the Great War as WWI was at first known, Memorial Day began to honor all those who died fighting in any war. And the events and aftermath of WWI did much to shape our modern Memorial Day tradition.  Most historians agree that this war was a seminal event in the history of the 20th century...and it has continued to shape events well into the 21st century.  Out of one shot from a Serbian rebel came one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history...and, one of the most revolutionary.  Allied forces suffered over 5 million deaths and almost 13 million wounded. 

 From the battle fields of Belgium, where so many soldiers lost their lives during World War I, arose one of the most memorable war poems ever written.  You see, Colonel John McRae, a physician, spent 17 days treating the casualties of the terrible battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915.  One death, in particular, deeply affected McRae.  It was the death of a friend who had been killed by a shell burst and was buried later in a cemetery near McRae’s infirmary.  The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance, perhaps resting from the strain of the work, McRae looked across the fields of Flanders, as Belgium is known, and he saw red poppies springing up in the ditches...being blown gently by an east wind. 

 He took a piece of paper and scribbled a poem that has come to symbolize the memorial for our dead heroes.

 

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the dead.  Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 Inspired no doubt by McRae’s immortal words, American teacher Moina Michael created the Flanders Field Red Poppy as a symbol of remembrance.  Through her tireless, in fact, indefatigable efforts and campaigning, the red field poppy has become an internationally-recognized symbol of remembrance and welfare for war veterans.  In fact, in 1948 the U.S. Post Office honored Ms. Michael with a postage stamp with her picture on it.

 In fact, Moina Michael penned her own poem:

 

We cherish too, the Poppy Red

That grows on fields were valor led,

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies.

 But sadly, I think most veterans organizations would agree, that keeping the faith alive is more difficult when Memorial Day gets reduced to a just another 3-day holiday weekend– a day that means nothing more to most people than an opportunity to buy things at stores on sale, watch sports...or, do nothing at all..

 I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that it’s the stories of those who died that must never be forgotten.  Without those stories the sacredness, the solemnity of Memorial Day–in fact the faith–will be lost.  Indeed, I submit to you ladies and gentlemen that the indefatigable American spirit belongs to those who cherish the memory of the blood of heroes.

 And it’s this spirit that is embodied by our living veterans who, but for fate, could have been counted among the dead.  As a veterans disability lawyer I have the honor each working day to speak to such living heroes from all over the country.  As a veterans advocate I am humbled and honored by the task of serving these brave men and woman. I see many cases, for instance, of a veterans who have been unable to work since returning from Vietnam–largely due to the psychological trauma they experienced due to the loss of a close friend in combat.

 You see, brotherhood and comradery develop quickly among men in the service.  Richard Antrim was one of the men that embodied all that we cherish as Americans. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1931.  Antrim was an effective leader who inspired confidence.  Antrim became the executive officer of the USS Pope.  And he was serving in this capacity when, on March 1, 1942, disaster struck.  In the history of Medal of Honor recipients, the story of Richard Antrim is one of the most inspiring.

 However, his story remained obscure until some 30 years after his death.  His family finally consented to the release of the story “because people need to know who came before them and what they did to preserve our freedom.”

 On or about the evening of February 28, 1942 the USS Pope under Antrim’s command found herself badly damaged from a previous enemy encounter in the Java Sea.  She was slowly sinking.  Antrim organized an evacuation with life rafts to hold the 151 members of the crew.  They took what provisions they could.  For 3 days the sailors remained clustered together on the open water until they were finally plucked from the sea...by the Japanese. 

 They became POW’s in Makassar in Indonesia, a place convincingly controlled by the Japanese.  As you know, the Japanese perpetrated heinous acts on the American POWs.  Torture was ubiquitous, cruel, and deadly.  This was the context into which Lt. Antrim and the crew of the USS Pope entered on that fateful day in 1942.  The nights were punctuated with the screams of pain and anguish of tortured POWs, and sights of the arbitrary cruelty met their gaze each morning. 

 This was the setting for 2,700 POWs on one unforgettable day.  These POWs watched with horror as an enraged Japanese guard exploded at one young lieutenant who apparently failed to bow properly to a Japanese guard.  The Japanese guard erupted with an explosion of violence against the young lieutenant.

 The Japanese guard unleashed a barrage of near-deadly blows with his swagger stick.  It was a savage beating that caused the skin of the lieutenant to burst open.  The horrified prisoners looked on stunned, thinking that the slightest protestation could result in their receipt of the same fate or worse.  But Lieutenant Antrim would not keep silent.  Making himself conspicuous, he advanced toward the Japanese guard, pleading for mercy on behalf of the lieutenant.  Such an act appeared suicidal.  This courageous act appeared as a prescription for two deaths instead of one.

 But it was a protest that Lt. Antrim believed had to be done...no matter the cost.  With the severely beaten lieutenant lying on the ground, Lt. Antrim wrestled with the language barrier, using various gestures, in an effort to convince the guard that enough had been done.  Antrim’s protest attracted the attention of the entire cadre of enemy guards.  Antrim begged for mercy.  But there was none.  The Japanese ordered Antrim to step back so that the unconscious lieutenant could receive his full punishment–fifty lashes with a thick hawser.

 The unconscious lieutenant was at death’s doorstep as a result of his earlier beating with the swagger stick. His body was broken and nearly dead as the first lash of the hawser struck his helpless body...only to be followed by another, and another.  His skin began to break open, causing a cascade of blood to underscore the savagery of the Japanese guards who began to pulverize him with brutal kicks to his unconscious form.  Fifteen lashes had left the man completely unconscious.  Further lashes would invariably result in his death...unless something happened.

 And something did happen.  Enough! Shouted Lt. Antrim as an awestruck silence fell over the collection of POWs. 

 “I’ll take the rest,” Lt. Antrim said.

 The POWs could scarcely believe their ears.  The Japanese were incredulous.  They no doubt could not conceive of such an act of bravery among the Americans. 

 “If there are to be 50 lashes, I will take the rest for him.”

 But this time, the courageous announcement had its effect.  From the beleaguered POWs shouts of approbation interrupted the carnage, and for a moment time seemed to stand still.  The Japanese stood in stunned silence...unable to fully comprehend what had just happened. 

 It was one of those rarified moments, one of those defining experiences of unconquerable power...and no one could deny it. 

 Lt. Antrim cared enough to embody the apotheosis of self-sacrificing valor.

 I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, that the principle embodied by the unselfish act of Lt. Antrim is the same principle that embodies each American who has worn the uniform and paid the ultimate price. 

 Let us not forget the sacredness of Memorial Day, and the words of Moina Michael:

            We cherish too, the Poppy Red

That grows on fields were valor led,

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies.

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Eric Gang

Eric A. Gang, Esq. is a veterans’ disability attorney who represents disabled veterans nationwide in their appeals for VA disability benefits. He has litigated over 500 appeals at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and has recovered millions of dollars in retroactive benefits for disabled veterans. His work has been mentioned in media outlets across the country. He publishes and lectures widely in the area of veterans benefits. You can reach him at (888) 878-9350 or www.veteransdisabilityinfo.com.



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