Port Chester, N.Y., May 23, 2018 – Note: I’ve written several times about my ambivalence toward military memorials and celebrations, and I’m reposting this essay, slightly edited, from last year. As U.S. women and men in uniform serve on many fronts, many of them in harm’s way, praying for peace seems naive if not pointless. But whether or not those old men who make war decisions are attuned to God’s voice, I continue to believe that God never abandons those who served and are serving. May we never lose hope that the day will come when we will lay down the weapons of war and walk together in understanding and peace.
War is contrary to the will of God. – World Council of Churches, 1948
When I was a professional ecumenist, I lived in a rarified milieu in which Memorial Day – so beloved on Main Streets all over the USA – was bitterly controversial.
Liberal Protestants and historic peace churches struggle to reconcile the words of Jesus with the reality of war. They resent the fact that Memorial Day honors not only the men and women who gave their lives in battle but also pays homage to the wars that took them from us.
This exaltation of war may work with “good wars” like World War II, but not so much when we honor those nasty wars that are harder to justify: Vietnam, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the war against Iraq, or America’s longest war in Afghanistan.
My home village of Port Chester, N.Y., offers a heart-pounding Memorial Day celebration. It begins in a small memorial park on Westchester Avenue with the high school band playing patriotic music and the village veterans perspiring at attention in their size-62 blazers and legionnaire caps while politicians thank them for their service. I wear my U.S. Air Force Veteran baseball cap to the ceremonies and return the salutes of other vets as we throw sweaty arms around each other.
I love it. I hate it.
Some of my happiest memories of growing up in Morrisville, N.Y., are of Memorial Day. My heart swelled with pride when Dad dug out his legionnaire’s cap, as did other middle-aged men I knew and loved: Jack Irwin, my smart, gentle and nurturing pastor, or John Gourley, my neighbor and high school history teacher, or Reg Dodge, my junior high history teacher, or DeForest Cramer, my Little League coach, or Del McKee, my scout master, an ex-Marine, or Frank Matthias, our family doctor, a German Jew who emigrated to the U.S. in time to serve as a captain in the U.S. Army. I had little idea what they had done to earn their legion caps but I was sure it was something heroic. And when I watched them marching in rout step in the Memorial Day parade, laughing and joking with each other, I figured whatever they did in war couldn’t have hurt them much.
When I came of age, these good men inspired me to join the Air Force. Many of my contemporaries went to Vietnam that year. I spent three years in the rice paddies of England where the greatest threats to our base were agitated units of the Baader Meinhoff Complex.
Each Memorial Day when I was overseas, Legionnaires from Morrisville, mostly World War I vets, sent me a small U.S. flag and promised to “keep the fires of freedom burning at home while you keep it burning abroad.” Reading their note at my typewriter in the base chapel, it sounded like an invitation to arson. But I loved those guys. They made me feel a part of the Memorial Day tradition going all the way back to Bunker Hill.
I was in the Air Force for four years. I served in the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing under the command of General Robin Olds, who would go on to become the Vietnam War’s first hero “Ace,” shooting down numerous MiG fighter jets over the Delta, and General Daniel N. “Chappy” James, a giant of a man who would become the Air Force’s first African American four-star general. The troops loved the dynamic duo and, immune to ethnic sensitivities, called them “Black Man and Robin” behind their backs. I thought they were the greatest men I would ever know.
I passed many markers on the way to adulthood during those years, including developing chin hair and becoming a born again Christian. I had a pretty good Christian upbringing at home, thanks to my Presbyterian-Methodist parents and American Baptist pastors Jack Irwin and Walt Ketcham. But the Southern Baptists in the Air Force had a way of making you feel damned if you didn’t do it their way and respond to an altar call humming Just As I Am. But becoming more religious did expose me to ideas adolescents tend to overlook, including the dangerously radical rhetoric of the Sermon on the Mount. No sooner did Jesus enter my heart than I realized his Truth could be inconvenient for a member of the Aerospace Team. Jesus may have washed my sins away, but he left a nagging pacifism in their place.
I mustered out of the Air Force with an honorable discharge, an expert marksman’s badge, and a good conduct medal in August 1968. I enrolled at Eastern Baptist College the following month. Within weeks I became an active member of the anti-Vietnam War movement in college, wearing peace badges on my fading military field jacket.
I graduated in 1971 and began work as a writer at the American Baptist national offices across the ridge from Eastern. As an American Baptist journalist I began to discover other heroes who had exhibited as much courage as Olds and James. Foremost among them was Edwin T. Dahlberg, the brilliant pastor who was president of both the American Baptist Churches and the National Council of Churches.
Dr. Dahlberg was a pacifist in World War I and later a leader of the peace movement in World War II. That took more than a deep commitment to the Sermon on the Mount. It took guts.
Another Baptist hero with guts was L. Stanley Manierre, who was my wife Martha’s Area Minister (auxiliary bishop) when she served as a young pastor in Massachusetts. Stan was a genial man with a quick smile and a kind word for everyone. What many of his friends didn’t know was that he was a radio operator and top turret gunner on a B-24 bomber that was shot down over Saipan on May 29, 1944. He was a prisoner in a Japanese prison camp in Yokohama for the duration of the war. After his release, his resentment toward his cruel Japanese captors endured for years – until he ended up a traveling salesman and a junior high Sunday School teacher in Hartford, Conn.
“I was teaching these young people about the love of God and love for our neighbor and I came to realize I was still harboring hatred for the Japanese two years after returning from the prison camp,” he wrote. “I confessed my sin, and through God’s amazing grace I was forgiven.” Stan Manierre went on to become a missionary to Japan where he was reunited with one of the camp guards who had offered protection to the prisoners.
“Kanoh Yukuta was a Buddhist,” Stan wrote. “He was just another illustration of the truth we already know: God will not leave himself without a witness.”
Stan returned from Japan and remained a great American Baptist leader in Massachusetts – one of the true heroes I will always remember on Memorial Day. But I had known Stan for years before I realized the trauma that haunted his youth. His spontaneous grin made you think he never had a worry in his life.
It was about that time that I started thinking about others who took their broad smiles into Memorial Day parades back in Morrisville. Getting information about that wasn’t easy. The only time Elmore, my Dad, talked about his experience in the South Pacific was when we were watching “The Big Picture” on our black and white Admiral TV. The show offered grainy newsreels of World War II, and occasionally Dad would comment, “I did that,” or, “I was there,” so I knew he had climbed down the netting of a troop carrier or crawled through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. He also had some souvenir Papuan cloth that had been pounded out of the bark of a local tree, and a pair of Japanese Army chopsticks in a narrow wooden case.
Toward the end of his life I discovered Dad’s canvas-covered GI diary. I suspect it was a sanitized record of his life in the South Pacific, especially his version of his R and R in Melbourne, Australia – a GI Bacchanalia portrayed on HBO’s Pacific – because he knew his mother might read it someday. But what he did record was horrifying.
In his familiar handwriting, in blue fountain pen ink, Dad – a second lieutenant – wrote about a night patrol he was leading through the jungle. (I have placed the full text of his journal on line at http://bunadiary.com.)
It was wet and dark and Dad ordered the patrol to dig in for the night. According to the diary, Dad and his Papuan runner had concealed themselves in the roots of a tree when a Japanese patrol crept by. An armed Japanese soldier, naked except for a loin cloth, appeared in front of him. Dad pulled the trigger of his machine gun and the man dropped into the mud. The Papuan runner thought Dad was shooting at him and coiled into a fetal position. Dad lay motionless in the dark, sweat dripping off his chin. The Japanese soldier began to groan.
Dad wrote little about what it felt like to hear the man’s agonized whimpers all night long, not knowing if his enemy was still able to shoot his rifle or if he was losing consciousness.
Would Dad have put him out of his misery if he could see him? Did the thought cross Dad’s mind that this “Jap” was actually another human being like him, perhaps with a wife and loved ones back home? Did Dad – always good with irony – think about how insane it was that this stranger had been trying only moments ago to kill him, and would have if Dad hadn’t shot first? And how badly wounded was the man? And why wouldn’t he just die?
I don’t know how often Dad dreamed about that night over his remaining six decades. And I will never know whether it was the worst of his combat experiences, or just one he thought his mother could tolerate if she happened to find the diary. The few words that are there are enough to answer the riddle why Dad spent the rest of his life battling the bottle. But the few words don’t explain why, each Memorial Day, he laughed and joked breezily with his fellow cap wearers.
When the sun same up on Papua New Guinea that morning, Dad could see that the gut-shot soldier had died in the night. He searched the nearly naked body for grenades and discovered the man’s chopsticks. I’m not sure why he needed them, but a souvenir is a souvenir and Dad kept them for the rest of the war. I still have the chop sticks on my book shelf at home.
I’m not sure what the other father figures in my life did during their war years. I know Reg Dodge was a sergeant in the Army Air Force in England, stationed close to the base where I lived for three years. Dee Cramer was a sailor. John Gourley was an Army sergeant. And for years, Jack Irwin said nothing about what he did during the war.
Jack was a great pastor. I remember spending an afternoon with him as he helped me prepare a sermon for youth Sunday. He discussed each point with me, wrote notes in his precise handwriting, and presented me with six green note cards which I held while I delivered my first sermon.
Jack was working on his Ph.D at Syracuse while he was pastor in Morrisville, but he always had time for his parishioners, regardless of age. I was about 9 or 10 when I asked him, “How old is God?” Jack answered, “God always is. There has never been a time when God wasn’t, and there never will be.”
How many can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first considered that? Jack was also willing to offer advice to the teen-aged lovelorn, and at Halloween he was the best teller of ghost stories I had ever heard. I will not forget the All Hallows Eves we spent in the darkened Grange Hall while Jack terrified the Youth Group with stories that made Poe pale by comparison.
Then each Memorial Day Jack would appear with the other vets in his Legionnaire’s cap, smiling and waving and exchanging jokes. What, I would wonder, had he done in the war? Was he even old enough to serve in World War II? Had he been a typist or even a chaplain’s assistant?
No. Years later it was revealed that Jack Irwin had been a teen-age tank gunner in Europe after the Battle of The Bulge. After his retirement as a professor of philosophy at Lock Haven, Pa., University in 1990, he wrote an astonishing memoir, Another River, Another Town, a Teen Age Tank Gunner Comes of Age in Combat – 1945 (Random House). Jack’s 90 mm guns were responsible for untold numbers of German deaths (he estimates in the hundreds). His outfit was also a liberator of the Nordhausen Concentration camp where he saw human depravity on a scale his parishioners would never imagine.
I wrote to Jack when the book came out, both to admire his writing style and to hint at my amazement of the stories he told. (What shocked me more? That Jack killed hundreds of Germans? Or that when he was among his fellow GI’s, Jack said, “Shit”?)
Jack replied that he had never told anyone those stories, not his wife, not his children. “But I was getting closer to the bone yard and I figured it was time.” It has been a few years since I last heard from Jack and he has not responded to my emails. With more than a thousand World War II vets dying each day, it’s possible has has passed to the other side. But I pray Jack is still around and still writing books.
As another Memorial Day is upon us, I’m remembering many others who served. Dad and all the other father figures I loved are long gone, and so are millions like them. All were caught up in cataclysmic human events that were contrary to the will of God, and all were damaged in ways they could never tell us.
They all had experiences they clearly wanted to forget on Memorial Day. Each year I experience Memorial Day with ambivalence, especially when the speeches and celebrations are used to celebrate the wars that make it necessary. But I’m not ambivalent about the men and women who served. Dad, Jack, John, Reg, Dee, Frank, Stan, so many others.
I wish I had had a chance to tell them: Even if it was so bad you tried to hide it from us, and even if we will never fully understand what you went through, we will never forget you.
And we know that whatever you did in the war, and whether or not you were aware if it when you grew old, Jesus always held you close with loving arms and an understanding heart.