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MEMORIAL DAY



The following is an excerpt that in a slightly different form originally appeared in UNCOMMON VALOR The Medal of Honor and the Six Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq written by me and John D. Gresham.


“A nation that forgets its heroes is a nation destined to be forgotten.”

—President Calvin Coolidge


Medal of Honor recipients Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, Corporal Jason Dunham, Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy, Petty Officer Second Class Michael Anthony Monsoor, U.S. Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis, and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Jared C. Monti are among the more than five thousand servicemen and servicewomen who have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2009. Like the other war dead from those conflicts, their bodies arrived by airplane in flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. All received the same respectful treatment: they were greeted in solemn ceremonies with honor guard by loved ones and/or officials before being transferred to their final resting places. This returning of war dead to American soil is a relatively recent tradition, dating back to the Korean War in the early 1950s. Before that, almost all who died overseas were buried overseas—in some cases in cemeteries constructed not far from the battlefields where they fell.


There are twenty-four permanent American burial grounds on foreign soil, containing the remains of 124,909 war dead. Among those are ninety-two Medal of Honor recipients, distinguished by the Medal of Honor emblem etched on their headstones. Twenty of the cemeteries are located in Europe; eleven are in France. There is a government agency called the American Battle Monuments Commission that is responsible for the operation and maintenance of these sites. They are the final homes for men and women of high rank and low, distinguished or dishonored, as well as the remains of those whose names are unknown.

The World War II general George S. Patton, Jr. lies in the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, near Omaha Beach—used in the movie Saving Private Ryan—has another four-star general, Lesley J. McNair. Normandy is also the final home to two sons of an American president, the Medal of Honor recipient Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and his brother, Second Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt. Quentin was killed in action in World War I and was originally buried near where his plane crashed. When Theodore Junior died a little over a month after the D-day landings in 1944, Quentin’s body was exhumed and reinterned beside that of his older brother.

In the United States, responsibility for the care and maintenance of veterans’ graves and cemeteries is held by a wide variety of private and government organizations and agencies. Arlington National Cemetery, for instance is one of two administered by the U.S. Army. The National Parks Service is responsible for maintaining Revolutionary War and Civil War cemeteries. The rest are cared for by a combination of state, city, veterans, and nonprofit organizations. Every state, and the territory of Puerto Rico, has Medal of Honor recipients interred within its borders. Alaska, with two, has the fewest. Among the various cemeteries, Arlington itself has the most Medal of Honor recipients at 382.


Cypress Hills National Cemetery in New York City is one of a group of eighteen cemeteries that form the middle portion of the border between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. It is the resting spot for 21,112 veterans and some of their spouses. It has the distinction of being the cemetery that has the second highest number of Medal of Honor recipients at twenty-four; three of those are double recipients.


MEMOLRIAL DAY WEEKEND 2009


The entrance of the eighteen-acre cemetery opens onto a flat plain that composes about half of the site before it rises in a steeply sloped hill about a hundred feet high. Scattered among the government-issued white marble headstones are a few placed by individuals or organizations. Additional memorial accents include a handful of special monuments, such as a stone French Cross for French sailors killed in New York harbor during World War I; the Second Division, American Expeditionary Forces Monument; and the British Navy Monument honoring a group of British killed during the Revolutionary War. Trees mostly line the edges of the property and provide shade on the hill. The exception is the large one near the center of the level plain that commemorates the Medal of Honor recipients buried there.


Like elsewhere in the United States, in New York City the Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, with the weather typically providing a taste of the heat and humidity that will descend on the East Coast for the summer. Those New Yorkers that can head for the beaches or summer homes. At nine o’clock on this particular morning, bright sunshine signaled that the day would be hot, and, thanks to the previous day’s rain, humid. As the quiet morning began, the only visitors to Cypress Hills were some birds—mostly robins—and a few squirrels.

As in other military cemeteries, the colors green and white dominate. Both were vivid. The trees and grass were refreshed by a recent rain. The sun-bleached marble headstones, with their regular shapes and even rows gave this, and other military cemeteries, their singular, poignant dignity. Because it was Memorial Day weekend, with the exceptions of the graves of foreign troops and Confederate soldiers buried there, small United States flags were in front of each headstone—placed there by Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops earlier in the weekend. But the previous day’s rainstorm had toppled many of the flags.


Around 10:00 a.m. on this day, three men appeared in the cemetery, one, middle-aged, the other two more elderly. Though having shown up individually and at different times, they were there for the same purpose—to honor the dead and to reposition any flags that might have fallen. Quietly, with deliberation, and independently from different locations, they walked among the rows, bending down to replant a fallen flag where needed and moving on.

Nineteen of the twenty-four Medal of Honor recipients in Cypress Hills received their medals in conflicts great and famous (Civil War, Indian campaigns, World War I), as well as those small and forgotten (Korean campaign of 1871, Boxer rebellion, Haitian occupation). The other five individuals, including double recipient Louis Williams of the U.S. Navy, received theirs when the nation was at peace.


The most famous Medal of Hoor recipient there, and the most famous of all veterans interred at Cypress Hills National Cemetery, is Marine Corps Sergeant Major Daniel J. Daly, one of only two marine double Medal of Honor recipients. Daly was awarded his first Medal of Honor in 1900 during the. Boxer rebellion in China for having helped defend diplomats, their families, and other trapped foreigners and Christian converted Chinese nationals from Chinese nationalist attacks. Sergeant Major Daly received his second medal in 1915 during the Haitian occupation, when he was instrumental in helping his thirty-five-man patrol defeat an ambush by more than four hundred Caco rebels. But the act that made Daly famous, and a Marine Corps legend, occurred in World War I. During the. Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918, his outnumbered unit was in danger of being overrun by a heavily armed German attack force. At the height of the battle, Daly led a successful counterattack with the now-famous rallying cry, “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”


By noon, two more elderly men arrived at Cypress Hills National. Like the others, they had come to honor the dead and to reposition fallen flags.


Since the beginning of organized warfare, countless speeches have been delivered in honor of fallen warriors and dead leaders. Marc Antony’s eulogy for Julius Caesar, as written by William Shakespeare, is among the most famous of fictional speeches. Among the most eloquent of historical eulogies is President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Because his speech was so brief, only about three minutes long, and because it followed a two-hour peroration by another speaker, few among the thousands in the audience at Gettysburg actually heard Lincoln’s now immortal words. Fortunately, copies of the speech were preserved and widely reprinted, ensuring it would not be forgotten.


Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for another moving eulogy to fallen troops—one delivered by Lieutenant General Lucian Truscott, Jr. on Memorial Day 1945, at the then-new American cemetery near Anzio, Italy.


Truscott had entered the army in 1917. During World War II, his first assignment was to develop an American counterpart to the British commando units, and in that role he was an observer in the Dieppe raid in 1942. He later participated in Operation Torch, the Allied amphibious landing in French Northwest Africa in November 1942, and fought in Sicily and Italy, ending the war as the commanding general of the U.S. Fifth Army.


On May 31, 1945, Lieutenant General Truscott was the main speaker at dedication ceremonies for the American military cemetery near Anzio, which was later named the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial. The cemetery held approximately twenty thousand graves at the time, and the ceremony was attended by a number of distinguished guests, including several U.S. Senators. Also in the audience was the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin, creator of the much-beloved cartoon GIs of World War II, Willie and Joe. What follows is Mauldin’s account of what happened after General Truscott reached the lectern.


Mauldin wrote that when it came time for the general to speak, “[H]e turned away from the visitors and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded there. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics. The general’s remarks were brief and extemporaneous. He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his head this is not altogether true. He said he hoped that anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances. A senator’s cigar went out; he bent over to relight it, then thought better of it. Truscott said he would not speak of the ‘glorious’ dead because he didn’t see much glory in getting killed in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious he would straighten them out. He said he thought it was the least he could do.”


In the early afternoon, under the bright hot sun, another elderly man arrived at Cypress Hills National Cemetery on that day in Memorial Day weekend 2009. Dressed in white short-sleeve shirt and tan slacks, like the handful of men before him, he began walking among the rows of headstones, pausing here and there to bend down and straighten an American flag.


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