“Thank you for your service.” Those were my words for an Army Ranger friend of mine one sunny, Sunday Memorial Day. He was a quiet soul, a gentle giant, a soldier and brother who would always have your back. I was trying to show my respect for his service to our country. It seemed right and fitting, but I missed the mark. I’d gone target shooting with this Army Ranger in the past, and despite himself being a top marksman, he was gracious with my lousy aim out in the field, and again gracious with my faux pas that morning.
To my ‘thank you,’ he graciously replied, “Memorial Day is to remember those who’ve paid the greatest sacrifice for our freedom.” He then pointed to a metal bracelet he always wore, which I’d seen countless times before but never paid much attention to. “This is the name and rank of a Ranger buddy of mine who didn’t make it back. I remember his life and sacrifice today.” I was humbled but also grateful to God to share in that brief hallowed moment with this peaceful warrior.
For years, I’d always get Veterans Day and Memorial Day flipped around. Which one is in May, which one is in November? You’d think being a former history teacher, I’d remember The Great War’s November Armistice and be able to connect the dots, but until this foot-in-mouth moment, I had always mixed them up. Not anymore. Those brief moments with my Army Ranger buddy made me remember, never forget, and strive to honor those who died to provide for our defense and secure our liberties.
Perhaps you don’t know any military men or women who died in service to our country, and therefore you’re tempted to not pay much attention to Memorial Day. Perhaps you’d rather not endorse arms or risk being labeled a nationalist. I myself am no nationalist and pledge allegiance to Christ our King. But God sovereignly places us in place and space and time. And each life lived has value and ought be honored. So I hope you’ll reconsider and take a few moments to reflect and consider, and find an opportunity to remember and honor a life that was sacrificed so that you might live. Permit me to share a story of a life I remember.
My father was named after his uncle Thomas. I don’t know much about this man, but I’d like to at least make a brief introduction. There are two stories I’ll endeavor to tell that in many ways bookend Thomas’ life. Both are tragic, the first shaped him and the final, in part, defined him. So first things first.
Thomas was born in rural Iowa during the close of The Great War. His parents owned a 200 acre farm, filled with corn, soybeans, and hay, and your regular fare of farm animals. His dad didn’t like tractors, so mighty Clydesdales and Percherons provided the much needed horse power to plow, plant and harvest the earth. My dad remembers two Percherons in his day, Pat and Dolly. These beautiful draft horses, white with mottled spots, yoked side by side, labored and sweat, to help this farm family subdue the earth.
Thomas grew up on the farm, living off the land. The second oldest son, he and his dad worked the land together. Amidst the many chores and to-dos of farm life, Thomas and his younger brother Dale would often disappear in the early mornings or late afternoons into the nearby orchards to go pheasant hunting. This provided a break from the mundane for the young, adventurous brothers, while also providing some fresh game for Mom’s dinner table. One late spring day in 1935, Thomas and Dale, were returning from a successful hunt. Thomas was 16 and Dale was 12.
Dale was leading the triumphant march back to the farmhouse, a pheasant in each hand. Thomas was following behind, a pheasant in one hand, shotgun in the other. Their farmhouse was simple but elegant. Along the west side of the house were large wrap around parlor windows. Their parents would often sit in the parlor as the day ended, watching the sun dip below the western horizon. The potbelly stove in the parlor would keep them warm during cold nights as the large windows provided serene views but couldn’t keep the cold at bay. This day the view from those parlor windows turned from triumph to tragedy.
As the boys neared the farmhouse, they saw their mom and dad sitting in the parlor. As Dale passed the parlor windows, he stopped, raising the bounty of their hunt in both hands. Thomas was right behind, not paying too much attention, perhaps looking back to catch one last glimpse of the sun’s daily circuit or just silently reflecting on the simple pleasures of life. In a flash, those pleasures were shattered.
Thomas didn’t see Dale stop, and unknown to him, Dale had reloaded the gun after their last shot. As Dale stopped to get his parents’ attention, the muzzle of the gun ran right into the small of Dale’s back. The gun fired and Dale’s short life stopped. Mom and Dad would never look out that parlor window again without this painfully etched scene ever present in their heart and mind. Tragedy burns deep scars that constantly nag and remind.
I’m not sure how this tragedy shaped the inner life of Thomas, God only knows. But I can speculate, that Thomas, like Jacob from the Bible, wrestled with God trying to make sense of this horrific scene. My father has told me that Thomas was a firm believer in Christ, and so I trust that through this grief and tragedy, though he carried a deep scar for the rest of his life, he learned to trust God and like Jacob, walked with a limp. We have this treasure in earthen vessels.
The final scene for Thomas came just 8 years later, almost to the day. It was late in May, 1943, and World War II was fully ablaze. Americans had hoped to stay out of the war, continuing a foreign policy of isolation, at least militarily. As the rising sun of Japan began to spread it’s rays across Asia, the United States lost their foothold in the Philippines, yet continued to support the Chinese government as they were pushed deeper into their interior. The US placed an oil embargo on Japan, hoping to choke the island nation’s military machine and force them to tap out. Rather than tap out, Japan struck Hawaii. The attack at Pearl Harbor awakened the sleeping giant and FDR called the nation to arms.
Years prior, the same year Thomas’s brother Dale died, a US General had commented on strategic regions that the US controlled. He stated that whoever controlled Alaska, controlled the world. Just six short months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese, with ease, occupied the Alaskan Aleutian Islands of Kiska and Attu. The US military feared that these islands would become one more stepping stone in Japan’s push across the Pacific pond. The Battle of Attu would become the only land battle of World War II fought on American soil. It is here where Thomas’ story would end.
Thomas was drafted in March of 1942. He at first didn’t want to fight, I don’t think out of cowardice but rather due to the deep scar etched in his chest. No doubt the stark trauma of his brother Dale bleeding to death in his arms with a hole through his gut gave him a realistic view of war. The seductive wanderlust and heat of glory that often sends young men to battle fell cold on Thomas’ soul. He had seen death’s face, he knew the cost. He was shipped off to California for training, joined the 32nd infantry and by May of 1943, Thomas was on his way to the Aleutian Islands.
The arrival was shocking. Attu is a cold, barren, treeless volcanic island. There are rugged coastlines and soggy lowlands with ground that won’t freeze, making vehicle travel nearly impossible. The mountains are jagged and snow covered. Most of the American soldiers had been trained in the deserts of California and were poorly outfitted, facing bitter weather with driving rains, dense fog, and howling winds over 100 mph. Over 2,500 Japanese soldiers had entrenched themselves high up in the mountains and fought hard to the bitter end. Japanese determination was fierce as the Bushido code they embraced viewed death as duty, seeking to honor their emperor. Over 15,000 American soldiers served in this campaign to retake the island. The battle raged for 19 days. On May 29th, the Japanese made a final banzai charge in a desperate attempt to hold the island. It was a bloody day, with violence hand to hand, and face to face. Despite this final charge, the United States retook Attu. Only 28 Japanese were captured, with hundreds choosing suicide over surrender. Close to 1,000 US soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice, dying to defend the liberties we hold most dear.
Thomas was one of those casualties, dying in the heat of the campaign, May 22nd, 1943, somewhere near Fish Hook Ridge. Little is know of his last days. The research I’ve done, simply reveal his name, his home state and county, his rank and military ID number, and the three letters no parent ever wants to see: KIA. Thomas was Killed In Action. He fought and died to secure our freedoms. It is God’s kindness that Attu was retaken and the Empire of Japan eventually defeated. In today’s timid culture, those are words not always welcome, but they are true. The Axis powers did not honor life and humanity as God intended. Their view of the world was crushing. This is not to presume that the Allied powers were altruistic saints, but embedded deep in our culture are values that each life is endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights that ought be protected. These are rights worth living for and dying for, these are ideals that are to be honored and cherished for the good of our fellow man, be they American, Japanese, or Japanese-American.
These two stories, these two brief bookends in Thomas’ life, are just a glimpse. There are countless other stories and tales that will never be heard, lost on that cold distant Pacific island. There were future dreams and hopes that never returned home. There were relationships and love that never bore fruit, a branch on a family tree that suddenly stopped. And yet, despite the tragic loss, Thomas’s life and sacrifice is remembered, not forgotten. This day, Memorial Day, is not simply a singular day we remember, but rather a day to remind us to always remember, to never forget. Each life, each sacrifice, deserves to be remembered and honored. I thank God for Thomas and the life he was blessed to live and the sacrifice he chose to give. You are remembered, not forgotten.
2 thoughts on “A Life to Remember: Reflections on Memorial Day”
Sevrin, thank you for writing this. Thank you for remembering your granduncle’s sacrifice and his precious little brother. It’s a beautiful piece.
“These are rights worth living for and dying for, these are ideals that are to be honored and cherished for the good of our fellow man, be they American, Japanese, or Japanese-American.“ Very moving words brother. This is a great story of the cost of freedom we often take for granted. The battle of Attu was one of the most important and least recognized battles of WWII. Our children should be told these stories often and remember them well. Thanks for taking the time to write this.