On this Veteran’s Day, 95 years after the end of the First World War, I’d like to touch on a slightly different topic. Rather than just joining the ranks of so many others posting “thank you” today, I’d like to post something for the rest of us.
A couple years ago, the last soldier who fought in the World War 1 trenches dies. With that loss, history becomes hearsay.
Several weeks ago, we lost Scott Carpenter, the penultimate survivor of the Mercury Seven astronauts. When our beloved John Glenn passes, history will become hearsay.
The survivors of the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942, have met for the last time. When their time comes, all too soon, to go to their final rest, history becomes hearsay.
I hear people saying “So what? We have their stories.” But caution must be exercised, when we read those histories. All too frequently, they are “popular” history, the big stories of big battles and big-name service folk. But wars aren’t won by generals, and truly vital battles often turn on the tiniest details. A single Japanese scout plane. delayed in launch by minor engine trouble, allowed the US Fleet to score its’ huge victory in the Battle of Midway. A handful of US Army engineers turned the Battle of the Bulge from a rout into a hard-fought battle, where the German Army was finally shattered in the West.
And one particular example, which I just learned of on Sunday. A small story, a tale of a single Marine fighter squadron, that lay untold for decades. The result of what happened to
VMF-422 should be well known – a general who should have been reprimanded but ducked responsibility and let an undeservedly good life, a squadron commander who did the best for his men as he could and ended a scapegoat, and an amazing tale of survival by crash-landed pilots in shark-infested seas. To quote directly from Wikipedia: “On January 25, 1944, 23 of the squadron’s 24 aircraft left Tarawa Atoll headed for Funafiti, a flight of 469 miles. A failure of their Commanding General (BGen Lewie G. Merritt) to authorize an escort plane and an outdated weather forecast led them to fly directly into a major storm. Additionally, General Merritt’s staff failed to inform Funafiti and the intermediate Nanumea Atoll that a group of friendly aircraft were on their way. 10 of the aircraft were lost at various times during the flight and the remaining 13 were forced to crash land in the ocean. The survivors spent 3 days at sea in life rafts before being spotted by a Navy PBY Catalina from Patrol Squadron 59. After taking on the survivors, the patrol boat was too heavy to take off and had to radio for help. Later that evening they were met by the destroyer USS Hobby (DD-610) who ushered the men to safety. In all the squadron lost 22 aircraft and had 6 pilots killed.”
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VMF-422) Just like the tale of the USS Indianapolis, a World War Two US cruiser torpedoed while returning from delivering parts of the Hiroshima bomb, only to be forgotten about due to secrecy and resulting in the worst loss of life in the Navy to shark attacks, the tale of “The Lost Squadron” of VMF-422 risked being lost in the mists of time. But for one inspired film-maker who uncovered the truth, the squadron’s history would have been buried under hearsay.
So please, by all means, say “thank you” to a vet today. Regardless of their war, or whether they served at the front or elsewhere, join me in saluting them for their bravery. They went for us, they left their lives for us, and far too often, they gave their all for us. Theirs is a debt we can never repay.
But also, I encourage you to learn all you can right now, while those who actually witnessed these events are still with us. There are still countless stories to be told, details to be examined, and even possible wrongs to be righted. We cannot afford to wait – we’ve lost untold history from the Great War, and as we approach so many milestones in the next months, such as the 100th Anniversary of the start of WW1, the 75th Anniversary of the start of WW2, and the 70th Anniversary of the Ardennes Offensive and Operation Overlord, we risk losing more history from these and other great conflicts.
So in closing, to all those who have fought for their country in the past and present, thank you. And to the rest of us, gather and treasure the history these people ot only witnessed, but made, so that we can try our best to keep history from becoming hearsay.