Note: This column ran several years ago, but since we are observing Memorial Day this weekend the column is especially thoughtful again. That's why I have chosen to run it today.
At a meeting a few years ago of the Grayson County Historical Society, Mike Shaw made a statement that reinforced in all our minds the true meaning of Memorial Day.
“Armed Forces Day is to honor those serving our country at the present time; Memorial Day is to honor those who paid the ultimate price in protecting our country; and Veteran's Day is to honor those who have served our country and are still with us,” Mike said.
That sort of puts things in perspective. Most of us think Memorial Day signals the beginning of summer and is a time or cooking out, swimming and enjoying life. All of that is OK, but let's not forget the real meaning and say a prayer for those who have lost their lives and their families. All those American flags on graves of those around the country who served are a reminder of what we are observing.
I received an e-mail a while back that really touched my heart. It is titled “Six boys and 13 Hands.” It was written by a man (name unknown) who was hired to go to Washington, D.C. with the eighth grade class from Clinton, Wisconsin.
On the last night of their trip they stopped at the Iwo Jima memorial, the largest bronze statue in the world that depicts one of the most famous photographs in history – the six brave soldiers raising the American Flag at the top of a rocky hill on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan, during World War II.
He saw a solitary figure at the base of the statue and as he got closer the man asked where the 100 plus students were from. The man said he was James Bradley who was in D.C. to speak at the memorial the next day. He was leaving when he saw the buses pull up. The chaperone videotaped him and received his permission to share what he was saying.
When the group gathered around he began speaking and said he was James Bradley from Antigo, Wisconsin and his dad was on the statue. He had written the book, “Flags of Our Fathers,” the story of the six boys depicted there. He told the group that six boys raised the flag.
The first was Harlon Block, an all-state football player who enlisted in the Marine Corps with all the senior members of his team. At the age of 21 he died on the battlefield. Bradley added that most of the boys were 17, 18 and 19 year olds.
The next boy was Rene Gagnon, 18, from New Hampshire, who carried a photo of his girlfriend in the webbing of his helmet for protection because he was scared. The next guy was Sgt. Mike Strank, Bradley's hero, the old man of the group at 24. He was the motivator in training camp.
The next guy was Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona, who lived to walk off Iwo Jima and went to the White House with Bradley's dad.
President Harry S. Truman called him a hero, and Hayes told reporters, “How can I feel like a hero when 250 of my buddies hit the island with me and only 27 of us walked off alive?”
Hayes carried the pain home with him and eventually died drunk, face down in a shallow puddle at the age of 32.
The sixth person around the statue was Franklin Sousley from Hilltop, Kentucky, a fun-loving hillbilly boy. He died on Iwo Jima at the age of 19. When the telegram came to his mother to tell her he was dead, it went to the Hilltop General Store and a barefoot boy ran the telegram up to his mother's farm.
Bradley's father, John Bradley, lived until 1994, but would never give interviews. He instructed his son if reporter or producer called, he was supposed to tell them he wasn't there, but was in Canada fishing and there was no phone there. Usually he was sitting right there at the table eating his soup, but he didn't want to talk to the press.
However, John Bradley and PFC Gagnon did make a trip to Lake Texoma in the late 1940s at what was called the Red River War Bond Invasion spectacle on the lake, staged to encourage the purchase of War Bonds. Pharmacist's Mate Second Class John H. Bradley displayed the flag he helped raise on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima at that time.
Bradley said his father didn't see himself as a hero. He was a medic and a combat caregiver who probably held more than 200 boys as they died. He said that they were the heroes.
“The heroes did NOT come back,” he said.
Overall, 7,000 boys died on Iwo Jima in what Bradley called the worst battle in the history of the Marine Corps.
The chaperon said the monument no longer was a big piece of metal with a flag sticking out of the top. It came to life before their eyes in the words of a son whose father was a part of it.
He told the youngsters to remember that God created this world for them to live in, freely, but also at great sacrifice. He reminded them to never forget the Revolutionary War to the current war on terrorism and all the wars in-between that sacrifice was made for our freedom.
“God bless you and God bless America,” he said in closing.
The chaperone said one thing he learned while on tour with the youngsters that wasn't mentioned in Bradley's talk was that if you look closely at the statue and count the number of hands raising the flag, you will see 13. When the sculptor of the statue was asked why there were 13, he simply said the 13th hand was the hand of God.
I was so touched by the piece that I sent it to my friend Bill Brown, pastor of Harless Memorial Methodist Church in Denison, thinking he might add it to his favorite stories. He responded that it reminded him of the late J.L. Burgin of Denison, who was standing guard as those Marines raised the flag. Bill said J.L. cannot be seen in the picture, but he was there and knew all those young men. J.L. and 18 buddies were taken to the island just before the landing there to disrupt the enemy by blowing up ammo dumps etc., before the landing.
He said they did their job but only J.L. and one other Marine survived that operation. J.L. can be seen in the original picture, but it was edited showing only the men raising the flag. J.L. went to all the reunions they had afterward and told Bill many things about the men, but like the others, he wouldn't talk about it much.
Bill said he was honored to do J.L.'s funeral and they had to have two services. It was snowing the day the Marines honored him. The Color Guard was late getting to Denison because of the snow, but the service was held for about an hour until they arrived.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.