I woke the other night after a short nap, the television still playing in our bedroom. There was a continuously streaming commercial of the most annoying man on earth, screaming about cheap appliances. It was literally a series of the same five minute clip on repeat…and I heard that man say “Appliance Direct Memorial Event – WOW!” far too many times in thirty minutes.
As I lay there trying to tune him out and fall back to sleep (don’t judge, the remote was on the other side of my sleeping husband) I thought about the real meaning of Memorial Day.
While we tend to mark the long weekend as the beginning of summer (those last few days of school are a waste, I tell you. Just call it on Friday afternoon, or better yet, let’s get the party started on Thursday!), I am very aware that the day was set aside for remembering.
The day was begun to honor the Civil War dead, and it was not a federally mandated Monday holiday until 1971. Until then, the day was always observed on May 30th, known as Decoration Day in parts of the South even to today, because of the practice of decorating graves. Special memorial services are held along with parades in some areas, but many of us have lost sight of the solemn reason for the day despite the continuing sacrifices of many.
I knew that my father was awarded the Purple Heart – an award established by General George Washington in 1782. I recall seeing it as a young child when one of us (I’m sure it was my naughty younger sister, not me!) found it in a desk drawer and thought it was a beautiful treasure. We had no real appreciation for its meaning.
Daddy in his winter uniform, holding our cousin, Tom.
After my Dad passed away, we didn’t find it in his possessions. Perhaps one of my siblings wanted to keep it. I can’t begrudge them if they did.
Several years ago I shared the story of missing medal and the mystery of its disappearance with my sweet Uncle Ralph, himself a Navy veteran. He knew my dad’s service well and encouraged me to petition the Army for all of my dad’s military honors. One day not long after, I embarked on a journey of forms and letters and a peek into my dad’s service to this great country.
Unfortunately there was a fire in the National Personnel Records Center on July 12, 1973. Some of the service records for my father were lost; in particular, his award of the Purple Heart. I was devastated, but I provided the appropriate officials a few documents and waited and hoped.
On September 7, 2005 Daddy was awarded (again) the Purple Heart, this time posthumously, for wounds received in action on 15 October 1944 in the European Theater. That’s it. That is literally all that I know, but it is enough.
While the Purple Heart is truly special, he was awarded these as well:
- Bronze Star – awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement or service
- Good Conduct Medal – awarded for exemplary behavior, efficiency and fidelity in active Federal Military service
- European African Middle East Campaign Medal – for military service in the European Theater
- American Campaign Medal– for military service in the American Theater of Operations during World War II
This is Daddy in his summer uniform.
All of them are honorable and wonderful reminders of the impact of his service.
My heart can’t fathom his experiences. Those were the days of foot soldiers hitting the ground, running into the battle. Honestly, I can’t even think about; it’s too intense and violent. And yet he ran into it; he was missing in action. I read the telegraph sent to his dear mother from the Department of War…my heart can’t comprehend it.
He survived with scars, both physical and emotional but he carefully shielded them. I never will be able to comprehend the horror of war or the absolute joy and relief of coming home.
The only story my dad ever told me about his service was many years after I was married and away from home. I was leaving the country, something he never understood. He saw no reason to ever leave the greatest country on earth. As we talked about Europe, he shared an incident that occurred in France. He was sent to a bakery to buy bread for his squad.
At the bakery, he purchased the last of the bread when he noticed a young girl. She begged him for the bread he had purchased; he offered her chocolate. (It’s no surprise to me, nor will it be to my family as they read this, that Daddy managed to find some chocolate on his mission!) He returned to his squad without bread and to certain discipline. It’s a wonder he got that award for good conduct, but I knew before he told me that he gave the bread to the child.
The final medal in the package that arrived from the Army is the Victory, World War II – United States of America. It was awarded to all of America’s veterans who served during World War II. The back is inscribed with these words:
Freedom from Fear and Want
Freedom of Speech and Religion
I am awestruck. He worked a blue collar job and taught me the importance of commitment. I knew that my father was a private in the United States Army but it wasn’t until now that I realized that my dad was a hero of World War II. I read these words from Norman Schwarzkopf that truly give perspective:
“It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”
This Memorial Day I will remember and honor the sacrifices of prior generations. I will honor the sacrifices of all who have served or continue to serve our country.
My parents, young lovebirds after the war was over.
When I place a flag at my parent’s grave this weekend, it will be in solemn remembrance of all who have defended my freedom from fear and want; my freedom of speech and religion, with a fresh new appreciation for my Daddy, the war hero.
May we never forget.
My oldest brother, Jim Bell, served in the US Navy.
My brother, Steve Bell, also served in the US Navy. Fair winds and following seas, dear brother.
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