Nourished by the Blood of Patriots
by John F. Di Leo
May 28, 2018 A.D.
Reflections on American Heroes, for this Memorial Day…
John Laurens was raised in privilege – for his time – in South Carolina. As the son of Henry Laurens, a prominent southern planter, he was studying in England when war broke out. Laurens left his expectant young wife in England in December of 1776 – she would be safer there while he was participating in the war effort – and he returned home to join what was then known as the Glorious Cause – the goal that we know today as American independence.
Young Laurens joined General Washington’s personal staff as an aide-de-camp, and therefore served with such fellow members of Washington’s famous “military family” as Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Tench Tilghman. Having been raised on a plantation, surrounded by the error of slavery, Laurens was a fierce opponent of the practice, and vigorously lobbied for an effort to raise battalions of South Carolina slaves as volunteers, all to be rewarded with their freedom for joining up (his proposal was shot down by the South Carolina state legislature).
Both he and his father were taken prisoner by the British in 1780 (the son after a lost battle, the father while aboard ship on a diplomatic mission). After gaining his freedom, young Laurens served as a diplomat to France, then returned to the battlefield, led a spy network, and eventually died in a minor skirmish in August of 1782. Almost a year after the victory at Yorktown, there was still no peace treaty in place, and valiant patriots were still suffering and dying on the battlefield, as did Lt. Col. John Laurens, patriot, spy, soldier, statesman… at the Battle of the Combahee River.
On Memorial Day, we remember this patriot, with gratitude.
The United States and Great Britain faced each other again in the War of 1812. This war was shorter than our earlier one, but was still a world war, fought in the Atlantic Ocean, in the Caribbean Sea, and on US soil.
In the spring of 1814, a young Maryland slave named Frederick Hall escaped from his master and joined the 38th US Infantry at Baltimore under the assumed name of William Williams. He was only able to serve a few months. The courageous 21-year-old risked arrest and violence by escaping his master, risked even more by staying in Maryland instead of heading north, and showed his patriotism by joining the American cause rather than that of the British (the British were again actively recruiting slaves, as they had during the War of Independence).
But William Williams was caught up in the Battle of Baltimore, and was killed at Fort McHenry, as Francis Scott Key watched the fight from a distance, aboard ship, and penned his famous poem, the one that was later set to music and became our National Anthem.
When we hear our Star Spangled Banner playing, and when we celebrate the courage of so many American servicemen on Memorial Day, we remember this young man, both as Frederick Hall the slave and as William Williams the freeman, with gratitude.
Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, the son of German immigrants, Frank Lukesigned up for the aviation section in the US Army’s air service as soon as America entered WWI. He received pilot training and joined the 27th Aero Squadron as a Second Lieutenant in 1918. Sent to France, his duty was to shoot down the well-guarded observation balloons that the Germans used to identify targets for their artillery.
A notoriously courageous pilot, Lieutenant Luke was undaunted by the German anti-aircraft gun defenses around his targets. He built up the second best record in WWI (after the masterful Captain Eddie Rickenbacker); with 18 confirmed successes – 14 balloons and 4 airplanes – in just ten sorties over eight days in September, 1918.
He was shot down during another such hunt for German observation balloons, on September 29, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After successfully shooting down the enemy balloons, a German machine gun finally got him; he crash-landed behind enemy lines and struggled to pull his injured body to safety, but the Germans were onto him. He drew his 1911 pistol and emptied his magazine at the enemy before he expired, a fighter to the end.
How many planes, tanks, and personnel did he save that month? Impossible to say. But by knocking out those observation balloons, he certainly saved hundreds, possibly thousands or more lives. Deny the enemy his sights, and you deny him his victories. Frank Luke was a daredevil, exactly the kind we so desperately need in wartime, and he generously paid the ultimate price that year.
On Memorial Day, when we see that flag at half staff, think of 2nd Lieutenant Frank Luke, and of his fellow pilots, in WWI and WWII, in Korea and Vietnam, and throughout the Cold War as well. Think of the daring pilots who kept us safe, so many of whom were shot down, and be grateful for their service.
There are few musicians who have made such a mark on their craft as the great Glenn Miller. He played the trombone, wrote and arranged hit songs, and conducted one of the greatest of the big bands of the 1930s. As the best-selling recording artist of the prewar years – 1939 through 1943 – and as a man past draft age, he certainly didn’t “have to” serve in World War II… but after first being rejected by the US Navy, he joined the US Army Air Force to lead a band, at 38 years of age. He wanted to do whatever he could for the war effort, giving up a salary that ranged from $15,000 to $30,000 per week – yes, per week, in 1942 dollars! – to serve in the military. In wartime.
Commissioned as a major, he formed a large military band, presenting a weekly radio broadcast of patriotic music (anything a military band plays is patriotic!) from New York, and eventually moved the band to England. They gave 800 performances in England in the summer of 1944 alone, he and his band braving the dangers of German bombs… when they could have stayed safe at home in New York.
On December 15, 1944, Major Glenn Miller flew over the Channel in a UC-64 “Norseman,” along with Lt. Col. Norman Baessell and pilot John Morgan, on what was billed as a planning trip to bring the band to Allied-held areas of France, though there have also been rumors that Major Miller was serving in an espionage-related role as well, so there may have been more to the trip than simply scouting locations in which to entertain our troops. Tragically, their plane disappeared en route, presumably shot down by the Germans, though it could also have been a simple crash.
Glenn Miller was 38 when he joined up. He didn’t have to; he chose to. And he didn’t have to leave the safety of New York for the dangerous territories of England and France, but he answered his country’s call. And when that plane went down over the Channel, he was serving his country, as were his seatmates on that plane.
On Memorial Day, we remember Major Glenn Miller, Lt. Col. Norman Baessell, and John Morgan, and we are grateful for their service, and for their ultimate sacrifice.
Sharon Ann Lane
From the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union at the dawn of the 1990s, the United States fought a Cold War – a 45-year struggle of wills against the aggressive cause of international communist expansion. This Cold War was fought in the press, in the schools, in the popular culture… it was fought in the development and installations of intercontinental ballistic missiles… and it was fought through proxy wars all over the world.
One of the biggest of these proxy wars, of course, was our involvement in Vietnam’s civil war, as we tried to halt the spread of communism in southeast Asia. With better medicine and better funding than in previous wars, we had military hospitals both on and near the front, and these hospitals put medical staff in almost as much danger as the soldiers. At least troops could move from place to place; a hospital must be stationary. Volunteer as a doctor, nurse or orderly in military service, and you are accepting all the risks of military service and more… especially when your enemy has no ethical objection to selecting a hospital as a target.
Sharon Ann Lane was a child of the American Midwest. Born in Zanesville, OH and raised in Canton, she studied nursing at the Aultman Hospital School of Nursing, then worked in its hospital after graduation, eventually joining the US Army Nurse Corps Reserve in 1968. She served in a military hospital in Denver for her first year, then she was sent to Vietnam in 1969.
Working as a nurse in a combat zone – the 312th Evac Hospital at Chu Lai – she put in twelve-hour days, five days a week in the Vietnamese Ward, then worked another day in Intensive Care. The Viet Cong aimed a rocket attack at the hospital on June 8, killing two and wounding 27 more hospital staff. And so it was that Lieutenant Lane was killed by shrapnel, less than two months after her arrival in Vietnam.
Trying to save lives in a hospital, but targeted by a vicious enemy, Lt. Lane gave her life for the American military and our allies.
On Memorial Day, and every day, we should remember Sharon Ann Lane, and be grateful for her service, and for the service and sacrifice of so many others like her.
The holiday we now call Memorial Day grew out of a 19th century holiday known as Decoration Day, in which the families and neighbors of servicemen who had fallen in battle – particularly during the Civil War – visited the cemeteries and paid special tribute to their fallen heroes.
Today, we use Memorial Day as the day to honor the casualties of all our wars. We lower the flag to half staff; we hold parades and somber services at our local war memorials; we visit our family plots and pay tribute to our parents, uncles, grandpas or cousins who made that ultimate sacrifice in wartime as members of our armed services.
From our very first war as a nation – the War of Independence – to the War on Terror that continues today, America has depended on men and women of courage to protect our borders and our allies from hostile enemies. Fortunately, most come home at the end to enjoy long lives as appreciated citizens of the nation they helped protect… but some do not.
Memorial Day is our day to remember those who died while defending their country, those cut down in the prime of life by bullets and bayonets, by bombs and missiles. We owe them a debt we cannot repay, because we owe them our very country. For it is they who have nourished our tree of liberty with the gift of their precious blood.
On this Memorial Day, we thank Divine Providence for giving us these heroes, and we thank these heroes – now in Paradise – for so selflessly and willingly serving, in order that this nation might survive another day.
Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker, trade compliance trainer, actor and writer. His columns appear regularly here in Illinois Review. Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.
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