The following was written for Memorial Day, 2001.
Bloomington’s George J. Keller does a good job reading “A Soldier Died Today”. The poem compares the lives and deaths of the socially prominent with a common laborer who had served in the military. ‘Pomp and circumstance culminating with glorious funerals’ for the former with ‘go when called, do your duty, return to work, and pass away unknown’ for the latter – a contrast between illusory and real importance.
All Memorial Days are important. We pause to remember family members who have left us. We also remember those departed who protected the United States. Veterans’ organizations decorate their graves with small flags. This Memorial Day is no different than any other in depth of meaning, but we are near a peak in scope: the soldiers, sailors and Marines of the “Greatest Generation” are leaving in numbers which, we sincerely hope, will never be approached again. Between one thousand and fifteen hundred World War II veterans pass away each day. Time is accomplishing what the Wehrmacht and Yamamoto could not.
This is the first Memorial Day for a particular soldier who enlisted during the Great Depression to find work. He was twenty years old and needed to support his brother, thirteen. They were orphaned by the influenza pandemic (father) and cancer (mother). The soldier trained as a machine gunner and had collateral duty as the company clerk. His company commander, later to become General MacArthur’s administrative officer, had spotted potential in the wiry, red-haired recruit. They went through General George C. Marshall’s Louisiana Maneuvers together, helping make a reputation for a Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower.
Enlistment completed and brother on his own, the former soldier returned to marry and buy a small farm. The year was 1941. If you have seen the movie previews recently or are older than sixty-five, you know what happened next. The former soldier re-enlisted, putting his personal life on hold to answer a higher calling. He missed an Army buddy by five minutes in Indianapolis. Instead of their serving together again, Bob Ciscell returned to the Army, our former soldier entered the Navy. The Navy required duty in California and the South Pacific. Following heat, humidity, insects, disease, and the points system our veteran returned to Indiana. Bob Ciscell’s Army Air Corps airplane never returned from a mission near the Philippines. The five minutes may have caused Bob’s death, or they may have saved our veteran.
The new wife and he had a son. Crane Naval Ammunition Depot provided a career. His wife died in an automobile accident. He taught Sunday School. The son served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. The former soldier married a widow with two adult children and several grandchildren. He retired and donated his time and money to charities.
At age fifty-seven, he taught himself how to roll a hoop and dribble a basketball while riding a unicycle. This enabled his participation in local parades and a springboard to speaking engagements at schools. When he spoke at schools, he spoke of the importance of service to the community. When he spoke at churches, he spoke of the importance of service to God.
After being told three times during his life that he was permanently disabled and overcoming each setback, his body finally gave out. He passed away just short of his eighty-fifth birthday.
Two vignettes illustrate the man and, through him, help define his generation: The young son once asked “Dad, when you were my age, what did you want to do when you grew up?” The father could not answer. He had never had the opportunity to consider what it was that he wanted to do. Years later, while the son prayed in the hospital with the dying father, he stopped to listen more carefully to the father’s words. The former soldier’s last prayer was for others.
Who were these men and women? How could they overcome such hardships and accomplish what they did? They survived the Depression without bitterness. They prayed for peace but won the War. Those who returned worked, paid taxes, and rebuilt not only the United States but, through what came to be known as the Marshall Plan, the western world. They developed the foundations for our technologies, our social institutions, our universities, and our freedoms. ‘Ours’ only because they gave these things to us.
We may someday know individuals who possess similar dedication, work ethic, generosity, spiritual strength and patriotism. However, there will never again be a generation of heroes like theirs. It is our honor to remember those gone and those who remain.
The former soldier? Willard Tilford. His grave will wear its first flag this Memorial Day.