Flags, Friends and Family
By Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton
Memorial Day weekend. Picnics, family, Padres games, the Indy 500, the NBA playoffs and the NHL playoffs, the Stanley Cup finals. Lots to see, experience and think about.
Memorial Day weekend is a time to remember also. We see hometown heroes amongst us in San Diego. The Padres icon broadcaster Jerry Coleman flew fighters and even landed upside down on a flight deck. The late Red Sox hero Ted Williams was a fighter pilot both in the Pacific and in Korea, survived two crashes, and came home to super stardom.
The are two Purple Hearts in my house, family members who served in our World Wars, were wounded, killed, and whose relatives’ lives were forever changed.
When you come from an extended large family of that era, you are influenced by their experiences. Influenced by those you know, those you loved, those you lost.
I’ve been to Arlington, to the Punch Bowl cemetery in Hawaii, to Rosecrans Cemetery here, and know full well about the U.S. cemetery at Normandy.
I wept when I went to the black granite Vietnam Wall in Washington and was moved by the D-Day Memorial in Virginia. If you go to the Balboa Naval Hospital you are impacted. When you know them, when you care about them, when you see them, when you ache for them and their memories, it leaves a lasting impression.
Maybe it is my Baby Boomer mortality catching up to me. Friends are passing, saying goodbyes to family members. Virtually all of them are linked to the military. In this situation, Memorial Day becomes more than a holiday.
I hardly know the full background, except my dad was a Sea Bee in the Navy, in the Pacific. He built runways as the Navy, then the Marines brought in planes to continue the assault to recapture all those islands from Japan. He told me only once about being shot at and diving under planes to avoid snipers. My dad was only 22 at the time and experiencing that.
Nick was my Godfather. He was slight of build, big of heart, with no fear. He was a point man hit by snipers in a hedgerow at Anzio. His life was forever changed. He spoke only once about it to me. Twenty-nine surgeries later, he died from wounds. They gave me his Purple Heart, ribbons, the 1944 telegrams that said he was killed in action, then missing in action, then rescued.
Jack was my uncle. A decorated journalist, island hopping the Pacific with Douglas McArthur. He wrote for the International News Service, the forerunner of UPI. He saw horror and death. He interviewed Tojo, who tried to commit suicide. He covered the Peace Treaty signing on the USS Missouri. He came home a broken man. He was never the same sports journalist covering the old Brooklyn Dodgers after that. They gave me his war photos, ribbons, and wire service stories when he passed. He never spoke of it.
Danny was another uncle. I never knew much, except that he was a teenager who died on the Bataan Death March. I found his name on a plaque, but like so many others, nothing else. Gone at 19.
Vin was a paratrooper. Jumped into the dark behind the Normandy lines. He was 24 and part of the glider brigade. He was wounded twice, but did come home. His Purple Heart is in a glass case, with a piece of autographed fabric from a crashed glider that went into the woods when they missed the landing zone. Virtually all with him perished.
Vito was in South Africa, chasing Rommel across the desert. All that heavy infantry fire led to his loss of hearing.
Joe was a medic in the heat, humidity and suffering in the Philippines. His lasting memory before he died was malaria and quinine.
Smitty was 19 and a turret gunner on B-17 and B-24 raids. The average life span of those crews was 13 flights. He made 35 missions, over places like Ploesti and Dresden. He laughs that his pilot was only 19, old enough to drop bombs, but not old enough to get a drivers license in Michigan. He told stories till dementia took over his mind.
Memorial Day touches friends too. Seven in my tiny graduating class on Long Island were lost in my war, Vietnam.
Murph was a wrestler and a jokester. A land mine ended it all very quickly for him. Lew was a basketball player taken out on a ridge by either sniper fire or friendly fire. Charley went off on night patrol in the jungles; he never returned after the firefight. Three others were done in not by the VC, but by Agent Orange.
Memorial Day is also about brothers. One who is a career officer, with service time in Iraq and Afghanistan. He struggles with seeing wounded men booby trapped when our medics go to treat them. He angered many by saying “if you fire on my soldiers from a mosque, it is no longer a mosque.” He has sat on transports with the caskets and body bags of his soldiers.
The other brother is in anti-terrorism, who never forgot 9/11 and what he sensed the minute the second plane went into the towers. He won’t speak, but he knows much, and this weekend means much to him too.
I will visit a cemetery to say thanks and to remember. An aging friend, who landed on Normandy, told me the only thing missing from the movie Saving Private Ryan was the smell of diesel fuel. Another in a rest home was part of the Royal Air Force and the heroism of the Battle of Britain, with burns and ribbons as remembrances.
Fly a flag this weekend. Enjoy the picnics, the Padres, the Indy 500, the NBA and the NHL, but remember the past.
Many went and came back. Many went and never came back. Many went, came back, never the same.
Memorial Day is a hard time for me. Two Purple Hearts are in my house. A thankful heart. A heavy heart too.