Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 22
June 1-7, 2000
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In Memory of Heroes

When you go home, tell them of us and say for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
—Inscription at World War II Memorial overlooking the Severn at Annapolis

Memorial Day weather was fitting. It was overcast and subdued, though probably not enough to give most citizens pause to appreciate the solemness, the true meaning of the day.

Between sprinkles from the sky, the day found this writer at the City Docks in Annapolis where a parade wound up and several hundred gathered for ceremonies shortened by the threatening weather. It was an occasion to pay tribute to the fallen, those who made the utmost sacrifice that we might have a tomorrow.

In the past, I have probably written enough about guts and glory, about those who answered the call and the many who lost their lives in doing so. I had no intention of doing so again for a long time.

But things don’t always work out as intended. Three things happened over the weekend, three things poignant for a holiday that, sadly, to a majority of the citizenry is considered nothing more than a long weekend to escape work: time to eat, drink, relax or frolic.

First, in the Sunday Sun, there was what I consider the most inappropriate of editorial page headlines for the day before the official observance of a day primarily set aside for those who died since the Revolution to Desert Storm. It read:

“Memorial to What?” The sub-head followed: “War: Reports of U.S. troop misconduct should give us pause, too, on holiday.”

Talk about timing. No one, even the most seasoned and gung ho in the military, applaud needless killing and atrocities, even if the victims are of the Iraqi Army that plundered and raped Kuwait. But why inject such things on the eve of the day of appreciation? It’s a subject for another time.

I turned to The Sunday Capital, therein read of preparations for Annapolis parade and thought back to a September in the mid ’40s. It was in September when the daily paper brought the news of the death in Great Britain of my closest boyhood friend, Henry Beckwith, whose bomber went down in the countryside. School children scattered flowers at the site.

Then, on the night of the observance, I did something I rarely do: I watched television, lured to the tube by an announcement of a scheduled half-hour segment on the History Channel about an American hero friend whose name, Gen. Merritt A. Edson, was during World War II prominent — though in recent years he is little better known than Henry Beckwith, a mere flying seaman of the U.S. Navy.

Now that it is all over, the long holiday weekend, perhaps it is appropriate to tie these three things together.

Decoration Day Doings

The mighty Sun — its pre-holiday and holiday pages bulging with money-making advertisements promoting Memorial Day trade ranging from food and frolic to automobile and appliance sales — taints with negative criticism those who made the holiday and its bargain promotions possible in the first place. It tempers the very day set aside for tribute.

It was satisfying indeed when the rabbi referred to this in the dockside ceremonies. Satisfying because others noticed, others questioned whether Memorial Day should be a time for sales and fun.

Back when I was a kid and the occasion was better known as Decoration Day because graves of the fallen were marked with flags and flowers, it also came at prime time for planting on the farm. A holiday, no school so kids were available to set tomato plants, sow corn and beets.

But valued as the time was, the morning was set aside to go into town and witness the annual parade, with schoolmate Dexter Dumas’ uncle leading the whole shebang riding on a horse. In later years he was seated in a convertible, atop his head the hat of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Civil War veterans were no longer able to participate, but following the parade we stopped by the Saltonstall house in the center of the village to bring a small American flag and flowers to the bedridden old man who had served with the forces of Ulysses S. Grant.

This done, our observance completed, my sisters, brother, father and mother returned to the farm where the hoe, the watering cans, fertilizers, seeds and plants waited. Many in the parade, as well as the onlookers, did likewise. But we had paid appropriate tribute.

Henry Beckwith

Though no longer one for parades, crowds and traffic, I headed to the docks of Annapolis to let Henry Beckwith know he was not forgotten, that he was more than a name on a recreation center, Beckwith-Bruckshaw Lodge, 400 miles away in New England.

Henry was still in his teens when his plane went down: no wife, no children, not even a steady girlfriend. His mother and father are long gone, and no one is left to remember him on Memorial Day. It only seemed appropriate that as taps was played, his name should be mentioned aloud, if only by me, to let it be known that his sacrifice was appreciated.

So, when the two Severna Park students played the eerie refrain to close the ceremonies, few beside me other than wife Lois, daughter Heather and her husband Jon heard a thank you and the name Henry Beckwith. I will admit to a tear or two, knowing that it was only by chance that he headed to the Atlantic, while I headed to the Pacific.

Gen. Merritt A. Edson

I met Gen. Edson, who later became a friend, when I was a fledgling radio newsman in Montpelier, Vt., and he had just taken over as head of a rejuvenated Vermont State Police force. Before, when he headed the Fifth Marine Division, he and his band of Edson’s Raiders — outnumbered by more than five to one, for two days isolated and alone — beat back seasoned Japanese jungle fighters to save not only the airfield at Guadalcanal but also the invasion itself.

Tough and flamboyant, he was at the very front fighting with his band. No headquarters for him behind the front lines. Though he wept when his assistant, a major, was killed, he stayed at the front and literally fought alongside his troops. Killing was his business if a war was to be won.

Strict as he was in the military business, he was compassionate. When we last met, he was deeply troubled. Then top dog at the National Rifle Association, he had been called upon to review procedures regarding GI prisoners of war who had been brainwashed by the North Koreans and Chinese.

Sentiment was mixed across the nation — were they traitors or victims? — and Gen. Edson, who knew what men could do when facing harm at the front, told me he also appreciated how continuing torture, blatant or otherwise, could break other men over long periods.

He was torn. As an officer, he had pushed his men to the limit and beyond in action. But he realized there is no action within a prison camp to keep men fighting, and some break. He was understanding and compassionate, whether that was the military code or otherwise. Shortly thereafter, the burden was too much. He took his own life. In a way, he was a casualty of war.

When you go home, tell them of us and say for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
This I have done for Henry Beckwith and Gen. Merritt A. Edson, in my book heroes who gave their today for our tomorrow.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly