Fifteen years after World War II ended, I began grammar school. In those days, my friends and I loved to play war, simulating the conflict many of our dads had fought. My dad turned 20 two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mom told me that shortly after the attack, Dad tried to enlist. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for me, Dad was turned down because he had a gimpy leg, a defect from a difficult birth.
My dad did his duty here at home, however, working at Marietta’s Bell Bomber Plant, although he lived with the lasting regret of being turned down for service. Dad’s interest in the war his friends fought inspired him to study it to the extent that when he died he had collected hundreds of volumes in a World War II library, each in its turn he had personally scoured for additional information about the war he missed.
After he died, I proudly donated his library to our alma mater, Georgia Tech. Dad always felt in awe of his friends who served during the war, and I expect humbled by their service. I don’t know anyone more knowledgeable about World War II than my dad, a testimony to his patriotism and respect for those who served.
Growing up in 1960s DeKalb County, soon after my friends and I lived through the murder of our president, John F. Kennedy, America began a change, for the worse. Prayer had been removed from schools. No longer could Christmas carols be tolerated before class. Our new president would involve America in a war in Vietnam, the only tangible result being a wall in Washington inscribed with the names of 58,000 American that had died. An entire generation just ahead of mine by a couple of years, at least it seemed to me at the time, either went to fight in Vietnam or became hippies. Drug abuse became rampant. I remember nightly news stories concerning heroin arrests. Until then, I thought heroin meant lady hero. Imagine my confusion.
In June of 1973, when I graduated high school, the Vietnam draft was halted. Neither I, nor most of my contemporaries would be called to serve. Unlike my dad, however, I did not regret it, at least not at the time.
A couple of years ago, an older friend of mine, dowsed with Agent Orange while serving as a Marine in Vietnam, finally succumbed to his resulting health problems and passed away, only achieving mid-60s before losing his battle with mortality. Although he suffered for years, he never lost his love for America and never regretted joining the Marines at his tender age many years ago. I, by contrast, have always been healthy and I won’t complain.
Twice we have had the opportunity to visit the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl Crater on Oahu. I cannot imagine a more picturesque or serene spot. Beyond the edge of the extinct volcano rises Diamond Head, and behind it the iridescent Pacific. In the foreground is Waikiki. Rainbows are present practically each moment of every day.
Our first visit to Punchbowl enhanced my appreciation for military service. A few years later we would return bringing our nieces, although perhaps too young to understand. What changed my perspective was a simple inscription enshrined on Punchbowl’s altar situated such that those permanently stationed at any of the thousands of graves might be able to see it. That inscription awakened me. Soon I would begin a mission to understand what this idea, America, is truly all about, even write a book.
Situated as a constant reminder to each of the inhabitants of Punchbowl, as if for them to contemplate for eternity, is a message for every American to consider, especially those who have worn the American uniform. It reads, “The solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom.”
I did not know who wrote that inscription until the character playing Gen. George Marshall in “Saving Private Ryan” read them on-screen from a letter written to a mother of five sons who had died fighting to save the Union during the Civil War. He identified the author of the letter to Mrs. Bixby as President Abraham Lincoln. Having learned of her plight, Lincoln, seemingly, could not resist except to try and express the thanks of the nation her sons died to save:
“Dear Madam, I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.
“But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, A. Lincoln.”
I bring Lincoln’s letter to you today because I cannot express my thanks to veterans, lost and remaining, better than he did. I am humbled and in awe of each of you. Thank you and enjoy this holiday meant just for you.
Hank Sullivan is a Forsyth County resident, businessman, author and speaker on American history, economics and geopolitics.