It's the 'remembering and honoring' that counts on Memorial Day
On the days leading up to Memorial Day, I often accompanied my grandmother out to the small cemetery atop of the Ledge east of Fond du Lac to place flowers on the graves of friends and loved ones.
We would fill coffee cans with water from the nearby handpump and fill them with fresh cut lilacs. While the fragrant blooms would be wilted by the end of the afternoon, it was the "remembering and honoring" that counted, grandma reminded us as we drove off.
Born in 1903, grandma referred to Memorial Day as Decoration Day. Prior to 1971 when Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Congress, the old guard in the neighborhood still honored those who died in the Civil War by decorating their gravestones.
Through the years, time and the elements have worn away many inscriptions on those marble monuments, the names and dates now illegible and sadly forgotten. But each of those stones casting long shadows on freshly mown grass, marks the existence of a veteran who answered the call for their country.
During my time as a News Bureau Chief, I was often called upon to interview the VFW and American Legion's yearly picks for Veteran of the Year honors. I often met up with them in the quiet confines of libraries and historical society buildings, where they would proudly display their memorabilia and photos cataloging their tour of duty overseas.
Many of the World War II veterans shared similar stories. They had left school after 8th grade to help out on the farm. Many families in rural areas had been hit hard by the Depression and were still trying to make ends meet.
As they turned 18, they joined their classmates and headed to the nearest recruitment center with the mindset that they would be better off volunteering for certain branches of the service than those who received draft notices and whose destiny was left purely to chance.
One veteran who had worked as a farmhand on a neighboring farm ended up in the US Army Air Corps where he served in the Pacific Theater. His job was to rig together a communications system on an island they had landed on, which incidentally, was also occupied by Japanese soldiers at the time.
Soldiers in his outfit stood guard during the night, protecting their food supply and other supplies from the nearby enemy. He recalled one night hearing a noise in the jungle behind the base camp. Peering into the dense underbrush lit only by the moonlight, he cocked his gun, ready to shoot...only to realize it was the sound of coconuts falling.
Another veteran served in the Navy and was relegated to the bowels of the ship, deep down in the engine room. The only time he emerged was at meal time and to sleep.
"I'm not sure if they respected us or didn't want to sit near us because we smelled of diesel, oil and grease. But when we entered the dining area, we went to the head of the line and found a table immediately," he told me.
He shared that during the long hours below deck, he often thought of home; working land and milking cows on the family farm near Alto. He says he never longed for home more than when the order came down the ranks that they were steaming towards Japan.
"We knew if we had to fight the Japanese island by island it was going to be a massacre. Most of us believed we'd never make it back home alive," he said, his voice catching at the long ago memory. "The next day we turned around. Hours later we leaned that they had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima."
While many of his shipmates cheered wildly, he found a quiet place where he broke down and sobbed.
Many of those soldiers said they survived the horror of war simply by living by their wits, by luck or God's grace. One veteran who settled in the Cambia-Friesland area with many other Dutch immigrants recalled the invasion of the German soldiers.
Despite Dutch neutrality, Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in the springtime of 1940 as part of Fall Gelb. The young farmer had been to a relative's for supper one evening and was returning home at dusk when he heard the sound of German soldiers in the distance. Crossing through a sheep pasture, he laid down in a low spot, hoping to avoid detection.
To his surprise and shock, a large ewe walked toward him, sniffed his coat and laid down next to him, her body shielding him from the sightline of the soldiers who passed by no more than 50 yards away.
"At the time I truly believed it was a miracle of God, and 60 years later I still do," he told me at the time.
While some soldiers were eager to share their tales of riding inside tanks during the Battle of the Bulge or liberating cities and villages in Europe, many were reticent to talk about landing on the beaches of Normandy, or meeting snipers cloaked in the shadows of church steeples.
"I've never told my children what happened to me overseas," an elderly WWII vet told me. "I just know I was never the same when I came home."
I still recall a conversation I had with veteran Jerry Heeringa who worked tirelessly in spearheading a Veterans Memorial Wall in Waupun. Although Jerry was eager to spotlight the contributions of his fellow veterans, he was very vague about his own service in the Marines during WWII.
"It's best I take those stories and memories to the grave with me," he said. And he did.
While working in Waupun, I often spent time walking among the rows of headstones in Forest Mound Cemetery located near the Mill Pond, gazing at the small flags adorning the simple stones. I thought about these young men, leaving hearth and home, field and plow to travel overseas away from all things familiar and into enemy territory. And some who lay nearby beneath the boughs of the towering oak trees left their families to go and fight their fellow countrymen on U.S. soil.
And it's those stories and conversations passed on by veterans still feeling the pain of war that I hold dear in my heart all these years later. Although their voices are stilled and many of the wars they served in have faded into the annals of history, it's the "remembering and honoring" of their sacrifice and stories that count.
Colleen Kottke is the editor of the Wisconsin State Farmer