Several sayings come to mind this Memorial Day.
“The heroes are the ones that didn’t come home,” is a quote from Lt. Dick Winters of 101st Airborne Easy Company fame and many other heroes.
Sen. John McCain, who endured seven years of captivity during the Vietnam War, said, “I’m not a hero but I proudly served in the company of heroes.”
And many have said these immortal words: “All gave some, some gave all. “
I served with Cmdr. Ken Cameron, who was my division officer in the first Navy squadron I served in, VA-36, an attack squadron flying the A4 Sky Hawk attack bomber.
Cmdr. Cameron was shot down over North Vietnam on May 18, 1967, and died in captivity in October 1970. He was a big strapping 6-foot-2, 200-plus pounder. With the ejection seat at its lowest position, his helmet still touched the canopy of his aircraft. Before his death, he had been beaten and starved because of his refusal to answer the interrogators’ questions and for not cooperating with his captors in any way. At his death, other POWs said he weighed less than 100 pounds and was disabled from torture to the extent he could barely walk around in his small cell. He was posthumously retired as a captain (O-6).
Cmdr. Jim Mulligan was shot down March 20, 1966, while flying his 80th combat mission. He endured seven years of internment in seven different POW compounds. Tortured and starved, he vowed he would memorize every POW he encountered — or heard had lived to become a POW — so there would be a record of their survival. He memorized more than 300 names alphabetically and twice daily repeated them as he said his rosary. His faith helped him endure the POW mistreatment and he lives today in Virginia and has authored a book of his experiences, “Hanoi Commitment.” The XO, as he was referred to for squadron executive officer, is still active in squadron reunions and is a member of the Sky Hawk Association. The XO retired as a captain (O-6).
Lt. W.R. “Ray” Alcorn was shot down over North Vietnam on Jan. 14, 1966, while flying his 29th combat mission. He also endured seven years of POW mistreatment and was repatriated after the release of all POWs on Feb. 13, 1973. Ray was hospitalized for his POW injuries but was able to return to flight status and retired as a captain (O-6). Ray is alive and still active in squadron reunions and the Sky Hawk Association.
Aviation Machinist 1st Class Harold “Fuzzy” Fontenot was a shipmate of mine in the squadron and later died in the fire aboard the USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967. More than 130 crewmen were killed in that fire and “Fuzzy,” sadly, was one of them. A proud native Louisianan, he was married and the father of two.
All four of these men served in VA-36 and are very high on my list of heroes.
The above stories about heroes are certainly true and I can also say, “I proudly served in the company of heroes.”
Have you ever looked, really looked at a young soldier, sailor, Marine or airman’s face? Sometimes it’s so young, barely an adult, the hopes of youth still painted in their features. Sometimes it’s old — older than faith, older than wisdom, even older than time. And sometimes, sometimes it’s a bit of both at the same time.
Sometimes it’s gritty and pained, remembering the face of another who has fallen. Sometimes it’s laughing, pleased to have a moment of peace. Most of the time it’s proud, because it knows, oh yes it knows, the world is a different place, a far better place- because of it.
Next time you look at that uniformed face, see if you can find that glint of pride. Sometimes it’s hidden, and you have to search it out. You’ll find it in the eyes — always in the eyes. For the eyes are indeed the windows of the soul, even a soldier’s soul.
And when you’ve carefully examined every feature of that face, stand up straight and tall and smile your best smile. Thank that person, because it does what some cannot or will not. It defends what it believes to be right — with its very life. But more important, it defends a perfect stranger — you.
And when you see a flag-covered casket, stand in memoriam of all those faces you’ve examined. For when one of them falls, they all fall. And when one of them stands, they all stand.
Shouldn’t we all stand for those still living and serving, and all those who gave their all this Memorial Day?
B.J. Clark is retired from the U.S. Navy and is commander of American Legion Post 164 in Pembroke.