Today is Memorial Day and it’s a time to pause and remember the heroic sacrifice that others have made on the behalf of our country.
In 2015, PBS published a story on its website that estimated the total U.S. military deaths as more than 1.1 million. Add in the fellow servicemembers, the famlies and friends of those who died, the communities they lived in and the impact of Memorial Day is felt just about everywhere.
The church I attend ended the service Sunday with a video tribute to those who have died in the line of duty.
That video featured the words of then-President Ronald Reagan who described that the tragedy of those who die in battle is that it leads to two deaths — the life that solider was living and the life that soldier could’ve been living if it were not for war.
This year’s Memorial Day has me remembering an encounter I had with a veteran years ago. I was working for a newspaper then and a man stopped by the office to see whether someone could talk to him. We had just published a story on Pearl Harbor that week and it led him to want to talk about something.
However, he looked very nervous and said that he didn’t want to share his story there. We agreed to meet at the library and that is where he told me about his experience during World War II.
Before he began, he asked me not to write about this. He simply wanted to share his story with someone and he hoped that I would indulge him and listen. Over the course of the next hour, he gave me a detailed description of the sheer hell that he had lived through. He was a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
The USS Indianapolis had been part of a secret mission to carry the parts used in “Little Boy”– the atomic bomb that was used on Hiroshima. Within days of taking those parts from Pearl Harbor to Tinian Island, the USS Indianapolis was moving to a port in Guam. On the way there, the USS Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpodeos and sunk. Of the more than 1,100 crewman on board, 300 were lost as the ship plunged beneath the water. The rest of the crew was left in the water with few lifeboats and few lifejackets.
He told me about the crewmen who were in the water. They floated helplessly, hoping that they would be picked up by other ships. Hunger and dehydration set in. Then, the shark attacks started.
He described the screams and the desperation of those who had been pulled under as they tried to stay at the surface. Friends, fellow soldiers were pulled beneath to never been seen again.
Of the nearly 800 men who entered the water when the Indianapolis sunk, only 317 would ultimately survive. And, yet, he had somehow survived.
He wasn’t seeking a newspaper story. He simply wanted to share his story with someone who could listen.
At the time I had this conversation, it had been strange and random. It was so random that I wondered whether the story was completely true.
When he came in that day, he was shaking and seemed to be very concerned about being identified. He never told me his name in the entire time that we talked. And, I never saw him again in my life.
In the years since I had that conversation, those same details he shared have appeared in books and documentaries. Over time, with more information, his story was confirmed.
In the time since then, I’ve come to understand what happened that day in a different way. I worked in ministry and was a chaplain at a hospital for awhile. In those experiences, I had the opportunity to listen as others shared a burden. Maybe, at that point in his life, he simply wanted someone to carry it on and carry it forward. Maybe, it was a tribute to those he had served with.
I’ve never understood why he talked to me. It happened some 22-23 years ago and, based upon his age, there’s a high probability that he has passed from this world to glory.
I felt I should share that this Memorial Day because it is a day to honor those who died in defense of this great nation. Yet, Memorial Day can also be a reminder of those were there when their fellow servicemembers paid the ultimate cost.
The best thing we can probably do is to help ease their burden today, to carry it with them, and to share it.
I was looking at suggestions for scripture for Memorial Day. And this is one of those that was listed: “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:7)
Taxes is something to talk about on another day. However, the idea of giving respect and honor is as true on Memorial Day as it is on any other day of the year.
So to those who have given their lives in defense of our country, for those who were there when they did, for those families who lost someone special, for those who been forever scarred and shaped by the experience, today is a day to give you “respect” and ‘honor.”
I hope that, in some small way, this honors the life of that man I met so many years ago.