Decoration Day Memorial
Here in Columbus GA, one of the places that claims the founding of the Memorial Day (Decoration Day) tradition, I can sit on my porch in the evenings and listen to what my neighbors call “the sound of freedom” as the tanks and guns practice at the firing ranges at Ft. Benning just a few miles south. The really big guns like the 120mm cannon on the M1A2 tanks and some of the larger field pieces sound like thunder heading our way, and the army does a credible job of weather prediction by firing on the ranges just before a rain to limit the possibility of fires in the pine forests around the base. Some people complain about the noise, and I’ll admit it does rattle our windows from time to time, but when I remember they are training to protect us from enemies “domestic and foreign” I find the sounds strangely comforting knowing they will be better prepared for having gone through the experience. Columbus is a town of veterans, and it’s pretty much impossible to go into a store or restaurant without seeing hats from every branch of service covering wispy white hair. It’s also great to see the new soldiers on their first leaves from training in and around town, almost always in small uniformed groups and all sporting the same shaved head haircuts that identify them - even without the uniforms - as part of the cadre of trainees just completing basic training. It seems as if almost every family here has a history of service that goes back deep into our country’s history, and count military service as an important part of their family records.
Both my parents’ families both have pretty extensive records of service, all the way back to the Revolutionary War. William Scott Mullen, Mama’s great great grandfather (don’t hold me to the exact number of greats in there) served in the 1st North Carolina Battation of the Continental Army, and enlisted on August 15, 1777. Andrew Jackson Mullen and Benjamin Franklin Mullen died in the Civil War serving the Confederacy as part of the 2nd Battalion of the Mississippi Infantry. Andrew was killed at Williamsburg and Benjamin at Thoroughfare Gap, and both were part of Confederate General James Longstreet’s corps. I still have an old, grainy picture of a ship from around 1918 that my Dad said brought his Dad back from Europe at the end of WW I after he served with Pershing in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. My Dad’s oldest brother, Carl, was in the Army and landed in Europe on the day the Germans surrendered in 1945. He always said the Germans heard he was coming and decided to surrender before he made it to the front. Dad joined the Army Air Force at 17 in 1945 and went through propeller mechanic school. He was in crew training when the war in Europe ended, and was sent to Fairbanks Alaska to work on B-29 propellers in preparation for the invasion of Japan. He said he thought plowing behind a mule was tough until he started working on “those damn props” in subzero weather. Turns out the Japanese surrendered before they were assigned to combat. That’s when he decided that maybe after that experience the Mississippi Delta wasn’t such a bad place to be after all. His youngest brother Glen was in the Army Air Corp stationed on Guam after the war, but was killed while on leave back home. Roy Lee, the 3rd boy of the bunch, was in the Air Force and retired after 23 years as a Master Sergeant. He came to visit us once when I was about 12, and I asked him what he did in the service. He looked at me with narrowed eyes and didn’t answer for a few moments. I was starting to get a little worried and found it difficult to meet his stare. After a few moments he said “Son, if I told you that I’d have to kill you.” My consternation grew exponentially in the space of the next few moments. I said quickly “you don’t have to tell me if you’re not supposed to” before he smiled and I noticed my Dad laughing at the exchange. He told me later that a lot of what he did really was classified, and it had to do with nuclear surface-to-air missiles most people weren’t supposed to know about. I learned from this experience and never asked him again; you know, just in case. Daddy’s sister Sybil married Lee Roy Logan while he was in the Army at Ft. Benning, and Mama’s brother Carl was also in the army, but a car accident resulted in several broken bones and he missed his units’ assignment to Korea.
Perhaps the veteran I knew the most about was Betsy’s Dad, Bob Black Sr. Bob was a West Virginian from the tiny town of Alderson that joined the Army Air Corps soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was in the 100th Bomb Group, the 449th Squadron in the 8th Army Air Force and was a Radio Operator/Gunner. When Bob was 90 we took him to the airport here in town to see a B-17 on display. The news guys found out he was coming and arranged for him to talk to the pilots. He told them how he went through basic training in Miami (he said the beaches were beautiful but the sand was difficult to run in), gunnery school in San Antonio (we got to shoot at all sorts of stuff every day with everything from shotguns to the 50 cals mounted on the back of a pick up truck) to radio school in Sioux Falls SD (we got to see almost every big band that was anybody coming through the bases) and finally to Thorpe Abbotts in England as part of the crew of a B-17. They got a new plane and had two weeks to practice before their first mission on May 24, 1944. They were part of several hundred planes headed to Berlin that day, and were one of the planes that didn’t come back. Seven of Bob’s crew mates - including his best friend - were killed when they were attacked by a squadron of FW -190 fighters. His plane began to smoke and lose altitude, and they knew they were going down, it was just a matter of where. After being attacked again by fighters, Bob said he was pinned to the floor by centrifugal force as the plane fell, and then all of a sudden he was falling through the air. He was sure someone threw him out, but he was apparently thrown out when his plane broke in half at the radio room bulkhead. His parachute wouldn’t open with the D ring, so he began throwing fistfulls of chute into the air and hoping it worked. It did. He was quickly captured, interrogated and sent to Stalag Luft III near the Baltic Sea.
After turning 21 as a POW and walking through much of Germany as the Russian armies advanced, he and his buddies were liberated by elements of Patton’s 3rd Army in Moosberg in April 1945. The pilots were graciously listening as Bob went through his story and how he finally arrived back in the States and had to start his life all over again, and how he still cried at night sometimes for his buddies that didn’t make it. The pilots told him they would be honored if he would go on a flight with them in their B-17 free of charge. Before he answered, he toured the plane with me, pointing out what was missing from “his plane” as he remembered it. He was using a walker before he entered the plane, but went up the ladder and through the fuselage and over the catwalk over the bomb bay like a 20 year old. As he went back down the ladder, he thanked the pilots for the tour, but said that was enough for him. “Fellas” he said quietly, “I thank you for the chance to fly again, but I don’t think I can do it. You see, the last flight I took didn’t go so well.”
I think every military family has a story of a brother or Dad or Mom or son or daughter whose flight or deployment or ship or service where “things didn’t go so well.” The important thing for us to remember is that they were there when our country called, and scared or not stood up to be counted when it mattered. It’s a wonderful thing that we honor the sacrifice of those brave soldiers and their families. Sometimes it’s harder to be the ones left than the ones remembered, and not all of the scars of war are on the outside.