Marines.Together We Served

Monday, November 26, 2007

What Price Freedom?

There is much ballyhooing these days over the War in Iraq and whether we should be there or not. It certainly is a hot issue for the presidential hopefuls as they jostle for the politically correct, or more to the point, the politically advantageous position on the war.

As I reflect on the War on Terrorism, I am somewhat mirthful when reading or listening to the news reports and to politicos. Consider, if you will, that the surge in Iraq is not only effective, it has truly changed the course of the war, thus challenging the positions held by those who have invested in our defeat. They now find themselves at odds with the American people who have no interest in seeing our military embarrassed by bringing them home before finishing the job.

When will this war be over? This is a valid question, but it is also a question that cannot be answered until we have completed the task at hand. The war is not just in Iraq – it is around the world. Muslim terrorists are attempting to disrupt all nations through intimidation and fear, believing that free nations will cower in capitulation. Also, since we in the west view the world through a lens that assumes we can sit down and negotiate any differences with those who adhere to different philosophies of life, we are always surprised when such talks end up going nowhere.

At the turn of the century in 1900, there was a common belief held around the world that man had progressed to a point where we would never experience the devastation of wars ever again. This principle was so strong that it survived the “War to End All Wars,” otherwise known as the Great War, later to be named World War I out of necessity following World War II. Those wishful of man living in peace around the globe formed an organization that would perpetuate these ideals. It was called the League of Nations. Their ineptness in understanding the threats of an increasingly muscular Nazi Germany left this group of internationalists wringing their hands, singing their sad lament, “What Went Wrong?”

The resilience of the League of Nations was proven through its resurrection from the ash heap of failed ideas, like the phoenix of ancient Egyptian mythology, in what today is known as the United Nations. Somehow, someway, we ought to be able to live peaceably, they say. Great! How will we do that, I ask? History proves over and over again that there is always someone who wants to dominate and control another person; that there is some nation that wants to conquer and command another nation; that there is some ideology that compels one sect to destroy and defeat another.

We the people of the United States must make sure that we understand the price of freedom. Not only do we bear the burden of protecting our nation from enemies bent on our destruction, but we have an international commitment to shield other nations from the aggressors that breathe out threats. We may not like it, but by virtue of the fact that we are the most powerful nation in the world, we assume the mantle of protector. To refuse would be to utterly disregard and endanger countless peoples around the world.

Our founding fathers understood this role, being prescient in their establishment of the Constitution. One such worthy remarked in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War, that we could not wish away the threats that endangered the American colonies. Patrick Henry’s words ring as true today as they did in 1775 before the House of Burgesses in Richmond, Virginia when he said,
An appeal to arms and the God of hosts is all that is left us. But we shall not fight our battle alone. There is a just God that presides over the destinies of nations. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone. Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death.

Today, Lord willing, Laura, my oldest daughter will make me a grandfather for the first time. My other daughter, Jenny, is due in April. The arrivals of these two precious gifts from God are met with great joy and celebration! But in my quieter moments, I wonder if they will grow up in a world where lovers of freedom continued to pay the price; or whether lesser men prevailed leading us into fear and bondage.

The choice we make today determines the world we live in tomorrow. As for me, I will live in freedom, or die defending it. My progeny and yours deserves nothing less.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Troubling Trends

There’s only so much nonsense any society can tolerate before we either wake up from our lethargy, or we simply collapse for want of a backbone.

I’m referring to several news items that have surfaced this past week wherein our liberties are challenged and thwarted. Allow me to list a few of these for you.

1) Boy Scout Troop 45 was collecting toiletries and other comfort items for our troops overseas. They placed boxes at the thirty-three polling sites on Election Day in early November around their town in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Someone complained to the city that this was a “political statement,” and the boxes were removed.

I grew up in New England, and even lived near Cambridge in Wellesley for a couple of years. This suburb of Boston has historic significance, not only for our nation, but specifically for our military. It was in Cambridge at the onset of the Revolutionary War that George Washington organized a band of volunteers in 1775 on Cambridge Common, considered to be the birthplace of the United States Army. (Let’s hear a HOOAH!). Later, using artillery captured from the enemy at Fort Ticonderoga, these American forces defeated the British and drove them out of Boston. Cambridge boasts numerous schools of higher learning, not the least of which is Harvard and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

Being a kid in New England in the 50’s and early 60’s I recall people who were very patriotic. We had big Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. As a trumpet player, I remember standing on a knoll overlooking our town, Wellesley, preparing to play the “echo” of Taps played by another trumpet player down below in the center of town where the Memorial Day ceremony was held. It was a special moment, filled with the appropriate solemnity for such an occasion when remembering those who have given their lives in defense of our nation.

Even today when my wife and I travel through New England by car on our way to vacation with family in Maine, I am always awed by the massive display of the American flag flown from nearly every home (or so it seems) as we meander through the towns and back roads where so much of our history was formed. Where’s the disconnect?

2) Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia leads out in public prayer for end of drought in his state. Yes, you heard right – the governor of this southern state dared to step out from his office and lead numerous lawmakers, public officials and ministers in a prayer to God. The region has experienced severe drought, causing various businesses and industries to be adversely affected.

The governor’s plea to the Almighty came not long after Alabama Governor Bob Riley issued a proclamation declaring a week in July as Days of "Prayer for Rain" to "humbly ask for His blessings and to hold us steady in times of difficulty." The Atlanta Freethought Society opposed the Georgia governor’s rain prayer saying in a statement, "The governor can pray when he wants to. What he can't do is lead prayers in the name of the people of Georgia." Oh really? Why not?

The hue and cry from certain quarters would lead you to think that the governor had committed the unpardonable sin. How dare he pray to God from the steps of the capitol building! Why, this is a violation of the separation of church and state! And it’s apparently an outrage that he "pray in the name of the people of Georgia."

A quarter of an inch of rain fell the next day.

3) Hotel chains have decided to remove Bibles from their guest’s rooms, replacing the Scriptures with "Intimacy Kits." I will allow you to imagine what is offered in an intimacy kit. Here’s a clue: Another name for the kit is the "One Night Stand" package. Such a package may include "concierge personnel" to assist those wanting to have a memorable evening. Wanting to entice potential patrons, Marriott Hotel spokesman, John Wolf, describes the new approach as "cutting-edge," "more urban," and "less values-oriented." Newsweek writer, Roya Wolverson, wrote, "Now, there's a marketing slogan no one's tried yet: ‘Sleep with us. Leave the values at home.’" Reminds me of the slogan used by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, "What happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas." Comforting, isn’t it?

So, there you have it! Boy Scouts are not allowed to help our troops with comfort items. A state governor is lambasted for praying to God for relief from drought in his state. And Bibles in hotels are being replaced by "Intimacy Kits."

With Thanksgiving tomorrow, dare we have the audacity to raise our eyes to heaven and give thanks? Tell me again why God should bless America?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Letters Home

This past Saturday, a Veterans Wall and Museum was officially dedicated in Ripon, California honoring all those who have served in our nation’s military going back as early as the Spanish/American War of 1898. A curved wall with marble plaques with the names of some six hundred Ripon veterans is situated on a street corner in the shade of a beautiful oak tree.

On Sunday morning, Veterans Day, Julie Smit handed me a pack of letters written from 1944 to 1945 by her husband’s Uncle John Smit who was at that time serving in the U.S. Army. Julie had mentioned to me that the family had these letters, so I told her how much I would enjoy looking at them sometime.

Private John K. Smit entered the Army when he was eighteen years old in 1944. After basic training he was assigned further training at Camp Roberts, then Fort Ord, on to Hawaii, then the Marianas Islands, and finally, Okinawa, Japan. His first letter was sent September 14, 1944 from the Presidio of Monterey, California.

In this first letter home he is exuberant about Army life. It is written to his father, a World War I veteran, who was a patient in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles. He writes,
Dear Dad, Got a little time so I’m going to try and write a little. We just got back from taking some mental tests. I did pretty good on all of them. I’m eating more and better than I ever have. The grub is tops. The barracks are first class, and so far I like the Army pretty well. Of course, I guess I really won’t know what it is really like until I get to my permanent camp.
I guess John liked the Army food because as he closed this letter, he says,
Well, we have to get some chow and I can’t miss that, so I guess I’d better close for now.

I had to chuckle at these comments about Army chow and barracks conditions. As a young recruit in 1969 the best I can say about the chow in Marine Corps boot camp was that it was digestible. Even at that, I got food poisoning. Then he says the barracks were “first class.” I would ask, “Compared to what? Fox holes?”

As John writes letters home to various family members during the next nine months, you see a subtle change. He is missing home more, wanting family members to look after things for him.

In a letter dated March 31, 1945, from the Marianas Islands, he writes,
I’d do anything to be home right now. A person doesn’t realize just how much home and everyone in it means to him until it’s too late to do anything about it. The Army was fun [during training], but out here it’s different – a lot different. A guy learns to appreciate a home, a mother and dad and brothers and sisters with who he can live and be with and know that in the real need they’ll be there to do what they can to help him. In times like this there’s a great comfort in knowing that there’s a God who knows all and can hear your prayers, and does everything for the good of those who love him.

On March 9, 1945, John received word that his father had passed away. Knowing his father was gravely ill, he wrote the family a week earlier.
Dear Mom, I’ve been putting off writing this letter because I didn’t know what to say. And I still don’t. I can’t put it into words how I feel about dad. I can only find comfort in praying for the grace of God that we will again meet each other in heaven. He’s a father I’ll always be proud of.

At that time there was a lot of talk about the war ending soon. On April 25, 1945 he writes to his brother, Clarence, offering brotherly advice.
And when you graduate, Clarence, for Pete’s sakes, stay a civilian as long as you can. The war can’t last too long anymore, and you’ve got a good chance of missing any action if you stay out as long as you can. There was a time when I thought I’d like to see action. If this boat turned around and started home – you wouldn’t hear any objections from me. Whatever you do, don’t join the Navy. They’re going to be the last ones home.

The boat John Smit is referring to was a troop transport carrying him and his fellow soldiers to an island called Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa would be the bloodiest of the war in the Pacific. American and Allied forces suffered 12,513 killed and 38,916 wounded. Pvt. John K. Smit would be among those killed in action.

In his last brief letter home, dated April 27, 1945, John writes,
We are on Okinawa and have been assigned to the 27th District. We are going up in a day or so and will help finish off the Japs.
In closing, he says those things that all warriors say prior to entering battle,
We may not be able to write very often because once we get up there we won’t come back until the battle is finished and the island is ours. So don’t worry because I’m not writing. If I’m able I’ll try and write a letter tomorrow or tonight yet. I thought I’d better write this v-mail just in case I’m not able to write again for a while. Your loving son, John.

God bless you, Uncle John. Thank you for your service and your willingness to pay the ultimate sacrifice.

Uncle John’s name is now on the Wall of the newly dedicated Ripon Veterans Wall along with his father, Henry, and two brothers, Clarence and Leon. Leon lives in Montana.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Humor in Combat

Over the years I have enjoyed a good laugh from humorous war stories I’ve heard from those who have been in combat. It struck me as I became aware of the significant numbers of WWII vets who were passing from our midst. Each had stories to tell, but who was recording them for posterity?

Typically when I ask veterans about a humorous event that took place when they were in combat, they’ll say something like this. “Well, there wasn’t anything very funny about combat . . . But come to think of it there was this time when . . . !”

This Saturday is the Marine Corps’ 232nd birthday, an event of significance to all who have ever served in the Corps. Marines, more than any other military service, endlessly teach their history and traditions, which in turn, is passed on in reverence to new generations of Marines.

It was my distinct honor to be asked to speak at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball for the 4th LSB (Landing Support Battalion) and Stockton Marine Corps Club at a yet-to-be-opened Sheraton Inn last Saturday night. It was a grand affair with all the traditional honors and ceremonies associated with Marine Corps tradition.

As part of my remarks to the Marines and their guests, I shared several humorous combat stories I had acquired over the years. Allow me to recite those for you in this article. The three stories below are about Marines, who, in particular, will be able to appreciate the humor.

My first story was told to me by Chuck, who, as an eighteen year old Marine in WWII, was on the invasion of Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945. For the uninitiated, this is the island where the Marines raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi, immortalized as a statue in Washington, DC. Chuck was on the first wave of Marines to hit the beach. They took 90% casualties! He and another Marine dug a fighting hole (Marines don’t call them “fox holes”) in the black sand, attempting to avoid the deadly accurate firepower of the Japanese Army. Death and mayhem was everywhere. A Marine’s life expectancy could be counted in minutes. As Chuck hunkered down in the fighting hole, he reached for a cigarette. As he was lighting up, his buddy looked at him and said, “Man, don’t you know those things are going to kill you!”

The second story was during the Battle of the Punch Bowl in Korea. My friend, Otto, was a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine command. As a side light, Otto was so impressed with the Marines, that when his enlistment was up in the Navy, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Anyway, Otto was sitting around with his Marine pals just before all hell broke loose. He saw a Marine take a round right in the chest and slump to the ground. He raced to the fallen Marine, ripped open his blouse (that’s what Marines call their shirts – go figure!) looking for the entry wound. All he saw was an angry red mark on the Marine’s chest. Somewhat confused, he went on to care for other Marines. Later after the battle had subsided, he went back and found the Marine sitting up, seemingly unaffected. As he approached, the Marine held up a little book. “Doc,” he said, “this book stopped the bullet and saved my life.” The Stars and Stripes newspaper got hold of the story and ran a headline that said something like, “Bible Saves Marine’s Life.” What really happened is another story, or as Paul Harvey would say, “The rest of the story . . .” The little book was not a Bible. It was an address book of women the Marine was corresponding with back in the U.S. Did I mention he was married?

The last story has to do with a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam as told to my bother, John, during one of their squadron reunions. This pilot was tasked with inserting a Marine Recon Team behind enemy lines. After dropping them off, the pilot began his flight back to the airfield. Enroute, he received a radio call from the sergeant in command of the recon team. “Sir, you need to come back and pick us up.” The pilot thought he heard gunfire, so he said, “Are you taking fire?” “No sir,” the sergeant answered. Certain he was hearing gunfire, he asked again, “Are you taking fire?” Again, the reply, “No sir.” So, the pilot reversed course to pick up the Marines. Upon landing, the Marines began to load their wounded buddies on the helicopter. The pilot was incensed, believing the sergeant had lied to him. After reaming out the hapless sergeant, he said, “Sir, let me tell you what happened. After you dropped us off, we set up our perimeter, waiting for Charlie (the enemy) to come along. Meanwhile, an orangutan wandered into our kill zone. We didn’t want the poor critter to get hurt, so we chucked a rock at it to scare him off. The orangutan thought this was fun and threw the rock back. We threw more rocks, only to have more orangutans show up and join the fun. Only orangutans swing from trees, so when they threw the rocks back at us, they were coming hard and fast. A couple of my Marines were injured, so it compromised our mission. To rid ourselves of these apes, we fired our weapons over their heads, finally scaring them off. That’s when I called you to come back and pick us up. That’s when you heard the gunfire.” I would have loved to hear these Recon Marines explain this back at base camp!

Happy Birthday Marines! God bless you!