Memorial Day 2008: if you hold the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be important, you may join me in the belief that Memorial Day is the most important holiday our nation celebrates. That's because Memorial Day constitutes a special time when all Americans, regardless of race or creed, political party or religious affiliation, can reflect upon the sacrifices made by so many on our behalf. Memorial Day is that day of days when every American simply must stop before beginning any planned holiday festivities and contemplate the dear price paid by so many others just for us.
Freedom is not free. The cost is incalculable. And it would constitute the greatest of travesties if contemporary Americans who enjoy that freedom fail to recognize the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price for it.
One ironic thing about Memorial Day is that while we seek to honor those who gave their lives for this nation in time of war, their actual graves are not easily accessible to us all. To be sure the great national cemetery in Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D. C., is open for all Americans to visit.
But not everyone can make that pilgrimage, or one to the American Cemetery in France near the beaches in Normandy where so many American boys perished on that one singularly epic D-Day on June 6, 1944.
So it becomes possible, unless one's family has been touched by the tragic sacrifice of a loved one in time of war, to think of Memorial Day as just another opportunity to honor our nation's veterans. Don't misunderstand me: that's important. But grateful as we are to our surviving veterans, it's vital that on Memorial Day we stop and actually recount the sacrifices of those who put themselves willingly in harm's way - and did not survive.
I've been to Arlington, several times. And I've seen what is termed "the Punchbowl" in Hawaii, the unofficial name of the cemetery in a hollowed-out crater of an extinct volcano where many Americans who died in the Pacific Theatre of World War II are buried.
If you visit our local cemeteries, you may be surprised at how difficult it is to find a gravesite commemorating a veteran who died in battle. Most were buried near the spot where they fell, you see, and Navy casualties were often buried at sea.
But if you visit the old Covington City Cemetery, you can find many of their brothers-in-arms. Nearly countless veterans who served alongside those who perished in battle, who walked, talked, flew and sailed into fury with them lie in mute testimony to their brethren's sacrifice. Their tombstones lend something of what they endured and attest to the bravery of those who died in combat.
Last Tuesday, a small American flag low to the ground, fluttering in a zephyr, caught my eye as I passed what I took to be a vacant plot at the southern end of the old cemetery. There was no headstone, no upright marker to garner attention. But upon closer inspection, I found the final resting place of one Sergeant John B. Day and learned that he served in World War I, in the 157th Depot Brigade. Not far from the Sarge lies Ernest E. Johnson, who served in World War I's Army Officer Training School.
Near the Davis Street entrance to the cemetery, in one plot alone just west of the main gate, are no fewer than five men who gave of themselves in service to our nation in the armed forces.
Felix H. Wright served in the Army's medical department in World War I. Felix Jr. was a veteran of World War II. John S. Wright flew with the Army Air Corps in World War II and later with the Air Force in both Korea and Vietnam. Norval Woodrow Norton and Robert Reginald Prescott also rest there, both having served during World War II in the Navy.
Those are but a few of those "who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life."
There's William Rosser Zachary, Army, World War I; Otto R. Rheberg, Army, World War II; and William Crawford, Navy, World War II.
If you look carefully, you'll find a recipient of the Bronze Star, Army Colonel Neill Bradshaw, who served in three wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
There are others, to be sure, almost too many to name. John Bob Weaver, an Army sergeant from World War I. Robert Lee Nix served in World War II, as did Sergeant James Ray Braswell, Staff Sergeant Thomas T. Kinney, William Fred Lott, James Edward Robinson, Jesse Dewey Farrow, and John Floyd Hawk, who served beyond World War II into Korea.
In the old cemetery's "new" section near the mausoleum, you'll find a marker commemorating a Porterdale boy. Captain Homer Vernon Cook, United States Marine Corps aviator, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, was hit by anti-aircraft fire while on a photographic reconnaissance mission over Wotje Atoll in the Marshall Islands in World War II on March 17, 1944. Eye witnesses said he could have bailed out and saved himself. But Cook spun in near Wotje that day, most likely knowing that his pictures would help effectively plan the invasion, and thus save untold American lives.
Greater love hath no man, we're told, than to lay down his life for another. If you want to talk about a greater love, and devotion to duty, I'd say a pretty good starting place is with Homer Vernon Cook, from Porterdale, Georgia. A man who more than self his country loved, who could have saved himself but who instead tried to save countless others by nursing his mortally-wounded plane back home.
Covington's old City Cemetery is not the sole repository for persons of indescribable courage. You can take a pleasant day trip about 90 minutes east of our town, through Greensboro and Union Point to a spot near Washington and visit the site of the American Revolution's Battle of Kettle Creek. There you will find, amidst pine trees and cotton fields, a place where men stood up and said, with a good degree of finality, they'd rather die fighting for freedom than to live under the yoke of tyranny.
If a day trip to Wilkes County is not possible, perhaps you can travel a few minutes north of Covington and visit the historic Oxford City Cemetery.
There you'll find the resting place of Private Homer Shaw, who served as a private in the 306th Service Battalion, Quarter-master Corps, in World War I. Mercie Mack Robinson, an Army Sergeant in both World War II and Korea, is near Walter James Saffo, an Army corporal in Korea.
Not far away lie Herbert Allgood, Navy Reserve, and Frederick R. Stewart, Navy from World War II; they rest near William Ellis, an Army sergeant, who served in that era's chemical weapons section.
These folks, to my way of thinking, are heroes. They undertook service to their country, in times of peril and placed themselves in harm's way in order to perpetuate an existence of individual freedom for those of us fortunate enough to follow in their footsteps.
And yet, even as we honor those who served and survived, who returned home to their loved ones and who continued to make the world a better place, we must not forget that Memorial Day is a time to think of those who died in the line of duty for us all.
If but one person gave his life in order for the rest of us to be free, how fantastic would that be? Beyond that, staggering numbers of regular, ordinary, everyday men and women did just that - for all of us.
As I made my way through the cemetery in Oxford, I found a marker denoting the service of one First Lieutenant Bonnell H. Stone, who served in the Army during World War II. Engraved on the marker are a few sentences from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I intend to offer on Memorial Day as a universal thanksgiving for all who made that ultimate sacrifice.
It's a short elegy, yet eloquent in its simplicity, and I'd be honored if you'll take a moment, this Memorial Day, 2008, and offer it up as well:
"In grateful memory to [those] who died in the service of their nation: They stand in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that Freedom might live and grow and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, [they] live, in a way that humbles the undertaking of most men."
May God bless all of them, and may God bless America.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.