Sunday, May 29, 2011

In Memory of Those Who Served

Memorial Day is set aside to honor people who died fighting in America's wars. So far as I know, no one in my family died while in the service, but several men served in the armed forces, so I honor them today also. The most distant relative I know about was my great-great grandfather John W. Welborn. He fought in the Union Army from November, 1861 to December, 1864. His war diary for July, 1864 describes a campaign to take Atlanta, Georgia in stark terms:

July 19th 3 miles, with some skirmishing, and took Decatur. 10th came upon the Rebs’ lines, enclosing Atlanta. 
From the 19th to 22nd heavy skirmishing and cannonading. 
From 22 to 27th we was fortifying, and part of the time under brisk shelling. 28th heavy fighting on our right; 10,000 Rebs’ loss, ours 2000. 

The young man seated is my grandfather, John Calvin Turnage, in 1918. John Calvin Turnage served his country in WW I. He was in the 138th. Field Artillery Regiment of the Old Kentucky National Guard. He served with the American Expeditionary Force in France in 1918. Although he did not see combat, his unit was moving up to the front when the Armistice was signed, and only a train-wreck kept him from seeing action at the Front. 

John Calvin's son, my father, Bill Turnage served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. HIs fondest ambition was to become a fighter pilot. He did well in pilot's training, but was removed when a heart condition disqualified him. He attempted to go overseas as a radio operator, but the war ended before he could depart. He was shaped by his time in the service, and he remembered it in great detail ever after. He kept a war diary, just as his great grandfather Welborn had. Near his twentieth birthday and far from home, he wrote:

I received a letter from Betty two days ago. She told me that she had never loved me and that she had found someone else. They should be married by now. I shall never love another girl. 

The young man did live to love again. I wonder how many service men received the dreaded letter from their sweetheart at home.

I'm sure those of us who have not experienced the horror of war cannot imagine it. "Oh, your train wrecked on the way to the front, Soldier? You're the lucky one."

We hope for a peaceful world, where young men or women will not die from bullets or bombs. I don't know how to accomplish this, or even how we could measure progress. I can say we seem to know each other better than we once did. Bill's president declared war on the Empire of Japan, but his son married a Japanese girl. During World War I the Russian Revolution took place. Almost one hundred years later, John Calvin Turnage's half-Asian great-grandson is best friends with a little girl whose parents came to America from the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. Let's hope love can conquer all.

I close with a beautiful song by Eric Bogle, sung by June Tabor. It needs no further introduction. Hail to all our heroes, past and present. Thank you for your bravery and your service.

No Man's Land, by Eric Bogle

1. Well, how do you do, Private William McBride,
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

cho: Did they Beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly?
Did the rifles fir o'er you as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you always 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

3. The sun's shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

4. And I can't help but wonder, no Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you 'The Cause?'
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.


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