By mid afternoon, July 2, 1863, the temperature had risen to a not unbearable 81 degrees. Few of the wool suited soldiers of the Union’s 20th Maine Regiment noticed. Nor did they glance skyward at the cumulostratus clouds that for the first time in two days began to drift apart. Most hunkered behind the makeshift breastworks. And waited.
And counted their ammunition. The first two charges from the 15th Alabama Infantry had failed. Barely. No one was assured they could withstand a third one. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s instructions had been clear, “Hold the line at all cost.” The “all cost” of course, without anyone saying it out loud, was the lives of the men squatting low in the afternoon shadows.
The situation could not be more tenuous. The Maine Regiment constituted the extreme south end of the entire Union defenses at Gettysburg. If the line was breached here and the Northern army flanked, the results would be catastrophic. Chamberlain, realizing his men were down to their last few rounds and could not withstand another assault, ordered them to “fix bayonets” and countercharged down Little Round Top right into the midst of the Alabamians.
His bold attack carried the day. It also catapulted Chamberlain to national fame. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. He went on to be a four term Governor of Maine and president of prestigious Bowdoin College. He was also a much sought after presence at subsequent Civil War reunions up until his death in 1914.
Joshua Chamberlain certainly earned the cheers and applause that followed him as a genuine war hero. No one would ever dispute that. But sometimes we forget to remember that 134 men of the 20th Maine died that afternoon “carrying the day.” Another 19 were reported missing and presumed dead. I just wonder sometimes who’s cheering for them…..
“In Flanders Fields” is way more than a distant poem about men who died fighting for us in some long ago war—it is a message spoken from poppy covered graves that exposes the hearts of soldiers down through the ages.
D-Day, June 6, 1944, is well celebrated as the greatest amphibious landing of all time. New books and fresh movies continue to come out detailing the epic story of Canadian, British and American troops storming the beaches at Normandy. It is heroic and we should remember! I just pray we understand the connection between the bravery and tenacity of those men and the freedoms we take for granted today.
Here’s a D-Day fact that doesn’t always shine forth in the books and movies. Approximately 2,500 American soldiers on that fateful day gave up all they would ever be—paid the ultimate sacrifice—before the folks “back home” sat down for their morning cup of coffee.
I wonder how many Americans remember Mike Strank, Franklin Sousley and Harlon Block. On February 23, 1945, these three men helped raise a flag on Iwo Jima. We’ve all seen the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph that so encapsulates the glory of the American Flag waving over a vanquished foe. Except the foe wasn’t quite vanquished this time…….
The fighting on Iwo Jima didn’t end until March 26. Sergeant Strank died in combat six days after the iconic picture was taken. Corporal Block was killed by a Japanese mortar that same afternoon. Nineteen year old Private First Class Franklin Sousley was killed by sniper fire five days before the island was secured. I have wondered for years if any of them ever saw the photograph that made them famous.
Franklin D. Roosevelt is remembered for leading us out of the Great Depression and through the “great war.” But here, to me, is his most revealing hour……when the news came to the War Room that 6,821 young Americans, mostly U. S. Marines, had died on Iwo Jima, the President cried.
We watched the Vietnam War on our television sets each night—can you think of a lonelier place on earth to fall face down in the dirt and die for your country.
On Memorial Day back in the seventh grade Miss Velna Gray Paschall told us all of our fathers who fought in World War II were heroes. Daddy never ever mentioned the war. I was waiting when he got home that afternoon, “Dad, Miss Paschall said you are a hero……”
He stopped in his tracks, his eyes went up and over us as he stared off someplace I couldn’t see. I think today he was back in New Guinea or maybe on Biiak Island or wading ashore in the Philippines. After the longest pause, he looked down and said, “Son, the real heroes didn’t come back.”
I don’t know about you. But this Memorial Day I’m going to get my mind off me for a second……and do some heartfelt cheering!