America Is Still a Gift to the World
On this Memorial Day, it is worth cutting through all the toxicity clogging our culture and recollecting what a special way of life those who have died have given us.”>
Early on the morning of June 4,1942, four B-2 6 Marauders from the Army Air Forces-out 18 th Reconnaissance Squadron growled down a mile long runway on Midway Island and took off over the Pacific, flying low with a rising sun behind them, heading west toward a huge Japanese armada intent on destroying the remnants of the American Navy six months after Pearl Harbor. Each Marauder had seven young Americans on board and they all knew what was ahead: Eight Japanese aircraft carrier, 11 battleships, 23 cruisers, 65 destroyers, and over 700 Japanese fighter aircraft, bombers, and torpedo planes.
One of the Marauders was piloted by Lt. Herb Mayes of San Francisco, California. His co-pilot was Lt. Garnett McCallister of Washington , D.C. Lt. Billy Hargis of Haskel City, Oklahoma was on the radio while Lt. Gerald Barnicle of Fitchburg, Massachusetts was the bombardier. Staff Sgt. Sal Battaglia from Brooklyn, Pvt. Ben Huffstickler out of Gaston County, North Carolina and Pvt. Roy Walters of Northampton County, Pennsylvania were on the guns.
They were part of the first torpedo attack ever attempted by the Army Air Force in an epic battle that transformed the war in the Pacific. The four B-2 6 Marauders and others that followed during a two day battle at sea came in 200 feet above the ocean, driving toward their targets through swarms of Japanese Zeros and anti-aircraft flame so intense it turned the morning sky dark.
The humen in the B-2 6 Marauder piloted by Lt. Mayes were as old as 28 and as young as 18 and by 7:30 on the morning of 4 June, 1942 they were all dead, swallowed by the Pacific.
Ten years later, on Memorial Day 1952, I held my grandmothers hand as she stood like a frail watchman, stick thin, her face a forced marriage of pride and ache, listening to the names of the dead from World War II and Korea read out loud at a ceremony on Main Street. In memory I can still feel her hand squeezing mine when her sons name, an uncle I never fulfilled, filled the late spring air: Lieutenant Gerald J. Barnicle Killed in action … Battle of Midway … Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
My grandmother wore Gerrys medals every Memorial Day. And when the ceremonies objective she returned them to a small table next to a lounge in the front room of the second floor apartment in the home we all shared together: my mother and father, my aunt, my brothers, and me.
On the wall by the table where she maintained the medalsthe DSC and the Purple Heartwere two framed letters of gratitude: one signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the other above the signature of General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff. A framed picture of her youngest son hung beside the letters, of Gerald, in uniform, in the sunshine, smiling, eternally 25.
This was Memorial Day in America half way through the 20 th Century.
It was a country where people had time to take time to stop and think about who we are and where we came from, about who had been lost and why. My grandmother wasnt the only Gold Star Mother on our street. Our family was not the only family that had surrendered a son to war.
Hannah Fitzgerald Barnicle left the west of Ireland and crossed an ocean with her children for an America that recognized and rewarded her and so many others. In our neighborhood there was a Jewish family that had fled Russia, another escaped Poland, a third work from Italy and all lived in the midst of three deckers and two family bungalows that sent sons to both Europe and the Pacific to save the world.
Those who survived came home, many of them, to jobs in the post office, the fire department, a municipal payroll, the cops, the paper mills, the textile mills; the gifts of a grateful nation were a paycheck, the GI Bill, a VA loan, seeing the sunrise each day while quietly trying to suppress the trauma of bloody markers like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, St Mere Eglise, The Bulge, Anzio and a lot of other shattering spots that wounded them silently, forever.
It was a country where memory had not died and where our attention span would not be stolen for another six decades. Life was much more linear, more predictable: the job, the family, the church, two weeks vacation, a paycheck on Thursday, fish sticks on Friday, hot dogs and beans on Saturday, 8 oclock Mass Sunday and then do it all over again.
It was a country not yet gifted and fundamentally changed by better health, longer lives, greater wealth, expanded opportunity, civil rights, higher education, middle class mobility and a sense that children born to those who went to war in 1942 would climb the ladder higher than their parents ever could.
But Sputnik lit up the sky. Then a wall get built in Berlin. Dallas darkened a November day and the cloud persisted for years. A motel balcony in Memphis. A kitchen in Los Angeles. Vietnam destroyed lives and faith in multiple institutions. Watergate. The simplicity and isolation of the 1950 s slowly, surely surrendered to huge social and cultural change that improved so much around us but arrived with a sometimes fierce price.
So, this is Memorial Day in America a decade and half into the 21 st Century.