Regular readers know that, since the Free State Foundation's founding in 2006, I have written a Memorial Day message each year. While the sentiments expressed in each, understandably, have remained largely in the same vein, this particular message is more personal than the previous ones.
My father, Aaron May, a World War II Army veteran, passed away last October. He served as a warrant officer with the 68th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 14th Armored Division of the Seventh Army as it fought its way up through France, and then across into Germany. Dad was with his unit when it liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. He never forgot the sight of the liberated campmates.
Like many WWII vets, for decades after the war, my father never talked much about his Army life. But as the fiftieth anniversary commemorations approached in the late 80s and early 90s, Dad's reticence faded. He began to talk to me about his war experiences and to speak to school groups as well. He especially wanted to tell students, those old enough to hear, about what he saw at Dachau.
As part of an oral history project operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Dad did a long video interview in 2001, recalling his wartime experience. He was just shy of 85 at the time.
In 1995, Dad gave me his dog-eared Basic Field Manual Soldier's Handbook and his yellowed copy of his unit's history. There is much detail about particular battles in the latter. At the time, he said simply: "I thought you might want to keep these after I'm gone."
My father was in charge of a transportation unit of 79 men that was responsible for trucking supplies and food from behind the lines up to the front. Often, he said, the trucks would come back from the front with the wounded – and the dead. On the side of each of the unit's trucks was painted: "Norma I," "Norma II," "Norma III," "Norma IV," and so forth. Yes, Norma was my mother. She and Dad got married – she was 19 at the time – a few months before he shipped out for Europe.
But here is something important you should know about the trucks named "Norma." Dad showed me a faded photo and pointed to the soldier standing next to him, fellow warrant officer Norman Wemple. Almost inaudibly, Dad said: "He got blown up by a direct hit in March 1945 while driving Norma II. Norman was one of my best buddies."
It was only after a long, long pause that Dad told me that he and Norman had switched places that day in the trucks' usual line order as they drove to the front. Otherwise, almost certainly it would have been my father, instead of Norman, who died that day in a truck with "Norma" painted on the side.
So, Dad came home, having served his country, alive and without wounds. His story is personal to me, of course, and of no great moment to you. But I know, in a larger sense, in the sense that matters, it is not an exceptional story at all. I tell it partly for myself, I'm sure, on this first Memorial Day he is not here. But I tell it, mostly, I hope, to call to mind the sacrifices of all of America's veterans, from all our nation's wars.
So very many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines – so many it is awful to contemplate -- have given their limbs, and, of course, like Warrant Officer Norman Wemple, their lives.
Thirty-five American soldiers gave their lives just last month in Afghanistan.
It is possible you may not agree with the stated purpose or goals of each of the wars in which these veterans fought. This should not matter now – on Memorial Day. We honor the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines because of their dedication and sacrifice to the American cause.
I understand there may be different views. But I happen to believe that, in the main, our veterans fought to preserve the freedom we cherish here in America.
At the Free State Foundation, our mission is to promote understanding of free market, limited government, and rule of law principles. I am grateful we live in a country that honors the memory of those who have fought – and died – to preserve our freedom to carry out that mission.
So, I extend my very best wishes to you and your families for a memorable, in the sense of remembering, Memorial Day.