How Soon We Forget by William Klein

It’s Memorial Day, and I’m thinking about the brave men and women who sacrificed life and limb to commit to a call beyond themselves.

Wars don’t end.  They linger in the hearts and minds of those who served and more often than not leave a stain on the memory that can never be lifted.  Those who have never signed on the line to commit our lives to this end can never understand what that means.

This was the lesson my father taught me.  I remember him reflecting on his experience as a draftee in WWII.

WWII was a confrontation of good versus evil.  However you feel about war, there was a common understanding that the Fascist threat of world domination was real  — that Tojo, Mussolini and most of all Hitler had designs of imposing their twisted, self-aggrandizing imperialist will on every soil their citizens boots touched.

In America there was a fervor and commitment to defeating fascism on the part of every citizen in the country.  Each person would do his or her part to make that reality live with purpose. Whether it was collecting rubber to make tires for jeeps, working in a factory as a “Rosie the Riveter” to manufacture airplanes and tanks or buy war bonds to support the effort, young and old joined the cause.

My father went into the army towards the end of the war.  At one of the camps where he was stationed he said there was a building with a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who “endured treatment that no human being could endure.”  He said the building held a strange air of immanence and a potent sanctity that was palpable to everyone who passed it. Soldiers spoke in hushed tones when they reverently veered into the vicinity for fear they would disturb the man who resided there.

When he was first introduced to the area, he asked a buddy “who was there? What kind of hell did this guy endure to be met with such hallowed measures?”

His buddy replied, “General Wainwright.”

Wainwright was a decorated soldier who led the fight in the Pacific. The pages of Arlington National Cemetary tell his story:

“In 1942 Lt. General Jonathan Wainwright became senior commander of U.S. forces in the Philippines. When the Philippines fell to Japan on April 9, 1942, he and thousands of others escaped to the island of Corregidor, where they hid for a month. Facing the prospect of a Japanese attack, and running out of food and other supplies, Lt. Gen. Wainwright reluctantly surrendered the island to the Japanese on May 6, 1942. He and the remaining others were forced to endure the Bataan Death March to Japanese prison camps. More than three years later, in August 1945, Wainwright was released from a liberated prisoner-of-war camp; he had been Japan’s highest-ranking American prisoner. Called “The Hero of Bataan and Corregidor,” he received a Medal of Honor for his efforts to defend his men, and was promoted to the rank of four-star general in September 1945.”

Of the 60,000 troops who were forced to walk to their place of internment only 15,000 survived.  One of them being General Wainwright.  Many died due the 60 mile march.  If they fell due to exhaustion they were shot on site. Disease and lack of food claimed the lives of some of the soldiers. When they reached the internment camp, Wainwright was tortured by his captures in front of his men but persisted in being an example to them of survival in the face of imminent death.

His medal of Honor inscription marks the bravery he exhibited stating:

General Wainwright “Distinguished himself by intrepid and determined leadership against greatly superior enemy forces. At the repeated risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in his position, he frequented the firing line of his troops where his presence provided the example and incentive that helped make the gallant efforts of these men possible. The final stand on beleaguered Corregidor, for which he was in an important measure personally responsible, commanded the admiration of the Nation’s allies. It reflected the high morale of American arms in the face of overwhelming odds. His courage and resolution were a vitally needed inspiration to the then sorely pressed freedom-loving peoples of the world.”

Although Wainwright didn’t die in the war, something in him was sacrificed for the good of overcoming evil that paralyzed his sensibilities about returning to a normal American life.  A life of Friday night dances, drive in movies, picnics and old fashioned concerts on the village green and living in the throes of wholesome goodness FDR articulated in his “Four Freedoms speech” which included freedom from “want and fear”  — everything Norman Rockwell depicted in his paintings.

The strains of fascism are alive and well and are still visible. The demonizing of a free press, a cult of personality and the encouragement of an attack on another branch of government and the undermining of an investigation or the democratic process of hearing the truth about what happened on January 6th sorely compromises our Republic.

How quick we are to forget that the freedoms we hold dear are feeble if they are not nourished by our determination to call out injustice and rise against autocratic thinking. This was the very thing that men like General Wainwright fought and died for.  How soon we forget.

Wainwright’s remains rest in Arlington National Cemetery:  Section 1, Grave 358-B

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