THE ELEVENTH DAY OF THE ELEVENTH MONTH
Several years ago, I conducted the funeral for a veteran of World War II. The day before his funeral, I visited with John’s family. His daughter said, “My daddy was a hero.” I heard the story of John’s service to this country. John landed on the beach at Normandy with his battalion in the Invasion that was a turning point in World War II. He served as a medic in the infantry. He marched across France, Belgium, Germany, and into Czechoslovakia. He was wounded three times, twice in the shoulder and once in the leg. He returned to the front lines by oxcart. He lost his hearing because of repeated exposure to the sound of artillery fire. Among his medals, John received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
John returned to Spartanburg County from the war and operated a service station. He was a pleasant man with a kind word and a smile for everyone. He enjoyed joking and teasing. He rarely talked about the war; never about his honors. He was an unsung hero, a man of peace and humility.
My cousin, Jim Hudson, a retired Army Captain, shared an event in his military experience that reminded me that those who serve our country, even in times of peace and in places that are not war zones, can suffer tragedy in the line of duty.
On Thursday, December 12, 1985, a DC-8 charter flight carrying 248 passengers and a crew of eight, crashed just after takeoff from Gander International Airport, Newfoundland. All on board perished. The resulting fire, fed by contents of the stricken aircraft’s full fuel tanks, took firefighters 30 hours to extinguish.
The passengers of the ill-fated flight were U.S. Army soldiers. All but twelve were members of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Captain Terry Rains, a helicopter pilot, was one who died.
The tragedy at Gander ranks as the worst military air disaster in our nation’s peacetime history. Twenty years later, Jim still remembers. It wasn’t just that soldiers had died. A seasoned soldier learns to expect an empty chair at the table. But for Jim this was personal. These brothers in arms wore the Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st on their left shoulder, just as Jim did. There were so many. Some were friends. Some were neighbors.
Terry was Jim’s next-door neighbor at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Rhonda, Terry’s wife, asked Jim to escort her husband’s body; to take him home to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with the respect and dignity due a fallen comrade.
Jim accompanied Terry’s body from the Mortuary Affairs Unit, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., to Dallas, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Each time the casket was loaded or unloaded from the hold of the airplane, Jim was required to oversee the transfer. Jim stood on the tarmac and saluted, giving proper military courtesy.
In Tulsa, Jim met the representative from the funeral home. Airport personnel uncrated and placed the casket on a gurney. An American flag was draped over the casket. Jim saluted, then helped load Terry’s casket into the hearse. He saw two older men, perhaps veterans, remove their work caps, holding them over their hearts. Jim was overwhelmed with emotion.
Before the funeral, Jim met with Terry’s parents, Rhonda, and the children. Together they went to the graveside. An officer who had encouraged Terry to enlist, presented Rhonda with the flag and a beret bearing Terry’s medals. From a hill on the other side of the cemetery, a lone bugler sounded “Taps.” Those familiar notes, drifting above the garden of stone, lingered briefly. Jim finally was able to cry.
The eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour marked the armistice that end World War I. The day is commemorated as Veterans Day. In a Farewell Address to a joint meeting of Congress, General Douglas MacArthur quoted the words of an old World War I barracks song, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” But soldiers do die, and, within their band of brothers, soldiers grieve, and grieve deeply. Veterans Day, November 11th, is an opportunity for all of us to remember with gratitude those who have served in war and in peace; a time to be sure that our memories of them do not fade away.