In 1868, shortly after the end of the Civil War, the last Monday of each May was designated to honor members of the military who gave their life in the service of our country. Sometimes confused with Veterans day in the fall, which recognizes all veterans, Memorial Day specifically remembers and honors those who died in muddy European trenches or throughout Asian jungles, on distant atolls and in middle eastern deserts, and high among the clouds, and on the seas.
Like many young men of the time, my father and many of my uncles served in World War II. Most men their age joined the services to confront the Nazi war machine and halt Japanese aggression. My father returned home after piloting a B-24 through 50 missions. Many others didn’t. One of my uncles didn’t come home. He was my mother’s brother, James. James was a navigator on a B-29 bomber based on the small Pacific island of Saipan. His aircraft collided with another shortly after takeoff on a mission to Japan. Both flaming B-29s fell into the ocean and none of the crew members survived.
I never got to know my uncle. I came along 10 years after he was killed in action. Some photos, along with many letters and articles about him, are in a box that my mother carefully safeguarded throughout her life. The early images are of a boy helping with farming chores in Eastern Montana. A few pictures capture a happy young man attending Montana State College in the late 1930s. Some photos show a maturing adult with a young family in the early 1940s. One picture presents him alongside his crew members in front of a silver B29. The photos attest that he was a high school athlete, a student leader, and an office holder in statewide agriculture organizations. He graduated from college with a degree in agriculture and took a teaching position at a small college in South Dakota. He married, and had a child, and was developing a reputation as an effective educator. Then, like most young men of his generation, he answered the call to defend his country. Ultimately, he made the final sacrifice.
In the same box as my uncle’s photos is a faded copy of a letter sent to his widow, my aunt, shortly after a telegram notified her of his death. The letter was written by my uncle’s superior officer. The major explained why he, and all those who were in the military, were serving their country. The consoling words, written in a canvas tent on a war-torn island, say much about the many who have given their life to keep our country free from oppression:
“17 March, 1945
Dear Mrs. Watson
I know that there is little I can say to ease your sorrow in losing your husband. I know that because if I do not return, there is little that can be done or said to my wife which could help her. On the other hand, perhaps knowing how we, who are out here feel, may help to reconcile you in your hour of sorrow.
None of us here are gallant for the sake of being that. We are here primarily because this happens to be our lot. We have permitted it to become our lot because we feel, first and foremost, that our generation must leave for the next, at least as good a chance as we had. If any of us are fortunate to return safe and sound, then we are the lucky ones. Personally I feel that if it is my life against the freedom of my children, and their right to make for themselves the best they can, then my life, important as it is to me and my loved ones, is a small price to pay. I want my children, and the generation that they are a part of, to inherit all the blessings of that country of ours which becomes increasingly a utopia to us each day that we must be away. I feel that whatever price our generation must pay to win this war, that price we must pay. Above all else we must assure that those who follow in our footsteps inherit America and all it has stood for to us. This I believe is why most of us are here. I think it must, in some measure, be what your husband felt, and why perhaps from his viewpoint, his sacrifice was not too great.
Major, Air Corps.”
When I look at the pictures of my uncle that are in my mother’s old box, it is almost like looking in a mirror. When I was a young man I looked a lot like him at that age. But while his boyish visage in the photos will never change, mine has. Because of my uncle, and all those in the armed services who have died over generations in the service of our country, I have had a rewarding career, and raised a family, and grown older in a life full of experiences and joys and freedom. Their young lives ended, much too soon, so that we may live ours.
As my uncle’s youthful eyes look out from the faded photos, they almost implore that he somehow be remembered. Trust me, Uncle James. You, and the many others who have given their life for all of us and our great nation, will never be forgotten.
Jim Drummond is a retired banker from Bozeman.