Memorial Day


As I have written before, growing up in the 50’s was exceptional. The emphasis was community activities, church socials and neighborhood parties. Kids were everywhere, people were smiling, and life was great.

Our assistant Scoutmaster, Mr. Moore, always waked with a limp. The neighborhood carpenter had a weird scar from his shoulder to his back. Uncle Ed had a wife who had the strongest accent we ever heard – but could she cook Hungarian stew! When we visited the Valentines, there were two photos on the mantel of young soldiers, brothers that we never met. Uncle Jack never talked about how he learned to fly. Curtis’s dad had a Japanese sword that he found somewhere.

Over time, each of these stories came together, as upon their deaths; the obituaries would mention Normandy, Taiwan, Burma and so many other faraway spots. It seems that we were raised amid heroes and they never talked about it….

The heroes of my youth are gone. George was a mule skinner, transporting cannon over the Alps. Edwin had five combat jumps in the Pacific, the last saw him hang from the Rock for three days, playing dead. Frank was thrown of his ship after it exploded in a night battle on the Slot. Tom recalls mountains of snow at the Chosen Reservoir of Korea. Bob died with pieces of iron still in his body from the jungles of Vietnam. They are all gone; and hopefully they are still remembered by the stories amongst family and friends, as their graves are decorated with American flags.

Today, we have a new generation of heroes, veterans that sacrificed life and limb because those in power asked them. There was a need, there was a threat, and they volunteered. Yet, these heroes and those of my youth do not consider themselves as heroes, no, they came home.

They believe the heroes never returned from far away battlefields. And as Memorial Day approaches, these living heroes grow quiet as they remember the friends of their youth – their buddies. They take a moment to look at a photo, to touch a name on a long wall, or to recall a night of liberty in a port across the sea.

Memorial Day is about those heroes who never returned, who never got married or kissed their love ones. It is about those heroes that never held their kids or sang to their grandchildren. It is about those heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their friends, family and Nation.

We are blessed that there are those that understand duty, honor and service to this country. We are blessed that Billy, a young Marine from Groton, understood that freedom needed to be protected for his family and Nation. Memorial Day is about recognizing the sacrifice that over one million have given to protect the blessings of liberty from those that wish to destroy it.

Not all heroes died in combat. Some, like friends I knew from the Naval Academy, died at sea, performing simple operational tasks. They must be remembered this Memorial Day.

Every Memorial Day I reflect about the time I spent with one of my best High School friends, Alan Aertker. He became an Aggie, he was part of the Corps. Upon graduation, he committed to the Air Force and trained as a Flight Officer, working the backseat of an F4 Phantom. What a plane: fast, noisy, cramped, but beautiful if you kept the power and flight angles correct.

Alan was part of a Cold War group, based out of England, that would fly the West Germany/East Germany border, looking for troop movement, checking radar signals, performing a boring mission to ensure the safety of the West Germans. And with that were training flights, and more training flights, and yet again. There was very little danger, there was simply long hours in a cramped space.

On the way home from a mission where nothing was abnormal, over Thuine West Germany, the pilot had a heart attack and died. Unlike the Navy fitted F-4’s, there were flight controls in the backseat. Alan quickly setup to eject and let the plane crash.

But looking out the cockpit, he noticed that the plane would likely strike an elementary school, with debris cascading into a Catholic Church. Alan gunned the engines and attempted to gain altitude.

The kick in power was more than enough to momentarily lift the plane, resulting in the plane missing the school and church. But F-4’s do not fly, they are powered and they must have the proper angel of attack or they will stall. His plane stalled and crashed in a field about 200 yards from the school and Church. Alan was not able to eject. No civilians died.

On August 25th, 1977, I was at sea serving watch on a Nuclear Powered Cruiser. The Ops boss asked me if I knew any Air Force guys from Fort Worth, Texas. When I got off watch, he handed me the general communication of the crash.

Alan never saw his wife again; he never saw his daughter. But his memory lives on. Every anniversary of his ultimate sacrifice to protect innocent life, the town of Thuine has a parade to the crash site in a field off a dirt road. Songs are sung and beer is served. The local gun club fires a salute. They are very thankful for the ultimate sacrifice of a special American.

So on Memorial Day, before the hamburgers are served or after the parade — take time to recall stories regarding our American heroes, think about the sacrifices they made so that we could enjoy the day, and then read the words of President Abraham Lincoln; “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people , and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In the name of all those we honor this Memorial Day, take time and thank our fallen, for they have blessed us with the liberty and freedoms we enjoy.

Tom Weaver ©5/30/22

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