A friend of mine wrote this letter to the editor for last year’s Memorial Day. The local paper published it.
Fallen but not forgotten
By Walter Terzano
Editor’s note: The writer is a resident of Portsmouth. This Memorial Day, a very few of us will walk among those tiny American flags to pay our respects to those from here who died for their country.
Across Western Europe, more Americans will walk through vast forests of white crosses to give thanks to some of our 230,000 dead lost in two world wars against the Germans. Taps will sound across the Pacific, at Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal and the once-bloody cathedrals of Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, as wreaths are laid at humble monuments to do reverence to the thousands who suffered early and violent deaths wresting those fortress islands from the Japanese. We remember them, but there are others less well known.
Leo Francis Baker, a Boston native, was one of four American pilots to die at the Bay of Pigs. He volunteered to fly a B-26 bomber for the CIA and was shot down by a Cuban jet on the first day of the invasion. He survived the crash landing to be killed in a shootout with Castro’s militia in a swamp. Officially disowned by his government, his body was not returned until 1981. Leo Baker was one of many good soldiers to die in the shadows of the secret wars from Afghanistan to Zaire. Memorial Day is for him, too.
The first American to die in our 30 years’ war for Vietnam fell in September 1945. He was an OSS major from Yale, ambushed by the Viet Minh while driving his jeep near Saigon. Peter Dewey?s body was never recovered.
And “Mad Dog” Shriver, the Green Beret legend, as enigmatic in death as he was in life. In April 1969, his hatchet platoon was outnumbered and pinned down in a hurricane of gunfire. Half were killed or wounded. Shriver charged the blazing tree line with his Montagnard strikers and disappeared into the Cambodian jungle he knew so well.
How can we pay our respects to them? Where do we salute?
The last American to die in action there was killed by a North Vietnamese Army rocket in the final hours of the war in April 1975. Marine Cpl. Charles McMahon, 22, was buried in the soldiers’ lot of the Woburn Cemetery a year later in a ceremony of crushing sadness. His body had been left behind by our fleeing diplomats and would be there still if not for the determined efforts of Sen. Kennedy. Think of Cpl. McMahon when you hear “Amazing Grace” on the Scottish war pipes.
Do you remember a place called “Desert One?” A generation ago, our hostage-rescue mission ended in a fireball of exploding aircraft. Five airmen and three marines died in the flames and were left behind. When they play “The Star-Spangled Banner” and we have our hands over our hearts, give thanks for the likes of Harold Lewis, George Holmes, Lyn McIntosh, Charles McMillan, John Harvey, Dewey Johnson, Joel Mayo and Richard Bakke who gave their lives for the rest of us in trying to recover the national honor in the Iranian desert.
The fate of Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher is the darkest secret of Desert Storm. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney pronounced him dead a few hours after his F/A-18 was shot down west of Baghdad on the first night of the Gulf War. There were no search and no rescue missions even after local hunters stumbled upon the fighter-bomber’s wreckage in 1993. The U.S. Navy, which had stubbornly declared Scott Speicher “killed in action” for the past 10 years, now admits a reassessment of the evidence indicates he successfully ejected and survived for some time on the ground and has changed his status to “missing in action.”
Three marines were captured by the Khmer Rouge on Ko Tang Island during the battle to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez. Lance Cpl. Joe Hargrove, executed by a shot to the chest, bled to death on the dirt floor of a jungle pigsty. Pfc. Gary Hall and Pvt. Danny Marshall, manacled and tied to chairs in the courtyard of a Phnom Penh dungeon, were clubbed to death with the barrel of a rocket launcher “to save bullets.”
Four more of our lost souls, denied tears at a decent burial, who never asked for anything back from military service except for the chance to survive or to die like men. Remember them.
Where do we pray for the guys who never made it back? How can we thank the missing? Eight thousand from the Korean War we now know were “captured alive, tortured, summarily executed, beaten or marched to death,” their bodies scattered across the lunar landscape of North Korea. One hundred and fifty aircrew from U.S. spy planes shot down by the Russians between 1950 and 1970 are missing and unaccounted for. Captured alive, interrogated for years by the KGB, those not executed disappeared into the Siberian Gulags.
During the secret war in Laos between 1959 and 1975, the Pathet Lao was known to have captured alive nearly 500 U.S. airmen. Only one who escaped came home to us.
The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., is the collective tombstone for more than 58,000 men and women killed in that war. In 1973, the Nixon administration, in its rush to leave the scene of the crime, wrote off about 1,300 prisoners it had good reason to believe were still being held by the communists, some reportedly surviving until the late 1980s. When asked what happened to them, Vernon Walters, then-deputy director of the CIA, said: “I think they killed them. They?re that kind of people.”
So if it’s true that “a man will live as long as he is remembered,” let them all live again for just a moment in our hearts when the buglers play taps. Remember all the forgotten soldiers, all the expendable patriots who have no headstones, who left nothing behind save our memory of them. Let?s remember them, too.