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Memorial Day, to most Americans it marks the beginning of summer and that’s fine; but remembering our fallen service men and women, people who’ve died while serving all of us, is the true point and purpose of this holiday.
Millions of Americans have a relative or friend who has made the ultimate sacrifice, and perhaps you are one of those people. For me, while many in my family have served honorably, I can’t recall or don’t know of any, that died doing so; so in this regards, I am fortunate. Nonetheless, I like to celebrate by remembering the great people who have made my freedom possible.
As a nation we have many traditional ways in which we honor the sacrifices of our heroes on this holiday. Some of the more prominent ones are: Our President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers Monument, our US Flags fly at half mast until noon, there are thousands of parades across the country, and millions of people visit cemeteries to put flowers, wreaths, and flags on the graves of those who died in service.
For me, one of the things I do is read random passages from a wonderful book titled, “Why Courage Matters” by John McCain (I’ve made a tradition of it a few years now and I mean to continue it.)
“Why Courage Matters” is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read and many of the stories therein bring me to tears. One of the stories I read every year, is a story about a man named Mitchell Red Cloud.
Mitchell Red Cloud was descended from Native Americans, and was a veteran of two wars and two services (He served with the Marines in WWII; where he fought dozens of engagements and finally in Okinawa–he was shot and honorably discharged. Later, he served in the Army, in the Korean Conflict, and was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.).
You can read more about Mitchell Red Cloud in the book and if you read the full story it will have a greater impact on you for sure. But, I’d like to share an excerpt from the book, picking up the Mitchell Red Cloud story at the end.
Excerpt from, “Why Courage Matters” by John McCain,
“They’re here, somewhere.” As usual, he had Red Cloud with his Browning automatic rifle (BAR) guard the perimeter. He could trust him to stay alert. Ed Savach remembered how his friend claimed he always knew when an attack was imminent. “It’s like hunting those Wisconsin deer,” Red Cloud told him. “I can smell ’em coming.” He knew his enemy. He knew they liked to swing around and attack from behind after a first noisy assault from the front. He was always ready for them. He didn’t sleep. They wouldn’t take him by surprise.
Pete Salter wouldn’t sleep, either, and not just because he liked to keep an eye on Corporal Red Cloud for reassurance. It was too “goddamn cold to sleep,” he remembered. Most of the men just scraped out a shallow depression from the frozen earth and then tried to get what rest they could. Salter decided to dig the biggest hole he could, all night long, if necessary, just to stay warm. They were all low on ammunition. The company sergeants walked among the men, asking, “How much you got?” and the answers were disappointing. “I got two clips and a bandolier.” “I got three clips and a couple grenades.” “I got one bandolier, no clips.” They could already hear shooting not far from their position, and they knew it would be a long night.
E Company was near full strength that night, around two hundred men. But Ed Svach recalled that they were a bastardized company by then, with fewer original members left than there were replacements and men detailed from other units to make up for the company’s heavy losses. They were dug in on the regiment’s extreme left flank. A five-mile gap separated them from Great Britain’s predominantly Canadian Twenty-seventh Commonwealth Brigade, also assigned to protect the Chongchon bridgeheads. They were supposed to patrol the gap constantly to prevent the enemy from driving between them. But that was easier said then done. A mountain range covered the gap that made it pretty much a no-man’s-land.
That’s where most of them came from that night, swarming down from the mountains between the Canadians and the Nineteenth’s second battalion. They drove in from the right, too, between the second and first battalion position. They hit all three forces that night in a coordinated attack all along the bridgehead line. Before they attacked the second battalion, they set up a roadblock behind it to cut off any retreat. Then they came up both sides of the hill around 3:00 A.M. on November 5, following the communications wire in the rear that led to the company post. They completely enveloped both E and G Companies and caught most of the men asleep. They shot them where they lay.
Red Cloud was the first to see them and he shouted a warning from his position on the ridge just below the company command post. He opened up with his Browning and fired magazine after magazine into the enemy onslaught. Th soldier feeding Red Cloud his ammunition was killed almost instantly. Red Cloud was hit, too, in the chest, but he kept on firing and gave Captain Conway a little time to try to organize some kind of defense. But it was already too late. They were overrun. Ed Svach, who had already had seen plenty of tough fights and would have others, remembered it simply as, “the worst night of my life.”
Pete Salter was still awake, still digging , when the night exploded with gunfire. As he scrambled out of his hole, tracers were firing everywhere; illumination rounds lit the sky. He could see Chinese soldiers shooting men near him in their sleeping bags. All was confusion and paralyzing terror. The men couldn’t tell if they were firing their weapons at the enemy or one another, No one knew exactly what to do. On the very rare occasions later in his life when he talked about the battle, he did so with economy and with no bravado. On the contrary, he recalled his own actions with self-deprecating candor. “I wanted to bug out. I just couldn’t figure out how.”
He jumped back in his foxhole for a minute or two and began a brief but intense negotiation with his God, promising to live an exemplary life for the remainder of his days if He would just get him off this hill. Few prayers were answered that night. But his were.
Red Cloud was wounded but still firing and staving off the complete destruction of his company. A dozen or more Chinese were lying dead or wounded in front of him when his platoon’s medic reached his foxhole to dress his wounds. He didn’t think Red Cloud’s wounds were fatal and left him a few moments later to treat the other wounded. He came back after Red Cloud had been hit again, this time more seriously, and told him that they had to get off the hill or he would die there.
Ed Svach remembered what happened next. He was near the command post with another member of the company, Kenneth Bradshaw. He grabbed Bradshaw’s arm and asked him who the hell was out there. Bradshaw pointed to an opening down the hill and said, “Follow me, we’re going down that draw.”
Red Cloud had declined the medic’s advice and managed to get to his feet, rest his browning in the crotch of a tree, and resume firing. With another BAR man, PFC Josph Balboni, he kept the enemy in a crossfire, opening up the draw so that those who were still alive and able could follow down the hill. Both men would die where they fought. And they knew it. Red Cloud would be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his sacrifice; Balboni, the Distinguished Service Cross. The Official account said Red Cloud had wrapped his arm around a tree to stay upright. Pete Salter remembered it differently. He and another man had managed to crawl down to Red Cloud, who asked them to help keep him upright. Salter got a web belt and wrapped it around Red Cloud and the tree. Then he shook his hand, thanked him, and started down the draw.
The fight had gone on for well over an hour by the time he began to make his way down, crawling some of the way, running when he could. He would hear the bark of Red Cloud’s Browning all the way down.
Pete Salter had thrown away his rifle when it had jammed, and all he had for a weapon was his trench knife. Everyone who could was fighting hand to hand to get off the hill. He would too, if he had to. He was fighting for survival, and most men will have the courage for that. It’s the courage to deny that most powerful of instincts that distinguishes the real heroes, heroes like Mitchell Red Cloud and Joe Balboni. He was scared beyond any fear he had felt before or would ever feel again, begging God almost audibly to spare him. “Please get me out of here.” He didn’t want to be a soldier anymore. He just wanted to stay alive.
Before he got very far, he saw three Chinese soldiers approaching another Easy man’s foxhole. He said he thought about it for a second. “I didn’t have a rifle, and there wasn’t much I could do.” Then, for reasons he could never explain to himself, maybe it was Red Cloud’s example teaching him once more how to be a soldier, he made his choice. He chose to be brave. The citation that accompanied the Silver Star he received for that decision reads as follows:
With utter disregard for his own safety he rushed at the leading enemy soldier and choked him to death with his bare hands. Taking up the dead man’s weapon, he killed the second of the enemy soldiers while his comrade dispatched the third. He then continued to fight off the remainder of the advancing enemy as he withdrew to rejoin his unit. Corporal Salter’s fearless actions reflect the greatest credit on himself and the United States Infantry.
He and the man he saved managed to get off the hill along with a very few others. Accounts of survivors vary, but both Salter and Svach believed only eighteen of Easy’s original members got down alive. Red Cloud’s gun had fallen silent a moment after they were down and Chinese soldiers flooded the draw, chasing after them. But by that time, nearly two hours after the attack had begun, four Quad 4s, armoured vehicles with four mounted .50 caliber machine guns, had arrived at the base of the hill. They opened up on the Chinese, cutting down scores of them.
In the early morning of the next day, the commanding officer of the Quad 4s ordered them to help retake the hill. Initially they refused. “With what?” they yelled. “We haven’t got any ammunition.” But they knew they had to go back up. They could hear some of the wounded crying out. So they went. Salter had barely started back when he was concussed by the explosion of a mortar round. Those who got to the top unhurt counted more than five hundred enemy dead, many of them lying a short distance from the body of Mitchell Red Cloud.
(Pg.194) Pete Salter and Ed Svach had quite a few more tough battles to fight before their yearlong combat tour was over. But they never had another fight as bad as their night on Hill 123. They never forgot what was done to them there and what was done for them.
(Pg. 195) Mitchell Red Cloud’s body was returned from Korea in 1955 and was buried in the Ho-Chunk cemetery. Ed Svach had escorted the body home, and he remembered his friend being laid to rest according to the customs of his people, with the sides of the coffin removed so his soul could escape, a bow and quiver of arrows next to him so that he could hunt in his heaven, and a bowl of fruit for the journey.
I doubt any man who survived Hill 123 forgot the man who saved him. Pete Salter never did. Nor did he forget his promise when he had begged God to spare him and God had answered by anointing Mitchell Red Cloud his savior. He owed his life, and all that came of his life, including his children, to another man’s courage. The debt might have seemed hard to bear at times, and he knew it would survive him and be carried by his descendents. But he knew it was a privilege nevertheless.
When he was dying, he told his son that God had spared him once, but he didn’t think He was going to this time. He was worried that he hadn’t lived up as well as he could have to his end of the bargain he had made nearly fifty years earlier. “I didn’t get it right,” he lamented. But he had. He had lived a good life in the years after the war, not a remarkable one, perhaps, but respectable, certainly respectable. He made mistakes here and there, but he worked hard, provided for his family, raised his children well, and loved them. And even had he lived a dissolute life, he should have known that he had kept much of his promise long ago, just moments after he made it, when in a terrible, terrifying moment, he made a decision to look for his courage and not found it wanting. (end excerpt)
Why Courage Matters
Remembering those who gave their lives–so we could enjoy our life, that’s Memorial Day.
May God Bless America and the souls of the courageous men and women who died for us.
A Tomb of the Unknown Soldier refers to a monument in dedication to the services of an unidentified soldier and to the common memories of all soldiers killed in any war.
Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, PA
Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall is a National Register of Historic Places landmark in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. It is the largest memorial in the United States dedicated solely to honoring all branches of military veterans and service personnel.
It was conceived by the Grand Army of the Republic in the 1890s as a way for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to honor the dwindling ranks of its American Civil War veterans. The Memorial today represents all branches of the service and honors both career and citizen soldiers who have served the United States throughout its history.
U.S. holiday. Originally held (1868) in commemoration of soldiers killed in the American Civil War, its observance later extended to all U.S. war dead. Most states conform to the federal practice of observing it on the last Monday in May, but some retain the traditional day of celebration, May 30. National observance is marked by the placing of a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Flags, insignia, and flowers are placed on the graves of veterans in local cemeteries.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday which occurs every year on the final Monday of May. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service. It typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.
Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.
Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountains. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with kinfolk and others. There often is a religious service and a “dinner on the ground,” the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the “memorial day” idea.
Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day; Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, living or dead.