This is the talk I gave Sunday at Bushkill Township’s Veterans Remembrance ceremony, part of the Memorial Day weekend:
There is an old family photograph that gave me a stab in the heart when I came across it years ago. It’s nothing dramatic, really.
It shows a toddler on a tricycle. He’s wearing a cap and facing the camera. A man in a jacket and tie is crouching behind him, smiling widely. The man’s face is inches from the boy’s, and his hands are on the handlebars, just behind the boy’s hands.
The boy is my cousin Nicky, not yet 2 years old. The man is our Uncle Sam, one of my dad’s brothers.
It’s a moment like a million others, but what got me about this photo is the unseen specter that is stalking Nicky and Uncle Sam. It is the specter of life cut short by the accidents of war.
Uncle Sam was 31 when this picture was taken in 1950 in a backyard in Malvern, Pa. He had maybe a few months to live. He was a World War II veteran who had suffered a head injury in the South Pacific that would kill him five years after the war ended.
None of my relatives could tell me what happened to Uncle Sam when he was overseas, so I wrote to the VA and got his Army medical records, an inch-thick file. They show that he was in a Coast Artillery regiment on Bora Bora island in 1942 when he began having “episodes of unconsciousness.”
Bora Bora was a place where U.S. ships could anchor and refuel on the 8,000-mile trip to Australia. Uncle Sam worked 18 hours a day on a demolition squad, blasting coral to clear the way for ships to dock. The explosions, one after another, damaged his brain.
Army doctors determined he had epilepsy before he entered the service, and that the blasting aggravated his condition. He was sent home and discharged.
At home he suffered uncontrollable trembling in his arms and legs, and terrible anxiety, and worst of all he would black out with no warning, which was especially tough for a guy who made his living driving a truck. He confided to others his fear that one day he would pass out and never regain consciousness.
That’s exactly what happened one night in May 1950. He came home from Philly’s ShibePark after seeing baseball’s Athletics lose to Cleveland and went to bed. Within minutes, he cried out in the darkness and died.
My mom says Uncle Sam was the nicest man you could ever meet, but I would never have that opportunity. He was gone before I was born.
It was somewhat different with the little boy on the tricycle, my cousin Nicky. I saw him at gatherings of our big Italian family over the years, but had hardly any interaction with him. We lived in different towns, and he was five years older, and when you’re a kid five years is like trying to see across the Grand Canyon. I do remember he said hi to me once at a picnic when I was maybe 10, and I saw him when his parents had a party to send him off to boot camp.
Nicky became an Army helicopter pilot and went to Vietnam in the summer of 1969, and he was dead in 11 days. He had arrived at a large U.S. base called Chu Lai to join the Americal Division. During his week of orientation, he was in a classroom where an Army sergeant was giving a lecture on grenade safety to about 40 soldiers who had just arrived in the country. The instructor had a gimmick to get the guys’ attention. He pulled the pin on a grenade and tossed the grenade at them to see how they would react. It rolled under the table up front where Nicky was sitting with three of his friends.
Of course, the grenade was supposed to be a dud. But for reasons that were never determined, this one was live.
In five seconds, it detonated. One soldier was killed instantly. Nicky lost a leg and hung on for five days before dying at a hospital on the base. A pilot who had been sitting beside Nicky lost both legs and died.
The Army said it was an accident.
Nicky and Uncle Sam were my only relatives who died from war. And yet they represent a mere fraction of the death toll in any conflict. Most fall at the hands of the enemy, from hostile fire, and that’s mainly who we think of on Memorial Day, when we honor the war dead.
From my interviews with a hundred veterans over the last dozen years, the stories that most stand out are the ones about engaging in battle with the enemy. Some veterans, when I spoke with them, were still deeply affected, even traumatized, by the loss of life that happened around them decades earlier when they were young.
Don Miller from Emmaus was a flight engineer on a B-17 bomber and couldn’t go on his crew’s 12th mission because he was sick.
“I had to stay down because I had a bad head cold,” he told me. “You can’t fly when you have a cold. You could bust an eardrum when you’re coming down from 25,000 feet.
“That day, I lost my crew. I watched the sky as our squadron came back and didn’t see them. They were the one plane missing. They’d gone down over the target and all aboard were killed. It was one of the saddest days of my life.
“I should have been with them.”
A few years ago I took Don to see a B-17 that flew into Lehigh Valley International Airport. He gave me a tour of it. Afterward when I was driving him home, he said he’d been leery about accepting my invitation to see the plane. He was afraid that when he was in it, he would see the faces of his lost crewmates at their stations.
He did see them, he told me, but it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be.
Dan Curatola from Bethlehem hit Omaha Beach on D-Day in the first wave. The night before, he was on a ship in the English Channel fully dressed and ready to attack Normandy.
“We had nothing else to do,” he said, “so we played cards. About six of us were playing blackjack. Not a single one of those guys lived. One night I’m playing cards with them, and the next night they were all dead.”
When Dan reached the shore, a shell exploded and he hit the dirt. He tapped a corporal in front of him and said, “Boy, that was close, wasn’t it?” But the corporal didn’t answer. He was dead.
The saddest story came from Horace Rehrig, who grew up in West Bowmanstown. He was on the carrier Ticonderoga when two kamikazes crashed into it. He found his cousin injured on the fantail and helped carry him down to sick bay. On the way he saw a familiar sailor lying on the floor of the hangar deck. It was his good friend Bob Selby. Horace got his cousin to the hospital area and ran back up to the hangar deck to Selby.
“He was really bleeding bad,” Horace told me. “His right arm was completely severed at the shoulder, blown off, but he was conscious. He looked like he was flash-burned from the thousand-pound bomb that exploded on the hangar deck. I quick took some packing and held it on his wound and put his head in my lap and tried to comfort him. ‘Hang in there, I’ll take care of you.’ He was crying, he kept saying, ‘I’ll never make it.’ I said, ‘Don’t talk like that. You’ll pull through this.’
“But I knew it was a critical wound – he had lost too much blood.
“I kept yelling for help, and finally we put Selby on a stretcher and got him down to sick bay. The doctors put him right on an operating table, and I stood there waiting. He had his knees up and was waving them back and forth.
“And then they just stopped.
“It just plays hell with you when you see stuff like that,” Horace said. “I felt so bad about it that I just can’t ever forget it.”
This weekend we remember the Nickys, the Uncle Sams, the Bob Selbys, all those who put on a uniform when the country called, and did not survive. That’s 1,130,000 Americans from the Civil War up to Iraq and Afghanistan – and we’re still counting.
We thank them for their sacrifice. It kept us free.