While other networks air reruns, PBS will celebrate Memorial Day with the live coverage of the Memorial Day concert from the National Mall. The event is cohosted by Gary Sinise and Joe Mantenga, both tireless advocates for veterans’ causes and regulars on the USO circuit.
After the Memorial Day concert, PBS will air Air Group 16: We Came to Remember. This short documentary by Drescher Films follows the last reunion of Air Group 16, a bomber squadron from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington in the South Pacific theater of WWII. These former warriors, now silver-haired and showing the frailty of age, flocked to Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the World War II memorial on the National Mall in 2004. Their reunion was echoed by others all over town, as 200,000 WWII veterans and their families came to the nation’s capital to be honored. For many, it was the last chance to see the men who had bunked with them, fought alongside them, and, in many cases, saved their lives.
T. Earl Dupree, Warren McLellan, Paul Bonilla, and Tom Bronn were just young men when they joined Commander Ralph Weymouth aboard the USS Lexington immediately after Pearl Harbor was attacked. They flew airplanes, less complicated than a modern calculator, on bombing missions in the South Pacific, risking being shot down or running out of fuel over open waters. Many of their companions didn’t make it home and the weight of the memory of their fallen friends hangs heavy on their shoulders even 60 years after the event. “We didn’t know what we were fighting for at that young age,” says one attendee, “Maybe our children, our family, our nation are better off today because of it.” Dupree goes further, “I was always a little runt and I didn’t really know whether I was a man or not,” he says, “But once you live through a few months of the kind of experiences in bomber 16, you don’t have any doubt of what kind of man you are.”
Another World War II veteran, not featured in this or any documentary, served as a Marine in the South Pacific. At the age of twenty-four, with a wife at home and a son he’d never seen, Colin “Kel” Kelley led fellow Marines to root out Japanese on a little known island named Peleliu. In a daring, single-handed grenade assault, he took out a cave of Japanese soldiers who were picking off his men, receiving a devastating wound in his lung. He made it home, barely, although 1,500 American soldiers died on that tiny scrap of coral in the South Pacific. He was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. The experience colored his entire life. Like many of his generation, he was a soldier first and everything else second.
He was also my grandfather.
We buried him at Arlington National Cemetery last month, along with his wife of 60 years. Under a threatening sky, Marines, no older than he was when he fought at Peleliu, went through the exquisite ballet of honor: A horse drawn caisson accompanied by a solemn band, a large honor guard, a twenty-one gun salute, and a precisely folded flag presented to the family.
Throughout his life, my grandfather saved a musket that his own grandfather carried in the Civil War. He held on to it because it reminded him of his grandfather, both as a soldier and a man. I always found it amazing that he knew, personally, a man who had fought in the long-ago Civil War. Now I realize that his fight will seem as distant to my grandchildren as the Civil War did to me. I keep my grandfather’s helmet, a typical green bucket from WWII, as a tactile reminder of his service, and an aid in keeping his memory intact.
When the men of Air Group 16 came together three years ago for their final reunion, keeping memories alive was very much on their minds. The “greatest generation” is the last to remember the anxiety of using every last bit of the nation’s resources to fight the enemy and still, for a while, facing the very real possibility of losing the fight. As members of that generation tell us, the country was unified in support of the war effort. There was no choice after Pearl Harbor. As a result, America witnessed the extraordinary heroism of ordinary men.
This Memorial Day, if you’re lucky enough to be able to shake the hand of a WWII veteran, be sure to take the opportunity. Maybe even take a picture. As their ranks thin, they’re joined by veterans of more recent wars, men and women who chose to fight in the hopes that it will never come to that level of war again. Their sacrifice renews and continues the freedom that prior generations fought for.
As a member of Air Group 16 said at his final reunion, “You’ve got to be willing to work. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice. You’ve got to be willing to take a stand for what you believe in if you’re gonna have freedom. This air group already has.”
–Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.