Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What we owe

So now it is Veteran's Day, and time again for the Blob to shed its Sports Guy hat. And to tell a few tales.

This one goes back 19 years to the spring of 1995, when I sat in the living room of a modest home just south of Georgetown Plaza and listened to a man tell me what he did for all of us. His name was Charlie Pearson, and one morning when he was still pretty much a kid the front end of a landing craft banged down and dumped him out 1,000 yards from a tiny palm-fringed pile of coral called Betio.

Betio was one spit of Central Pacific land in the midst of another spit of Central Pacific land known as Tarawa atoll, and in 1943 it was the primary target of the U.S. military's first real sea-borne assault of the Second World War. And it was damn near an unqualified disaster.

The pre-assault bombardment didn't do much more than re-arrange the sand above the coral-and-log bunkers in which the defending Japanese force had shielded itself. A misreading of the tide tables caused the landing craft to run aground on the reef more than half-a-mile from shore. The gates banged down and the Marines stepped off into water that was well over their heads. Dozens drowned.

Pearson did not. But he did take a burst of fire that ripped out most of his teeth on the long, long slog toward shore. I can't imagine what that must have been like, pushing on toward the distant shore, all manner of ordinance raining down around you. But here's the thing: Neither Pearson nor any of his fellow Marines stopped. They kept on keeping on, and, after 1,000 American deaths, Betio fell in four days.

No one said, "Aw, HELL, no." No one thought, at least at the time, that it was too hard, or sheer madness, or not worth the trouble. They kept on keeping on.

I think about that every Veteran's Day. I think about Charlie Pearson, one of the most remarkable men I ever met, because not only did he survive Tarawa, he went on to survive Okinawa, which was the full-service hell on earth of which Tarawa, in retrospect, was only a small piece.

Ten years after I talked with Charlie Pearson, my wife and I visited France, and while we were there we toured the Western Front. The day we commemorate now as Veteran's Day is also Armistice Day, the day the guns fell silent and the First World War came to an end. And as we toured that war's old ravages -- trenches still head-high in places, landscape still mogul-ed with shell holes, the occasional crumbling German pillbox standing in lush fields of wheat -- it occurred to me that remembrance is something we Americans don't always do well, or at least completely.

In the area of France south of Verdun and down toward Saint Mihiel, for instance, there are here and there American military cemeteries, large and well-kept. One is adjacent to Belleau Wood, there's an immense one in the Meuse-Argonne just north of Verdun, there's another in the village of Thiaucourt. And on an escarpment called Montsec, there is a startling rotunda of white marble, visible for miles.

It was built by the United States in 1931 to commemorate the Americans' first victory of the Great War, the reduction of the Saint Mihiel salient. On the day we were there -- a fine, sunlit summer noon -- we were its only visitors, as we were later at the Thiaucourt cemetery. Our English guide told us that's frequently the case, because Americans have largely forgotten their nation's role in the Great War, or that some 53,000 of their countrymen died here in little more than six months of combat.

And so every Veteran's Day, I remember that, too. I remember the immense plaque on the wall at Thiaucourt listing all the Americans who were never accounted for. And I remember all the ones that were accounted for, who were either buried in this quiet place under perfectly geometric rows of white crosses, or who came home to a lifetime of physical disability and memories too horrible to abide.

 It's chic and trite and altogether too neat, on this day, to say "Never forget" to all of that.  And so I offer up its corollary.

Remember. Always.

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