Opinion: Remember our American war heroes

James F. Burns

A bullet pinged past the soldier’s ear as he crouched behind bushes near the frontlines. A soldier near him suddenly lurched forward, letting out a horrible scream as he crumpled to the ground and died. All gave some, some gave all.

On this Memorial Day, we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice that we might be free to have “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson expressed it — or, as Tom Petty put it, to be “runnin’ down a dream.”

This Feb. 14, 1942 photo provided by the U.S. National Archives shows the five Sullivan brothers on board USS Juneau (CL-52) at the time of her commissioning ceremonies at the New York Navy Yard. The brothers who were all killed in the World War II sinking of the USS Juneau on Nov. 13, 1942. From left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George Sullivan. Wreckage from the USS Juneau, a Navy ship sunk by the Japanese 76 years ago, has been found in the South Pacific.

All of us likely have a link to our American military, past or present. Mine begins at the Battle of Trenton when Washington crossed the Delaware to surprise the slumbering Hessians the day after Christmas, 1776. My ancestor, John Hair, and his Bucks County (Pa.) Militia were waiting to join General Washington, but, by then, the river was too choked with chunks of ice for boats to cross. Sgt. Hair saw action in other battles in the American Revolution.

David Acheson, a family friend, and my ancestral cousin John Burns were with the 140th Pennsylvania Regiment at Gettysburg in 1863. They were thrust into battle in the infamous wheat field, golden grain running red with blood. Capt. Acheson took intense fire from his flank, reeling as a bullet found its mark. He died almost instantly.

Darkness descended, and scores of wounded soldiers lay helpless on the battlefield. As moans and groans and prayers floated upward, they painfully crawled toward each other, gathering in small clusters to encourage each other to survive till morning. Farewell messages for their families were passed on, to be delivered by those who did survive.

Uncle Carroll Hosbrook, an Ohio farm boy, joined General John Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force in 1918 for the deadly trench warfare of northern France. Months later and just hours after the Armistice was signed on November 11, Carroll sat on the steps of a bombed-out church whose bell was still able to ring out victory, writing a letter home. “The Yanks gave the Huns a good hot chase. They will now think twice before going to war again. I never thought one’s part in a war would be such a small part. But it is true when you say you are going to do your bit — it is a little bit.”

The D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, was the pivot point of World War II. My friend Hal’s unit landed the next day, June 7, and he was tasked to return to Omaha Beach to retrieve a piece of equipment. Tears welled up in Hal’s eyes as he related the story to me, reliving being there alone on the beach with hundreds of dead comrades who had given their lives for our country.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, my brother’s best buddy, Leigh Whitaker, was sent there as an army medic. His unit was overwhelmed by a pre-dawn attack south of Seoul, Leigh being one of the few survivors. For 38 months, he was listed as an MIA, missing in action, dropping to 85 pounds while tending to wounded prisoners. I was listening to the radio late at night in August, 1953, when the final few lists of returning prisoners were being read. “Charles Leigh Whitaker, Ohio.”

I jumped out of bed to wake up my parents and sister. “Leigh’s coming home.”

Of course, many did not come home, some 36,000 in Korea, 58,000 more in Vietnam, lesser numbers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But the total sacrifice of our American military in all wars is a staggering 1.3 million men and women. We honor the sacrifice of all these heroes on Memorial Day. May they rest in peace.

James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.