There will be parades to mark Memorial Day, war movies will be playing on the TV, and many family members and friends will journey to graves to honor their fallen loved ones. It is a tradition each year that we stop and, no matter how we feel about the politics involved, we remember the soldiers who died while doing their duty. They had courage most of us do not have, and they possessed a sense of purpose to go forward into the mayhem and turmoil of war, perhaps even knowing they weren’t coming home.
My father is a veteran of World War II, and he told me a story that I think about many times during the year, but usually around Memorial Day it reminds me of the ultimate sacrifice some people have made. In this case it was an 18-year-old boy named Bobby Sullivan. Four years younger than my Dad, he grew up across the street from my father in Queens, New York. He seemed to always look up to my father, who showed him how to swing a bat, throw a ball, and work on cars.
When my father was drafted in 1942, Bobby would see him come home for a visit wearing his uniform. At 15 years old he was in awe of my Dad, the great smile and glowing freckled face indicating that he was happy to see him but also proud that he knew him. He asked Dad questions about the Army, and Dad did not sugarcoat the experience. He explained about the realities of boot camp and the impending prospect of going overseas. None of this seemed to faze Bobby or make him think that Dad was anything but a superhero.
Well, Dad went off to war, going over to Europe on the Aquitania. He landed in Scotland and took a 20-hour train ride down to the English Channel. Like so many others he went over to France and fought in the war. Eventually he was stationed in the chateau in Fontainebleau, and since his expertise was demolitions, he was kept very busy coordinating the disarming and disposal of unexploded bombs that littered the countryside.
The war was over in May 1945, but Dad’s work had just begun. Since he spoke French fluently, Dad was put in charge of dealing with the French Forestry Service to help coordinate removal of bombs. He became very good friends with some of those local French people, and his efforts were essential in bringing life back to normal for the citizens in that area.
One day Dad got a letter from his mother with very bad news. Bobby Sullivan had been killed in action the month before somewhere in France. Dad did not even know Bobby had enlisted let alone come overseas. His mother wrote that Mrs. Sullivan was distraught and asked if he could somehow find where Bobby was buried, take a photograph, and send it home to her.
Dad’s new task was locating the grave. After much research and cutting through red tape, he located the grave in a cemetery near the palace of Versailles. He and one of his friends took the train there, and Dad stood over the grave and stared at the plain white cross, just one of thousands that spread out across the field. He squatted down and thought about the boy he had known, wondering what Bobby must have faced in the end.
My father’s buddy took out the Brownie camera and took a couple of pictures of my father. Dad had not wanted to be in the photo, but then he figured it would be good to send that to Mrs. Sullivan so that she could see my Dad had been there. He mailed both photos off to his mother, and Nana kept one, which appears here. Mrs. Sullivan appreciated getting that photo and never forgot my father’s efforts to locate her son’s grave.
Now, all these years later, my father gave me this photo. He looks so young, so vibrant in it, and yet the overwhelming solemnity of the moment is obvious, as is his reverence for a fallen brother. I told my father that was a great thing that he did, and he looked at me sideways and said, “It was the least I could do.”
So now when I look at the photo I think that this is just one moment in a history of moments like it. How many mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, children, and friends have had to make these visits to graves? How many, like Mrs. Sullivan, never got to visit because their loved ones died overseas and were interred there?
This year I will be thinking again about all those lost over all the years as I stand and watch the parade with my children as I once watched the parade with my parents. It is a tradition, of course, but I will also be thinking about Bobby Sullivan, who barely had a chance to live his life, and how my father made certain to remember him that day in May 1945, and never forgot the boy with the smile and freckled face – and I will never forget him either.
We should always remember all of them like Bobby, all the millions who gave their lives as he did. That is why we celebrate this last Monday in May. It is not just to commemorate the war dead but to honor those they left behind. Go to a parade, clap as the men and women go by, wave a flag, and salute them. It is the least we can all do.
Photo Credit: catholicdos.org