I stood on the beach Thursday as my grandchildren, Benjamin, 4, and Isabel, 1, dug in the sand. A couple of Blackhawk helicopters came in from the south over the ocean and crossed the beach headed for a runway.
Looking out to flat horizon where the ocean met the sky, I thought of the song that George M. Cohan wrote in 1917 as America entered World War I.
“Over there,’’ he wrote. “Send the word, send the word over there, that the Yanks are coming.”
The Yanks always went over there, beyond that horizon, to the beaches of Normandy, the shores and mountains of Italy, the deserts of Africa and Iran and the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan. On the other side of the country, they crossed the Pacific to Iwo Jima, Guadacanal, Korea and Vietnam.
Their boots on the ground have raised dust, mired in rice paddies, splashed through rivers, sunk into snow and slipped on rocks.
Today is Memorial Day when we remember the ones who never made it back over here.
From some accounts, there have been 666,441 who died in combat in all the wars, raids and other military actions between 1775 and 2019. Some are buried in national cemeteries, many on foreign soil near where they fell.
Here’s a bit of irony given this time of the coronavirus: When combined, “other causes” have killed more people than combat in those wars. That includes accidents and illness and some dying of privation as prisoners of war. During World War II, tens of thousands of British and Australian captives died of torture, starvation and disease at the hands of the Japanese in what was then Burma. Many died building a railroad to carry raw materials through what is now Thailand to support Japan during the war. They were fed swill as they were worked to death.
America’s Civil War remains the nation’s costliest in terms of lives as more than 600,000 died, nearly 215,000 in battle and about 450,000 from other causes, mostly disease.
Regardless of whether they died by shot or shell or by illness, starvation or torture, the sacrifice is no less honorable.
At the current rate of COVID-19 deaths, in a few days it will have taken more than 100,000 American lives. That’s more than died in Vietnam and Korea combined.
The coronavirus has also taken away today’s celebration of Memorial Day. The Veterans Council of the Golden Isles’ morning ceremony at the county’s new veterans park has been canceled and tonight’s Taps at Twilight remembrance will take place online.
You can bet, however, that the beaches will be absolutely packed.
As Georgia reopens for business, you also can bet there will be some Memorial Day sales, which, to me, is like selling funnel cake and lemonade at a funeral.
And people will thank veterans for their service. That always makes me fill a little guilty because I know my piddling sacrifice can’t match those who, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, gave the last full measure of devotion.
As I read the news, there are always accounts, especially on CNN and in the New York Times and Washington Post, about some group that is being victimized, who aren’t getting their fair share from the government or who are bullied for their weird beliefs and so on. Forgive those of us who have had the honor of serving in a combat zone if we find your complaints petty.
Some of the veterans I know plan to get together today and tell a few stories about people they knew who died in combat. I am very happy that I have no story to tell. I don’t know a single name on the Vietnam Memorial wall.
One of my infantry squad members, Richard Graham, was wounded on Charlie Ridge a few days after Christmas in 1971. I had chosen him to go see Bob Hope’s Christmas show in Danang a few days earlier, but they couldn’t send a chopper out to get him and men from other squads because of rotten weather. When he got shot, a medevac helicopter crew flew in spite of terrible visibility and hoisted Graham up through the trees and the fog that swirled in the prop wash.
Richard Graham took four rounds in his legs and his name is not on the wall because of that brave crew. The doctors who treated him at 95th Evacuation Hospital said he probably wouldn’t even have a limp.
Today is the official Memorial Day, but every day is a day of remembrance for the families of those who died and the comrades who served with them, the men who tried to drag them to safety as bullets and shrapnel cut the air and saw them close their eyes for the last time.
They will remember them as none of us can. They will remember kidding them about their girlfriends, swapping C-rations with them, drinking with them in the enlisted men’s club between missions and playing poker with cards dealt onto an olive drab towel spread on the ground.
They’ll remember how they smiled when a letter from home had a new picture of a girlfriend or from a child’s birthday party they had missed. They’ll remember how they talked of their grandma’s chicken dumplings and their hopped up Chevies.
They’ll also remember how their blood looked on the ground.
They wish they could forget that, but they can’t.
And on this Memorial Day say a prayer for those still over there.
Terry Dickson has been a journalist in South Carolina and the Golden Isles for more than 40 years. He is a Glynn County resident. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.