Monday, May 30th is a federal holiday in the United States. While most Americans will view the day as a paid holiday, a start to their summer, and a good time to shop for items placed on sale, that’s not the purpose for this day. Memorial Day is a time for remembering those who died while serving in this country’s armed forces.
In the abstract, it is hard to get excited about this holiday. It is not as fun as Christmas when you get presents, as tasty as Thanksgiving with a table laden with food or as dazzling as the Fourth of July with its fireworks. But the reason Americans are able to continue to enjoy these other holidays is because lives were sacrificed to protect this country and our way of life.
Citing the number of soldiers who gave their all for their country cannot convey the true loss experienced by these military members and their families. But putting a face to a statistic gives the day a much more personal reason for me to observe Memorial Day.
Who are these soldiers for whom we are paying our respects and expressing our gratitude? Well, I don’t know them all, but I do know one. Actually, I do not really even know him. I know of him and am a blood relative of his. I am speaking of my mother’s older brother, Joseph Ambrose Doyle, Jr., my Uncle Joe. I never got to meet my uncle because he died while serving his country overseas in Italy during World War II years before I was even born
The untimely loss of any life is tragic. When it occurs as a result of a war, some may even go so far as to say that the loss was senseless. A death occurring in the line of duty affects not just the service member who loses his/her life. Soldiers all have a family. While the soldier’s life ends, the family’s must go on without their loved one. As a parent, I cannot imagine the grief experienced by my maternal grandparents when they learned as the result of a telegram that their oldest child, and my grandfather’s namesake, had died far away from home and would never come home.
My mother was off at college when her brother died. I remember her telling me that she was in the midst of final exams when she was called to the dean’s office. There the heartbreaking news was given that her brother was dead. How do you go on about normal daily life after experiencing such a loss? Who would care about a final exam after being dealt such a blow?
A full military funeral was held for my Uncle Joe at Fort Moultrie, SC, complete with a 21 gun salute. However, no body was returned home. My uncle Joe was buried in the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy. From the pictures I have seen of the cemetery, it looks like a peaceful resting place. But it is in a foreign country far away from his home.
My Uncle Joe’s life, as was the case for myriad others, was cruelly cut very short. Uncle Joe was 20 at the time of his death. He had been an athlete at Winyah High School in Georgetown, SC, and begun college at The Citadel. After completing his freshman year, he went off to serve Uncle Sam. He earned his wings and was sent to Europe where he was stationed at Bari, Italy with the Army Air Force. Left behind were his parents, two younger sisters, three younger brothers and a sweetheart. He had his whole life in front of him. He served his country by giving up his opportunity to return home, see his family again, complete college, marry, have children, and do all the daily things we take for granted.
And the ultimate sacrifice was not all that Uncle Joe gave up while overseas. He willingly traded a normal life for literal hell on earth. He was assigned to the 757th Bombardment Squadron, 459th Bomb Group and was the pilot of a B-24 bomber. Uncle Joe flew 35 combat missions before his death. Each time he took off on one of those missions, he had to have had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that this may be his last day of life. Even if he survived a mission, what impact did it have on him that he was dropping bombs from the sky meant to wreak death and destruction below? In December 1944 he survived a crash in the Adriatic Sea which killed all of his crew (the B-24 had a crew of 11) except for him and his co-pilot. Uncle Joe was rescued by an Italian fishing boat. He lived to put his life on the line again another day.
Uncle Joe became a statistic on April 28, 1945 while transporting troops from Bari to Rome. The visibility was poor, and the plane crashed into a mountain at Cervinara, Italy. As I traveled across Italy on a tour bus from Rome to Italy’s east coast a few years ago, I looked out at the mountains trying to figure out which one was where my uncle’s life ended. The mountains were beautiful to look up to but apparently are deadly to fly into.
The designation by Uncle Joe’s name is “DNB,” meaning Death Not Battle. Whether he was shot down by the enemy or crashed on a non-combat mission due to bad weather, the result is the same. He died as a result of serving his country–OUR country.
Uncle Joe was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart and four Air Medals. These awards are a token of his appreciation by the military, But Uncle Joe went off to war not for the military, but for his family and for his country. A more fitting tribute to his sacrifice is for us to remember him and what he gave up for us. I won’t forget that he’s in Section C, Row 1, Plot 42 of a cemetery in a foreign country because he valued his country and what it stood for more than his own life. He’s not a statistic–he’s my hero. Uncle Joe, you are the face of Memorial Day for me.