What does Memorial Day mean to you?

Ron McArdle, Special to The County
13 years ago

My father, Jack, was a corporal in the Marines in World War II.

He was a machine gunner in the Second Marine Division and saw action in campaigns on Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. I once asked him if he ever killed anybody. He said he never knew because many times you were just firing into the jungle or a building and then moved on.

Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, honors U.S soldiers who died while in military service. It was first enacted to honor Union and Confederate soldiers following the American Civil War. After World War I it was extended to honor Americans who have died in all wars.

I asked the title question of this article to a number of people. Here are some responses.

“It’s a time to pay tribute to my family who served our country; my Dad, six of my brothers and my sister,” said Mona Blanchard of Presque Isle.

“This Memorial Day will have additional significance for our family. We recently visited with our son, Marine Lieutenant Joseph Patrick Gahagan, at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Joe has just this week deployed to Afghanistan with the II Marine Expeditionary Force. Our understanding that ‘freedom is not free’ has become up close and personal as we, along with many other Marine parents, send our sons and daughters to foreign shores to protect and defend the liberty we enjoy here in the United States of America. May God continue to bless our troops as we honor our fallen heroes on this Memorial Day 2011,” said Hayes Gahagan of Presque Isle.

“Bob Fields told me before I left Nha Trang, Vietnam in 1969, to go to the Top of the Mark in San Francisco — the area I visited on my way home — and have a drink there. My California friend and I did so and toasted Bob Fields. Forty two years late — many of those years spent angry at senseless, wasteful death and destruction — I am glad for that toast. ‘To the best flight surgeon I have ever known …’

“Bob Fields was killed in a helicopter crash a little over a month after I left, the result of enemy fire. I am proud to have known him and others who did not return. I have let go of most of the anger now. Sadness remains, mixed with the joy of knowing such people. I am better for knowing them. I recall them often.

“Memorial Day is another opportunity to join with others remembering the many no longer here; but always in my memory,” said an Air Force Sgt. stationed in Vietnam 1968-69 who preferred not to be named.

George Berube, Sr. of Caribou was in the Navy in WWII and saw action on the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal and was part of the force ready to attack Japan when the A-bombs fell. He came home to the County then wound up in Waterbury, Connecticut where he had to work two jobs to make ends meet. He came to the realization service life was pretty good and enlisted in the Army. He was at Fort Benning, Ga. before being shipped off to Korea when that conflict started.

On the day he was to ship out to come home he got captured and became a POW for two years. They got two meals a day mostly consisting of rice and sorghum. An interesting part of this was the Chinese would ask for a count every morning in order to know how much “breakfast” to ration out. So, at the beginning the prisoners would tell them who died overnight. They then figured out they would not tell their captors if anyone died overnight so they could get the extra rations for that person; would tell them later in the day someone died.

For work they would haul wood all day. If you messed up they would put you in a tiny stone building in solitary for a period of time. Their captors also did brainwashing and, in fact, 21 prisoners defected to the enemy side because of this. There was also a form of torture where they would drip water on your head. Tobacco was withheld as punishment but when they could have it they would wrap the tobacco in newspapers and smoke them. There were 700 prisoners in this one camp and 10 men to each 8 by 10 room.

When released they headed across the international bridge where they were sprayed down to get rid of the lice, took showers and were given clean clothes. When George left Korea he weighed 91 pounds.

When I think of Memorial Day I think of my father who had motion sickness all his life so the trip in the belly of a transport ship back and forth across the Pacific must have been horrid. He was in great shape then but I imagine it was tough hauling that heavy machine gun around. He would talk about bivouacs and other maneuvers and how rough it was.

I was stationed at Loring AFB and told him we had it pretty rough, too. One time the color TV went out in the day room and we had to watch black and white until it was fixed (this was not true but got a pretty good rise out of him).

Everybody knows there is no such thing as an ex-Marine. My mother would bake a birthday cake every November for the Marine Corps birthday. My brother was a Marine, also. I think of my nephew, Patrick, who flies on C-130s and has already done two tours in Afghanistan and last I knew he was headed for Iraq. I think of a young soldier named Ryan who I helped see off a couple of months ago as he headed back to his duty station and then to the Middle East.

Memorial Day is also the traditional start of summer. Barbecues and people opening up their camps for the summer. Tune up the lawn mower and boat and inventory the fishing gear. Let’s just never forget the real meaning and the people who have protected us and continue to every day.

Ron McArdle is a Vietnam veteran who lives in Presque Isle.