It was another Memorial Day full of echoes from the past and swirling emotions about the present – almost 60 years since D-Day, two days after a World War II Memorial dedication in the nation’s capital, and with the troubled war in Iraq, a nation asking itself questions – not about honor, duty and country, but about rationales, politics and exit strategies.
But there was a purer focus and rationale at Bend’s Deschutes Memorial Gardens, as more than 200 people gathered, in the sun or shade of a beautiful Monday afternoon, to remember and honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, or risked their lives and still returned home, but are no longer among us.
Many in the crowd, of course, were veterans of past battles, getting around slower with each passing year, but getting around just the same. Some have lived here for decades, others are newcomers, like Frank Spiegel, 79, of the 101st Airborne, who moved to Bend little over a year ago, joking that the smiling stepdaughter on his arm, Katie Ardt, had “dragged” him to the ceremony.
Spiegel, a paratrooper back then, was part of a unit that jumped onto the shores of Normandy on D-Day. But for him, that was not to be – as the momentous day neared, he was doing calisthenics with his comrades when he broke his right shoulder.
More than two-thirds of his unit didn’t survive the June 6, 1944 assault on Hitler’s forces. As for Spiegel, he healed up and became an instructor at jump school, later returning home to be a firefighter in California. Danger remained a part of his life.
“What I didn’t bust in parachute jumps, I busted in the fire department,” joked Spiegel. Then he turned serious again, talking of how he found the televised memorial dedication ceremonies “very moving” and that he’s “definitely going to go see” it for himself.
“I lost a lot of good buddies, several known relatives” in the war, he said, and his voice choked and faltered a bit: “This is a very special day for me.”
It also was a special day for Jeff Briggs, who brought sons Connor, 9, and Marcus, 7, along with their friend Quade Story, 7, because he wanted to hear the speech given by Robert D. Maxwell, a Bend resident who is the last living Oregonian to hold the nation’s highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Briggs, 43, said he isn’t a veteran, but looking to the boys, noted that “both of their grandpas” were.
The father and sons stopped at the Supply Depot on the way to the event, and Connor proudly wore his helmet, as all three boys played soldier in their “Army uniforms,” planting their small Stars and Stripes in the gravel path, and later in a small patch of dirt at the foot of the hill. Up above, bugler David Truog played “To the Colors” and, later, “Taps,” after the crack of a rifle salute by the VFW Post 1643 rifle squad.
A welcome, a poem and an introduction
After a color guard of local high school NJROTC members presented the colors, and the Pledge of Allegiance, Jerome Daniel, whose family bought Deschutes Memorial Chapel and Gardens about a year ago, led the group in the national anthem, as scheduled singer Dani Lehman of Mountain View High had fallen ill. Later, he returned to sign “America,” and at the end, to offer a memorial prayer.
Bob Cusick, quartermaster of Bend’s VFW post, noted that more than a million Americans have died in the nation’s battles since the Revolutionary War. “In honoring them today, we recognize their courage, their dedication and their sacrifice.”
Dick Heinz, post commander for the VFW post, read a poem he’d compiled for the day, about ordinary veterans who didn’t seek fame or glory, but deserved more recognition: “Perhaps a small news headline, just bold enough to say: `Our country is in mourning, for a veteran died today.'”
Cusick introduced Maxwell in simple fashion, stating the basics about the Boise-born 83-year-old, raised by his grandparents in a mostly Quaker environment, “an unlikely candidate to be a hero.” A shrapnel wound had sidelined him for a few months in 1944, but he later rejoined the 3rd Division as it traveled to southern France.
On Sept. 7, as he and three other communications techs tried to keep the Germans from taking an observation post, a grenade made it through the wire netting atop a stone wall, and landed at his feet. Holding a blanket, he threw himself over the grenade, and the blast knocked him unconscious. But the time he came to, the others had left, thinking he was dead. But a lieutenant who had been in the home helped him get to safety. His most severe wound was to his right heel, which required extensive surgery, and still has a large scar.
But Maxwell, in typically modest fashion, didn’t talk of that in his remarks Monday. “My apologies for being out of uniform,” he began. “I forgot my cap.”
He looked over to the standing M-1 rifle with a helmet perched atop the bayonet, and said that, except for the camouflage, it looked like many he’d seen during the war.
Modest hero speaks of faith
And Maxwell talked of the Ehlers brothers: Walter, who also was honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor, and older brother Roland. Both men took part in the D-Day invasion; only Walter survived (http://www.homeofheroes.com/brotherhood/ehlers.html).
“You see,” Maxwell said, “we send the best of our people off to fight other peoples’ wars. We send the very best of our generation to bring dignity, to bring relief to the world, to bring down dictators who are persecuting their own people and other people of the world.”
“That is why we’re in Iraq right now,” he said. “We’re there to destroy tyranny, and to try to establish a government.”
“What about those who return from the battle?” Maxwell said, then spoke of a man he and wife Bea came to know, who returned from World War II with severe injuries, suffered removing a phosphorous bomb from a B-25 over Japan. Despite the wounds, he “came back and worked to build America – he worked to build his own career, but isn’t that how all of us build America?”
“A great many of you have friends who have returned from the war and have been lost since, and you honor their memories,” he said. And he noted how most of those taken prisoner or missing in action also are gone, by now.
Maxwell also spoke of his faith, beginning with the symbolism of the crosses that mark many military graves, especially in Europe: “The arms outstretched represent the love my savior had for the world. Maybe you don’t believe it, but the lack of believe doesn’t make it untrue.” He recalled how his savior had said to him, when things were at their darkest, “Come unto me, and I will give you rest.”
As a tape of patriotic music played and the crowd lined up to place their “buddy poppies” in a special display, Eve McFarland of Bend recalled how her father went off to World War II. “When he came back, he was a different person,” she said, noting she was 13 at the time. He had served in France, captain of an ordinance crew, but she said, “He wouldn’t talk about it.” He wasn’t alone in that, of course.
After the ceremony, as all were invited to the VFW post, Maxwell shook hands, posed for photos, signed a copy of Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation.” And the holder of two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, as well as the French Croix de Guerre, said he’s being honored again by the French, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
Maxwell: Foes want to destroy Christianity
Maxwell will be traveling East again, this time to the Navy base at Norfolk, Va., where he’ll board a French frigate and receive the French Legion of Honor, the French Government’s highest military honor. He’s among 100 U.S. veterans who will receive that honor, to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of France.
And what did Maxwell think of the long-awaited, much-debated World War II Memorial, whose dedication he attended as a special honored guest? “It was the greatest memorial I’ve seen,” although he added, “I do regret that it didn’t come earlier,” when more of those who fought in and survived the war were still alive.” But he said the country seems “more willing to accept it,” due to the more recent battles, such as in Iraq.
Despite all he’s seen, Maxwell said he remains confident about the nation’s future. “I feel that even Iraq will somehow – that it’ll all be sorted out, sooner or later.”
And while others might disagree, Maxwell sees definite ties between “the regime of evil that’s over there” and “the terrorist element, which is sworn to destroy Christianity. That’s what prompted 9/11. They look at America as a Christian nation, even though we have many religions.”
Getting into her car to head home to Crooked River Ranch, Barbara Tracy said she found Maxwell’s remarks “just so inspiring.”
The woman in Stars and Stripes garb who acknowledged, “My blood runs red, white and blue,” also said that “we need such inspiration, with all the bad news out there – which I don’t believe.”
Tracy, whose husband served in Korea during the Vietnam War, bemoans much of the negative news, and believes things are going better in Iraq than people are led to believe. “We’re inundated with fear,” she said. “That kind of stuff wears on you.”