Early on the morning of June 4,1942, four B-26 Marauders from the Army Air Force’s 18th Reconnaissance Squadron rumbled down a mile long runway on Midway Island and took off over the Pacific, flying low with a rising sun behind them, heading west toward a huge Japanese armada intent on destroying the remnants of the American Navy six months after Pearl Harbor. Each Marauder had seven young Americans on board and they all knew what was ahead: Eight Japanese aircraft carriers, 11 battleships, 23 cruisers, 65 destroyers, and over 700 Japanese fighter aircraft, bombers, and torpedo planes.
One of the Marauders was piloted by Lt. Herb Mayes of San Francisco, California. His co-pilot was Lt. Garnett McCallister of Washington, D.C. Lt. Billy Hargis of Haskel City, Oklahoma was on the radio while Lt. Gerald Barnicle of Fitchburg, Massachusetts was the bombardier. Staff Sgt. Sal Battaglia from Brooklyn, Pvt. Ben Huffstickler out of Gaston County, North Carolina and Pvt. Roy Walters of Northampton County, Pennsylvania were on the guns.
They were part of the first torpedo attack ever attempted by the Army Air Force in an epic battle that transformed the war in the Pacific. The four B-26 Marauders and others that followed during a two day battle at sea came in 200 feet above the ocean, driving toward their targets through swarms of Japanese Zeros and anti-aircraft fire so intense it turned the morning sky dark.
The men in the B-26 Marauder piloted by Lt. Mayes were as old as 28 and as young as 18 and by 7:30 on the morning of 4 June, 1942 they were all dead, swallowed by the Pacific.
Ten years later, on Memorial Day 1952, I held my grandmother’s hand as she stood like a frail sentry, stick thin, her face a forced marriage of pride and pain, listening to the names of the dead from World War II and Korea read out loud at a ceremony on Main Street. In memory I can still feel her hand squeezing mine when her son’s name, an uncle I never met, filled the late spring air: “Lieutenant Gerald J. Barnicle… Killed in action... Battle of Midway... Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.”
My grandmother wore Gerry’s medals every Memorial Day. And when the ceremonies ended she returned them to a small table next to a couch in the front room of the second floor apartment in the home we all shared together: my mother and father, my aunt, my brothers, and me.
On the wall by the table where she kept the medals—the DSC and the Purple Heart—were two framed letters of gratitude: one signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the other above the signature of General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff. A framed picture of her youngest boy hung beside the letters, of Gerald, in uniform, in the sunshine, smiling, forever 25.
This was Memorial Day in America half way through the 20th Century.
It was a country where people had time to take time to stop and think about who we are and where we came from, about who had been lost and why. My grandmother wasn’t the only Gold Star Mother on our street. Our family was not the only family that had surrendered a son to war.
Hannah Fitzgerald Barnicle left the west of Ireland and crossed an ocean with her children for an America that accepted and rewarded her and so many others. In our neighborhood there was a Jewish family that had fled Russia, another escaped Poland, a third ran from Italy and all lived in the midst of three deckers and two family bungalows that sent sons to both Europe and the Pacific to save the world.
Those who survived came home, many of them, to jobs in the post office, the fire department, a municipal payroll, the cops, the paper mills, the textile factories; the gifts of a grateful nation were a paycheck, the GI Bill, a VA loan, seeing the sunrise each day while quietly trying to suppress the trauma of bloody markers like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, St Mere Eglise, The Bulge, Anzio and a lot of other shattering spots that wounded them silently, forever.
It was a country where memory had not died and where our attention span would not be stolen for another six decades. Life was much more linear, more predictable: the job, the family, the church, two weeks vacation, a paycheck on Thursday, fish sticks on Friday, hot dogs and beans on Saturday, 8 o’clock Mass Sunday and then do it all over again.
It was a country not yet gifted and fundamentally changed by better health, longer lives, greater wealth, expanded opportunity, civil rights, higher education, middle class mobility and a sense that children born to those who went to war in 1942 would climb the ladder higher than their parents ever could.
But Sputnik lit up the sky. Then a wall got built in Berlin. Dallas darkened a November day and the cloud lingered for years. A motel balcony in Memphis. A kitchen in Los Angeles. Vietnam destroyed lives and faith in multiple institutions. Watergate. The simplicity and isolation of the 1950s slowly, surely surrendered to huge social and cultural change that improved so much around us but arrived with a sometimes fierce price.
So, this is Memorial Day in America a decade and half into the 21st Century.
A country fighting two wars for 15 years. A country where about 1 percent of our citizens carry the burden, the anxiety and the daily danger of those fights. A country where many of the political people in Washington still seem unaware of the fracture that broke so many families in the winter of 2008-2009; that’s when millions lost homes, jobs, income, hope, faith in the future and certainly in politics and many of those who lost so much are the same families at risk of losing a son or daughter to those two wars that linger still.
A country now witnessing a campaign that revolves around insult rather than ideas. A campaign driven by fantasy and fear, grinding on like a dismal, daily TV spectacle, plodding toward November, turning politics into an absurd spectacle where dreams go to die.
But when you look away from the daily dump of false promises, fake empathy and foolish rhetoric of Trump and Clinton, when you put your phone down and stop staring at the screen, when you pause—actually take the time—to stop, think and remember who we are, still, and have been, always, you cannot help feel a slight sense of optimism as well as an obligation to those who flew off over the Pacific, landed on Okinawa or Omaha Beach, walked out of the Chosin Reservoir, hunkered down at Khe Sanh and Hue City, went door to door in Fallujah or encountered life and death in Helmand Province. We remain the greatest beacon of hope and freedom of expression the world has ever known.
My grandmother, Hannah Fitzgerald Barnicle, thought, dreamed really, that her youngest son, Lt. Gerald J. Barnicle, would come home some day. She lived to 93 and filled the last 18 years of her life with the memory of a little boy who grew up to serve and die for a country that offered so much and asked so little in return. And through the fog, the smoke and mirrors, the momentary absurdity, the phoniness of politics, there it is, the gift that is America. Still here. Still alive on Memorial Day 2016.