As Memorial Day approaches each spring, my thoughts turn more often to a former co-worker I knew for almost 35 years.
Harriette Graves was primarily a feature writer for the Bulletin, but there wasn’t any type of story she wouldn’t tackle. She had already been working fulltime at this newspaper for four years when I arrived as a Howard Payne intern in 1969.
Harriette, who died in 2002, helped organize an annual Memorial Day service here in 1996, and she was involved with it as long as I knew her. She was in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and she was as patriotic as anyone I knew. I can still hear her recite by memory a poem, “In Flanders Fields.” It meant that much to her.
We often struggle to find adequate words when considering the personal sacrifices so many have made while protecting our way of life. The motto attributed to Purple Heart recipient Howard William Osterkamp of Ohio is one way. During the Korean War, he was hit in the leg by shrapnel. The injury was misdiagnosed, so he was sent back to the front lines and served four months with his leg broken in two places.
“All gave some; some gave all,” was Osterkamp’s comment.
The Central Texas Veterans Memorial at Camp Bowie is a visual reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by Brown County residents. There, everyone can honor the memory of those who gave all, and linger at the place where hundreds of thousands of military personnel trained during World War II.
If more words must be spoken, use the poem I heard so often from Harriette as a guide. You’ve read it here on numerous Memorial Day weekends, and I guess you’ll read it again as long as I’m able to write this column in the month of May.
“In Flanders Fields,” the emotional tribute to fallen soldiers written during World War I by Canadian army physician John McCrae, was almost lost. McCrae was dissatisfied with his effort, and threw away the only copy. However, thanks to some timely decisions by a few of McCrae’s contemporaries, his work has instead endured as one of the most memorable war poems ever written.
It is a legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in Belgium during the spring of 1915. In military terms, a salient is a battlefield intrusion where troops are surrounded on three sides, quite a vulnerable position.
Wild poppies blossom where other plants have died. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years, but only when there is no competing vegetation, and perhaps after someone tills the ground, do those seeds sprout.
There was plenty of churned soil on the battlefield of the Western Front in Belgium. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, blood-red poppies — also regarded as a symbol of sleep — blossomed around him as no one had ever seen.
As a surgeon attached to the Canadian 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae had spent more than two weeks treating injured Canadians, British, Indians, French and Germans. It had been an ordeal he had hardly thought possible. McCrae described it in a letter to his mother as “17 days of Hades.”
McCrae had been on the faculty of McGill University in Montreal, so one battlefield fatality in particular affected him. A friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, was killed when a shell burst on May 2, 1915. The young lieutenant was buried later that night, and McCrae was asked to perform the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain. The service was conducted in complete darkness to maintain security.
The next evening, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance, McCrae vented his anguish.
His poem, initially titled “We Shall Not Sleep,” was almost never published. The commanding officer of McCrae’s unit retrieved it after its author had thrown it into the trash, and sent it to newspapers in England.
Still, it took some persistence to bring the poem to the public’s attention. At least one London publication rejected the poem and sent it back, before “Punch” published it on Dec. 8, 1915.
I’ve pulled these historic details from several public sources, but the message found in the poem is as fresh as this morning’s headlines.
A century later, “In Flanders Fields” is the best-known tribute to those who have given their lives in service to their country.
During times of peace — the peace which patriots fight valiantly to secure — it is easy to forget how much many have sacrificed so others can enjoy the liberties our nation’s founders proclaimed as God-given. Curiously, it also seems that this is easy to forget in times of conflict, especially when the bloodshed is far from home and directly affects so few of us.
Questions continue to swirl about when, where and for how long we should put our troops in harm’s way, but the dedication of those military men and women is not up for debate. On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember them and those who served before them, and honor especially those who sacrificed everything for freedom.
We remember as well the poem by McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.