During my professional career I made a lot of speeches, mostly about energy. But the last, best and probably shortest speech I ever made was at the Watervliet Cemetary on Memorial Day 1987:
I REMEMBER MEMORIAL DAY
I seriously doubt whether I can get through this program without breaking down, so strong are my feelings for this cemetery, this town, this state and this nation.
Buried in this cemetery is my great-grandfather, who came to Michigan before it was a state 150 years ago. And buried in this sacred plot is a native American veteran of World War I whose ancestors lived in this beautiful peninsula for a thousand years
Up there is the grave of Uriah Wood, Watervliet's last living Civil War veteran. He survived the horrors of the Confederate's Andersonville Prison knowing that his sacrifices were not in vain, since his war ended slavery and preserved the Union. In my mind's eye, I can still see Mr. Wood as a white-haired, feeble old man, dressed in blue, riding in the back of an open touring car in the late 1920's or early 1930's. It was called "Decoration Day" then---and then we could decorate the graves of the veterans of but three wars---the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I.
Back in 1868, General John A. Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was the Union veterans' equivalent of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, designated May 30 of that year "...for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year." May 30 was known as Decoration Day until 1882 when the G.A.R. urged that the proper designation be "Memorial Day". By that time, however, the term Decoration Day was fixed in the people's vocabulary.
I suppose it is an apt commentary on our times and values that by Congressional decree Memorial Day is now observed on the last Monday in May rather than May 30 each year, so that people and commerce can benefit from a three-day weekend in which to do just about anything other than honor this country's war dead. However, by whatever name or on whichever day, I am proud to be in my hometown on the 120th of these days which are set aside to decorate the graves and remember and honor those who served their country---and most especially those who gave up their lives in that service.
One of my most poignant memories of this day is that of watching and hearing my father, the first Commander of Watervliet's American Legion Post, reading the names of all the town's deceased veterans---three names at a time---pausing after each three while the bass drum sounded three solemn, mournful beats. Each year throughout my childhood, until it came time for me to go away to college and then to my own war, the list grew longer and longer; as it has each of the forty-odd years since I left Watervliet.
I remember as a grade school kid walking with my schoolmates---spring flowers in hand---along old US12 from the old school house to the cemetery; with a stop at the bridge down there to throw some of our flowers into the water of Mill Creek in honor of the sailors who died for their country. How proudly our local police stopped all traffic between Detroit and Chicago to allow the people of little Watervliet to parade in honor or their departed veterans.
I remember marching in parades with the Watervliet High School band in our maroon and white uniforms--and that the best trumpet player always had the honor of playing "Taps" for the cemetery ceremonies. I especially remember after I became a veteran myself, marching with the American Legion firing squads and honor guards--with two generations of proud ex-soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen--brothers, cousins, friends and comrades-in-arms.
With all of these memories I am particulaly grateful to the new Veterans of Foreign Wars post for reviving and preserving this fine and patriotic tradition.
Two hundred eleven years ago this summer, in 1776, the American Colonies declared their indpendence from Great Britain---but it took six more years of struggling, starving, fighting and dying by Washington's soldiers to make that declaration stick.
However, the overthrow of tyranny does not automatically create a viable nation or even lasting freedom, as we have often seen to our bitter disappointment. In their revolution, the Russians escaped the tyranny of the Czars only to be ensnared in a worse tyranny, that of Communism under Stalin. The Cubans overthrew the dictator Batista only to fall victim to the dictatorship of Castro. The Nicaraguans overthrew the dictator Somoza only to have their revolution pre-empted by the Communist Sandinistas. These are but a few of many examples throughout history of revolutions gone awry.
After our revolution Americans were either uncommonly lucky or uncommonly blessed, it seems to me, when in 1787 the 13 newly independent but weak and quarelling states chose their wisest men to gather in convention in Philadelphia to work out a framework of a republic, based on democracy, as an alternative to chaos or monarchy. The resulting document is our precious Constitution, and this year we thankfully celebrate its 200th birthday and its continuing vitality.
Although the Constitution created a nation, by itself it could not preserve that nation in the face of the awful dilemma of slavery. As was the case with the birth of this country, the preservation of the resulting union required the shedding of blood in armed conflict among men and armies. It should be remembered that the Civil War of 1861-1865 cost more American lives than any war since--percentage-wise far more. But although a civil war is a particularly bitter type of war, our Civil War--or the War Between the States, if you are of southern heritage--at least had lasting benefits. Slavery was abolished (though discrimination and racism persist). The union of the states which makes our country great was preserved (although crisis after crisis seems to be our national way of life).
As I have said, Uriah Wood and Watervliet's many other Civil War veterans who are buried here had the satisfaction, pride and peace that comes from knowing their struggles were not in vain. They did much permanent good for their county; and, by example, for the world.
Contrast that with the situation of the Vietnam veterans. Much has been said and written about the futility if the sacrifices of our Vietnam veterans, but not having been able to share their experience, or to know first hand their anger and frustration, neither I nor others of my generation are really qualified to pass judgement on the worth of their sacrifices.
But what about those who 70 years ago in World War I fought "The War to End All Wars", the "War to Make the World Safe for Democracy", and then little more than two decades later endured the heartbreak of sending their sons to fight and die in an even more deadly war against the most powerful totalitarian forces ever assembled?
What about those patriotic and eager Spanish-American War volunteers who in 1898 fought yellow fever and the Spaniards to liberate Cuba and the Phillipines? What would they think today about Communist Cuba or the Phillipines in chaos?
And what about the veterans of the Korean conflict? In 1945, I was with the U.S. occupation troops in Korea which expelled the Japanese after their defeat in World War II. That year, Korea was split in two at the 38th parallel--communists to the north, non-communist to the south--Russians occupying the north, Americans occupying the south. Yet only five years later after victorious, triumphant, foolish America had naively dismantled the mightiest military force in world history, out-numbered, out-gunned American soldiers were rertreating and fighting for their lives in Korea in a war they were not allowed to win--a war which was was not even dignified by being called a war.
What about the veterans of my war, World War II? We are probably most like the Civil War veterans in that we knew why we were fighting--for survival and to keep civilization from being submerged in totalitarian madness. Also we saw some real results--the destruction of German Nazism, Italian Fascism and Japanese Imperialism were triumphs of gigantic historical magnitude.
Our generation dared not fail in war, but let us hope that history does not find that we failed in peace.
Thus far, I have spoken about veterans who survived their wars and lived to remember and to learn what became of their cause. But what about those who did not live to become veterans, but who instead died violently in battle, or agonizingly from wounds or gas, or miserably from sickness which often killed more soldiers than lead or gunpowder or shrapnel? Surely nothing could have--or ever did--erase the hurt and sorrow and grieving of those whose sons died for their country. But who is to say that such a death, in the vigor of youth, fighting for a cause or fighting for each other is, after all is said and done, a worse fate than that faced by many survivors? True, they were denied the unmatchable pleasure of watching their children grow and the joy of grandchildren. But also they were spared many sorrows and miseries. Having died young as the consequence of war or service to their country, they could not die of the ravages of tuberculosis or cancer, or miserably abandodned in old age, or from alchoholism, drugs or A.I.D.S.
It can certainly be argued that many did die in vain, particularly those who died in the long Viietnam agony. But do those tens of thousands killed year after year in automobile accidents not also die in vain? What has been accomplished by their deaths? At least those who died for their county's cause (whether history judges that cause to be just or unjust or merely irrelevant) died for something, not for nothing! And they deserve to be remembered. That we are here today proves that they are remembered and that they are honored.