I was watching the news this weekend and there was a segment where a baker was demonstrating how to decorate cakes. At the end of her demonstration, she showed off cupcakes that she had decorated especially for Memorial Day. They were bright red, white and aqua blue. Then, with chipper voice she joyously explained that the cupcake icing design resembled fireworks.
Memorial Day is not a day to hold celebrations, in truth, it is a yearly national funeral for our military dead. It is a day of remembrance….of loss…not victory, freedom or national pride. It is the day to think about all of those young men and women whose lives were cut short and whose beautiful bodies were torn, mutilated and so grievousness wounded that they could not survive their injuries. Their trauma and deaths were horrific.
I have been reading the book, “Unbroken”. This book is about World War II soldier Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, who spent much of World War II as a Japanese Prisoner of War after his plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. The brutality of his war experiences are so vividly described as to, at times, seem to be frankly unbelievable.
I do believe them, because I have had the privilege of knowing many veterans both personally and professionally and their stories were oftentimes very similar to Mr. Zamperini’s.
For instance, take my friend El. Now in his nineties, he is the last man left on this side of the turf from his army unit. I first met El on a World War II Honorflight. I was his caregiver and he was one of my folks.
That day as we chatted together, he mentioned that he had once been a Japanese prisoner of war for four hours. I chuckled and said that nobody was a Japanese prisoner of war for a couple of hours, how did he manage that?
He then told me how this happened. His platoon had been ambushed, all of them were killed outright or wounded. For the next several hours Japanese soldiers walked among those American boys, stabbing them with their bayonets to see if anyone was left alive. Any groan that was heard, was quickly followed by a gun shot. El always says the same thing, “Thank, God, I fell on my stomach and that my eyelids never fluttered.”
Then, there was Sid Schmuckler. What a great name! Sid was quite a guy, at over 90 years of age, he still worked every day and drove himself to his office on Minnesota’s freeways in his station wagon. Sid was a navy man and fought in the Pacific. He was a beach commander.
The night before an invasion was launched, he would go ashore to scout the position and help radio our soldiers ashore. He was a beach commander on Iwo Jima and was in a few other very notable battles.
Sid could tell me about boys, who were just his age, that he had seen blown to bits just as matter of fact as if he was describing restaurant menu. He did have this sad chuckle about the ironies of war that he had witnessed.
He once told me about this chaplain that was walking right down the beach on Iwo Jima as it was being heavily shelled and under constant fire by the enemy. From behind their fortified breastworks, he and the soldiers with him screamed at the chaplain to get down! The chaplain, as calm as if he was taking a Sunday stroll, just kept walking down that bomb pocked beach, stopping to check on each wounded, dying or dead soldier in his path.
As they were yelling at the chaplain, the boy next to Sid took a bullet to the head. Still alive, it was immediately determined that his wound was mortal. When the chaplain was much closer to Sid, he was grabbed and thrown behind the breastworks. Sid pointed at the young dying soldier and asked the chaplain, to give the Catholic boy last rites.
The chaplain quickly went about his business. Just as he concluded, the young soldier breathed his last. As he closed the boy’s eyes the chaplain said, “I hope his Catholic mama never learns that a Ra bi administered her son’s last rites.” Before anyone could detain him, the chaplain quickly leaped from relative safety of the breastworks and continued his mission of mercy on that beach.
However, there was one war story that brought instant tears to Sid’s eyes. He was back on his ship, the war nearly over, and they were smack dab in the middle of the entire Pacific armada with vast air power protecting the fleet. American air superiority was so complete that even Kamikaze’s were no longer considered much of a threat. He finally felt safe from the enemy.
The ship next to his was a hospital ship. That evening, the deck of the hospital ship was brightly lit as the nurses and doctors operated feverishly to save the lives of wounded soldiers.
Sid was on the deck watching the hospital ship when one lone blip showed up on his ship’s radar. It was determined that it had to be an American plane….it wasn’t. The Kamikaze pilot targeted the hospital ship. His plane crashed onto the ship’s deck and burst into flames as it skidded across the top of the entire ship. I can still hear the despair in Sid’s voice as he described the horrific scene, “He killed all of the nurses, those girls, those girls, they all died!”
Memorial Day is set aside for us to think about human cost of war and to solemnly remember and honor our nation’s military dead and their families.
It is not about ……cupcakes
My Uncle Wendall Laverne Larson at age 23 died serving his country during the Korean War. Wendall’s toe tag His military records state that, “Cpl. Larson was KIA at approx 1900 hours, …
My Uncle Wendall Laverne Larson at age 23 died serving his country during the Korean War. Wendall’s toe tag
His military records state that,
“Cpl. Larson was KIA at approx 1900 hours, on 22 October 1951, near Nodong-Ni, North Korea. Type and Location of wounds are unknown. His body was recovered and positively identified by SFC Norlan W. Schultz, Company “I”, 19th Infantry Regiment.”
Cpl. Wendall Laverne Larson
His parent’s, George and Esther Larson, were notified of his death by telegram on a Sunday as they arrived home from visting relatives. Grandmother Esther’s letter to her sister
The official government notification came later. Letter of death notification to family.
The family receives a letter from a witness to his death. How your son died. The family received their son’s purple heart, but the silver star medal never arrived.
His parents had to fill out an application to receive his personal effects.
Application to receive their son’s personal effects approved.
It took many weeks for Wendall’s body to come home. He returned to Minnesota in a casket, covered by our national flag and with a single soldier as a military escort. It was raining the day that his siblings picked up his casket at the railroad station to deliver him to the local mortuary. His youngest brother still recalls how light the casket was and laments that Wendall must have lost a lot of weight before he was killed.
The family held a memorial service for him early in December–on his birthday-in the same church where he was baptized and confirmed– First Lutheran Church, Grove City, MN. Memorial on Wendall’s Birthday Letter
Wendall is buried in the church’s cemetery in our family plot and lies right next to his first cousin Eugene Kronbeck who was also killed in Korea. Eugene was killed only a month after Wendall when a mortar shell landed on him. So much sorrow at once for the family. Both young and old mourned.
“My cousin, Eugene Kronbeck photo taken the morning he left for Korea Sept 20, 1951. He was killed in action Nov 25, 1951. I’ll never for get his funeral in Grove City, MN. The rifle salute and taps played. I was 7 years old.,” Cousin Grace Gauer.
After Wendall’s death life went on, on the family farm without him. There were keepsakes of the lost son forever present: a satin pillow with silk fringe he sent home from Japan to his mother, the triangular shaped flag, his favorite hunting shot gun still hung on the kitchen gun rack and his letters from Korea.
Some of Wendell’s letters dream about home and a future.
September 22, 1951
“So John B. rented his farm to Gaude. I would have liked to have rented it. I wonder if Gaude is still going to farm that land over by Ottos.”
September 27, 1951
“Too bad you didn’t get a chance at Ed’s decoys for $5.00. With all the water in Mud Lake they probably would help a lot. I don’t remember if I told you that we had eggs from Litchfield Prod. Co. for breakfast the other morning. I got those pictures. They sure are good. I see I have a very cute niece as everybody has been writing and telling me. ”
Other letters were filled with his reality in Korea.
July 8, 1951
“Two weeks ago tomorrow we went back on the line or I should say in front of the line. We were out past the line of resistance. Tuesday we got into a big fight and just 2 of us who didn’t get hit. Keith Lindahl, my pal from Mpls. got hit in the shoulder. He got sent to the hospital. The rest of the 2 weeks we destroyed enemy ammo and bunkers. I was with 5 others looking through bunkers and we caught 10 Chinese. One had been wounded in the leg so had to be carried out. I am a BAR man so have Browning auto rifle which weighs 15-19 pounds. I also carry 13 mags with 20 rounds in each and my assistant carries 8 mag. Go Margaret’s picture and is real cute ‘everyone thinks so’. ”
July 9, 1951
“Vince, who was my best buddy in the squad, got wounded by a gook grenade. Not too bad I guess. Wagner and Moore also got wounded and Urqhart was killed.”
The average life span for a “BAR man” during combat is 30 minutes.
Stories of his short life were told and retold. I know that my Uncle was a devout Christian, he was the best shot in the family, he was tall, good looking, kind with a great sense of humor. He was greatly loved by his family and friends.
Below is a letter from Wendall’s sister to the nephews and nieces who never knew him.
A Brother Makes the Supreme Sacrifice
“I have chosen portions of Wendell’s letters written from December 1950 to October 1951 to share with you his nephews and nieces. I want you to know about him–to know how he lived, how he served and how he died. He was very intelligent. He was very committed to country and to family. He was loved by aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. Many of them wrote to him often and sent packages of food like banana bread, fruitcake, cookies and donuts. His letters were long with descriptions of their meals and countryside. He asked many questions regarding our welfare and activities.
To Debbie, Laurie, Steven, Patrica, Douglas, Barbara, Diane, Bryan, Galen and Christine, May you remember with pride your Uncle Wendell Larson. He would have been very proud of each one for you.
I have never heard anyone have a bad thing to say about Wendell. My great-aunt Ida once said, “He was the best. I cried so hard when I heard he was gone.” Her sorrow never faded for when she was well into her nineties Aunt Ida would still tear up when she spoke of him or saw his picture.
Nor did the the love of his mother and father ever fade. As a child I spent many hours with my Grandmother Esther. As a teenager I used to go over to help clean her house, usually about once a month or so. I would wash floors and do the tasks that she could no longer physically manage. There was one task that she always did herself. When we were dusting, it was grandmother that dusted Wendall’s picture. After her dust cloth gently wiped any dust from her son’s face she would tap the glass three times. I Love You.
Memorial Day was designated as a day to honor our nation’s war dead. It is so much more just another day off from work for picnics and fun. Remembrance and gratitude is what Memorial Day is all about. It is a day to solemnly remember the men and women in military uniform who sacrificed their lives defending freedom. It is also a day to acknowledge their families. For families of the fallen in battle, Memorial Day is a time for their community to remember their beloved, acknowledge that loss and to express gratitude for their sacrifice.
This Memorial Day, like many past Memorial Days, I will spend time thinking about my family, their loss and wondering what life would have been like growing up on the farm with an Uncle Wendall.
Information about military personnel records for a deceased loved can be found on the National Personnel Records Center website at: http://www.archives.gov.
The National Personnel Records Center
1 Archives Drive
St. Louis, MO 63138-1002