There has long been a well-meaning, but wrong, impression of Memorial Day. While the gesture of “honoring our veterans” in late May is a kind thought, veterans are not the ones to be cherished on this day.
The fundamental difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day is that veterans served until they became veterans. Those we collectively remember on Memorial Day gave their lives for this country. They were not able to choose when their military service would end.
The overwhelming majority of those sacrifices came from men who had not been men for very long. In today’s military, more women are being remembered for their sacrifices as well.
My father, whose name I share, returned from World War II after surviving a kamikaze attack that sunk his LST in 1944. His cousin, Harold R. “Bob” Clark survived that war, but not the next one.
Clark was called back into the Army in 1950 to fight in the undeclared Korean War. On February 12, 1951, he and others were captured after a fierce battle near Hoengsong, South Korea.
Over the next two months, the captives were marched to what was called permanent Camp 1 near the Yalu River in North Korea, just across from China. According to the Department of Defense, Bob died “from exhaustion and possible incipient pneumonia” shortly after arrival.
A precise date of death is not known, but he may well have died on Memorial Day, 1951. He was buried by fellow soldiers near the camp’s clinic.
In 1954, the North Koreans returned the remains of soldiers from Camp 1, with one tagged as Clark. Those remains were later positively identified as those of another soldier.
Bob Clark is still over there and among the many forgotten 8,200 missing and “presumed dead” from Korea. A national monument stands in Honolulu containing the names of those Americans, including PFC Harold Robert Clark. His family does not have the opportunity to plant a small flag next to his grave.
While the purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those we lost, we should also think about the survivors left behind. Clark, not even 30 years old, left behind a young widow named Geneva and an infant son, Harold, Jr.
Memorial Day is also about the tens of thousands of others like Geneva and Harold, Jr., those who carry on after tragedy strikes their family.
Clark’s son never had the opportunity to know his father. Geneva remarried and returned to her home state of Kentucky from Indiana. Harold, Jr. turned out well, spending his entire career working for a major university in Kentucky after earning a degree from that institution.
After spending years looking, I was able to finally locate him. We recently spoke, mostly about his father and some about mine, both natives of Seymour, Indiana. Both were part of the “Greatest Generation,” but only one had the chance to influence their baby boomer children.
Bob Clark knew a little something about growing up without a parent. In fact, he had it worse. His mother died unexpectedly when he was only 7 years old and his father had that title only in a biological sense.
So, to those of you sending good wishes to veterans like me or my late father for Memorial Day, thank you. But could I request that you embrace a kind thought for heroes like PFC Harold Robert Clark and the multitude of others who laid down their life in service to our country?
Together, we don’t have enough capital to repay them. All we can do is remember what they did.