The barbecues will be alight and the beers open tomorrow, as Americans all over the country —weather and virus regulations permitting— celebrate the beginning of summer with the annual Memorial Day rituals of sun and fun.
But the day before, it’s gray and cloudy here in Annapolis, MD, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. The pre-solstice frivolity this day is tempered with other notions that have nothing to do with jet skis and cheeseburgers. The Sunday before Memorial Day in Annapolis and across the country, besides the parties, some people are paying silent visits to military cemeteries.
My dad was a naval veteran of WWII, but is buried far away in my hometown of Hollywood, FL. So I visit the cemetery here reserved for heroes of the U.S. Navy. The headstones, and the inscriptions on them, tell of valor and sacrifice. They don’t mention a thing about lite beer or sun tan lotion.
"This is a mass burial at sea, on the USS Intrepid in 1944 following a kamikaze attack. I've never seen this photo, and I figure most of you probably haven't either. I posted so people can see, and remember the incredible sacrifices made on our behalf. #MemorialDay pic.twitter.com/EdBeXfzXIR
— TobinatorTheMotivator (@Tobinator0311) May 24, 2020
Those stone sentinels recall men like WWII U.S. Navy Lt. Commander John Bulkeley, a sailor who eventually was a vice admiral, for his actions in the Pacific during the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Philippines. He ran the gauntlet of Japanese subs and surface vessels to get a precious cargo, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, to Australia. Bulkeley was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Maybe today, between bites of nachos, you could tell someone about him. You could even Google him.
They remember men like Lt. Commander Sam Fuqua, another eventual admiral, who was aboard the U.S.S. Arizona when she blew up after attacks by Japanese planes during the December 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor. Though knocked unconscious in the middle of the mayhem, he revived, got rescue efforts going, and directed fire fighting operations. He was also awarded The Medal. Sam Fuqua, maybe in casual conversation with a pal or family member today, deserves a word or two of mention.
And these stark reminders in granite, these headstones of a pale chalk color, also tell us of men who did their part without the glamour or the public glory. One that I know of is just a simple VA-provided marker. Nothing elegant, except in its understatement. Nothing notable, except in the fact that his wife lies beside him. It’s of a young navy signals officer who had just arrived on the U.S.S. New Jersey in the fall of 1944, fresh out of training in Florida and California.
He came aboard just in time take part in the greatest naval battle of all time, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. That operation pitted U.S. naval forces under Admiral William “Bull” Halsey against two powerful Japanese fleets and a separate Japanese decoy fleet. It was the young lieutenant’s first baptism of fire. Another crucible of blood and steel, Okinawa, would be his next and final battle.
He survived the war and my dad, Lt. Commander Harry Kamioner, USNR, came home to get married, raise a family, and to continue to serve his country. He never talked about the war. At least, not in words. But there were days I could tell that there was something deep inside, a kind of wound that never healed, that still plagued him. When I was five he took me to my first veterans cemetery on Memorial Day. I’ve continued to go for many years hence, to honor him and what his service meant.
He and the men of his generation, those who came after him, and the heroic women who served by their side, deserve a brief instant of your time today or tomorrow. Just to think, for a minute or two, about who they were and what they stood for. Then have another beer and a big bite of that hot dog. My dad and his comrades would be there with you, smiling and recalling younger days, if they could. But look all around you. When you do, you can see that their spirit, and the things they built for America, have really never died.
Happy Memorial Day.