HEADlines: Recalling History and Heroes

Published in The Mustard Seed Sentinel, Saturday, October 24, 2020~

“This day is called the feast of Saint Crispin,” So said Shakespeare’s Henry V in his inspirational speech to his troops at Agincourt on October 25 in 1415.

French troops outnumbered Henry’s five to one. But the British had a secret weapon—the armor-piercing long bow. Warfare would never be the same.

After the English victory, Henry proclaimed death to anyone who would take the glory from God for the day.

October 25 about 1100 years earlier was the day Crispin and his brother Crispinian became martyrs for their faith. They spread the Gospel and gave their lives for it.

And those events are not all that happened on that famous date.

October 25 is also the day of the infamous “Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1854. A day of much less success for the Brits who suffered severe losses in a desperate, misguided charge against Russian artillery at Balaklava during the Crimean War.

The incident inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson to record the brave effort in his famous aptly titled poem: “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” A portion follows:

“When can their glory fade? /Oh, the wild charge they made! /All the world wondered /Honor the charge they made.”

In late October 1944, US Naval Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was in Leyte Gulf maintaining radio silence. But the rest of the American forces wanted to know where Halsey was.

An ensign crafting radio messages had studied literature at Harvard before the war and knew his Saint Crispin’s Day history. Asking Halsey’s location, he then tacked on padding words designed to confuse enemy decoders. His padding? “The world wonders.”

Halsey thought his disappearance was known to the world. Legend has it that he dispatched the ensign to an obscure island to sit out the rest of the war.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the biggest naval battle of the war. It lasted three days and ended on October 25. The Japanese fleet would never again see the effectiveness of its earlier days.

King Henry promised his men “the greater share of glory.” And that their names would be “household words.” But wars are won by anonymous heroes. Only students of literature remember some of the names of Henry’s “happy few.”

And few can name any of “Noble six hundred” who charged the artillery this day so long ago. The anonymous message encoding ensign remains as anonymous as most who fought and died at Normandy and Bastogne, at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

My father served as a chief petty officer in the South Pacific during World War II. He loved to tell the stories of the heroes of Agincourt and Balaklava and the unfortunate coding anti-hero of Leyte Gulf. He told my brothers and me about General Anthony McAuliffe who, when the German Army surrounded his forces in Bastogne in 1944 demanding his surrender, replied only “Nuts!” And the Allies prevailed.

Dad never thought of himself as a hero. The heroes, to him, were the ones who didn’t get to come home.

Dad did come home, married the woman he’d left behind, and raised three children.

And so we all grew up and married. After Mother died in 1975, Dad decided to sell the house and move into a small apartment. As we were helping him prepare for his move, my brother and I were cleaning the attic and musing over some of our finds. I still have two—a silver sugar bowl and a veneered dresser that sits in my living room. But our most fascinating treasure was inside the top drawer of the otherwise empty dresser—a letter Dad had written to his future mother-in-law, Mother Miller, as he called her.

He’d been waiting to deploy to the uncertainty of the South Pacific and wrote of his sense of “blank thrill”—a combination of “the feeling of the unknown and also adventure.” He discussed how much he enjoyed the navy and how glad he was to be with the men beside him. He expressed his eagerness to return to those he loved after the war. “Back home, I have a wonderful collection of friends; good ones. You and your family come first, Nan of this group being first. She means everything in life for me—and to think about her and the two of us together after the war makes all this worthwhile.”

Dad wrote of three things that gave him a sense of security. First was his assurance in the men he was with: “in our commanders and the reason we are going, also we will be successful in our detail.” The second was his friends at home and “the strength my love for Nan gives me and hers for me.” His third source of strength was his “faith and trust in God.” The first two addressed “my worldly cares, the last, my spiritual … I can leave tomorrow satisfied completely in everything I live for. Not a question in my mind of a thing left undone, or a word unkindly said, not righted, not a care.” The letter was dated August 10, 1942, eight months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Years later I mentioned the letter to him. “I was saying goodbye” was his response, “just in case.”

The part of the letter that has always stuck with me is that he left “no word unkindly said, not righted.” He had done all he could to make everything right with everyone he was leaving behind. He might have been able to convince himself that he didn’t have time to fix things with everyone or that whatever he had done wrong was not a big deal. Instead, “just in case,” he had made things right.

For thousands of men, “just in case” came to be.

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces landed on Normandy beaches. By the time Paris was liberated more than two months later, nearly 73,000 allies had become Dad’s version of heroes.

June 6, 1994, marked fifty years since D-Day. Two of my sons were in elementary school then. Their teachers neglected to note the day. But both grew up to be soldiers. Both have served in war zones. One of them has gone twice. We will mark the days between October 25 and November 11 with pumpkins, corn stalks, and children dressed as super-heroes. On one of those days in between, our family will mark 104 years since our hero was born.

Most of the anonymous warriors of Europe and the South Pacific are gone now. Those who came home and those who did not are the heroes of history who endured the Great Depression and won World War II. They knew what it was to sacrifice for a great cause.

If we are wise enough to remember them well, they can still teach us.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

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