Friday, May 30, 2003
Memorial Day speech to the Town of Carlisle, May 26
delivered by Joshua Klein
I'd like to thank the Celebrations Committee and the people of Carlisle
for giving me the honor of speaking today. After all, it's a rare opportunity
when you get to voice your opinion in front of the whole town about
something other than footpaths or cell-phone towers.
I was asked to speak to you this morning about Memorial Day and what that means to me both as a veteran and as a member of the Reserves. And while I hope that my military experience gives me a perspective that you will find interesting, I don't feel that it makes me any more "qualified" to speak than anyone else here.
Sixty years ago, the United States and our allies were locked in a struggle against an enemy bent on global domination. The struggle was World War II, and in June of 1942, its outcome was very much in doubt.
In the Pacific the biggest naval battle in history was taking shape, as a Japanese force of over 120 combat ships steamed towards the U.S. island of Midway. Opposing this force was a group of 76 American ships, the last real line of defense for Midway, Hawaii and ultimately, the West Coast of the United States.
At 7 a.m. on June 4, the U.S. aircraft carriers Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown launched their torpedo bombers, dive bombers and fighters in the hopes of executing a coordinated attack on the Japanese fleet some 160 miles away. Unfortunately, the squadrons became separated during the long transit and were left to find the enemy fleet on their own. That is why Torpedo Squadron Eight under the command of Lt. Commander John Waldron was the first to locate the Japanese fleet in the vast expanse of the North Pacific. And unfortunately, they were very much alone. With no supporting squadrons in sight and fuel running low, Lt. Commander Waldron made a fateful decision and ordered the 15 planes in his squadron to attack.
You need to understand that Torpedo Squadron eight was flying the painfully slow and virtually defenseless TBD Devastator, a plane that was already obsolete by the beginning of the war. To make matters worse, they were flying the plane straight, low and level as was required by their mission. With this stacked against them, Torpedo Eight attacked the pride of the Japanese Navy, a fleet of over 120 combat ships that was protected by more than 100 Japanese fighters, all with twice the speed and capability of their own planes. The results were predictable.
As fate would have it, the next group of planes to find the Japanese fleet were the two other squadrons of American Torpedo bombers. Also on their own, Torpedo Squadron Six followed by Torpedo Squadron Three launched their own unsupported attack on the Japanese fleet, each with similarly disastrous results.
Of the 51 American Torpedo planes that attacked the Japanese that day, only seven returned to their carriers. Of the 106 men who made up those squadrons only 26 ever returned.
In the midst of all that sacrifice, not a single torpedo launched by the Ameri-can squadrons hit the Japanese fleet.
What they did accomplish, however, was to bring the Japanese fighter planes down from their defensive positions above their fleet. As a result, when the American dive bomber squadrons arrived on the scene minutes later, they were able to attack a now largely undefended Japanese fleet, sinking three of four aircraft carriers within a half hour and the fourth carrier later in the day.
The destruction of the Japanese carrier fleet at Midway eliminated the ability of the Japanese military to project power in the Pacific and turned the course of the war. It is believed by many to be the most pivotal moment in World War II or any other conflict in history.
But the men of the U.S. Torpedo squadrons didn't know this at the time. So what was it that made each of them attack in a situation where they were hopelessly outnumbered and had virtually no chance of success or even survival? Well, in the words of Ensign George Gay, "We did things that Lt. Commander Waldron wanted us to do not because he was our boss, but because we felt it was the right thing to do."
The right thing to do.
To me, this exemplifies the kind of selfless sacrifice that we should remember on Memorial Day, but there are other kinds of sacrifice that I think are just as important to remember. Sacrifice like that made by the millions of families who give up a loved one to the military during times of conflict or times of peace.
On a personal level, I can remember hearing my grandparents talk about how my grandfather, a Navy Destroyer Captain in the Pacific in World War II, got home only three times in four years during the war. And my grandparents were lucky. For many the separations were even longer.
I think of my father in the Army (and no, I never really have forgiven him for that), stationed in Berlin for over a year during the height of the Cold War with a half-million Russian troops surrounding him.
We live in a nation that is rich beyond belief in all that is good and much that is not good in humanity. We have greater opportunity, greater freedom and a better overall quality of life here in this town than almost anyplace else on earth. And we have all of these things not just because of two-acre zoning or because of our level of income. We have these things because the generations that have gone before us have been willing to sacrifice when necessary for what they held dear and for all that this country represents.
We have the freedom to choose how we want to live and what dreams we choose to pursue, to elect our representatives in national, state and local government and to participate in that government if we so choose. We have the freedom to debate in a public forum issues ranging from abortion rights to footpaths and cell-phone towers because the history of our country from the revolution to today is filled with people who put the good of an ideal above the good of themselves.
I chose to do my part for the nation by joining the Navy, but you don't need to join the military to sacrifice for your country or your community. You can make a difference in a myriad of different ways. Be active in your local government or church, participate in a community service or Eagle Scout project or simply help out your neighbors when they don't even ask. Find your own way to give something back.
So when people ask me why I joined the military and what Memorial Day means to me, I tell them simply that some things, like our way of life and like this nation and this town are worth sacrificing for. And because for me and for others in this room who have shared in the tradition and for others that will share in the tradition, it is the right thing to do.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito