Tag Archives: Normandy

On Memorial Day


I live in the Pentagon’s bedroom; surrounded by some of the world’s smartest senior military officers both active duty and retired.

Every Memorial Day weekend, my neighbors and I arrange a cookout. My neighborhood is Rockwellian. We’ve thought of moving, we almost did once, to a bigger house, one with a garage, but the fact of the matter is that the intangibles of living here: our neighbors and our way of life, simply can’t be replicated.

I am not married to a military officer, but my blood is American, and I support these extremely brave men and women; officers and their spouses, who have valiantly pledged their lives for my and your freedom.

We are blessed; all of our neighbors have been spared the ultimate cost of military service, but they have all proudly served in the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. Right now, one of our officers is serving in North Korea. In a month, when he returns, we will send off another officer who will serve in Afghanistan for a year as his wife and three young children wait patiently and faithfully for his return. I’ve seen this happen, oh, six or so times now. Each of these officers leave and come back; every day a moment of wonder and a silent prayer offered up, perhaps in vain, for their protection and safe return.

I was reluctant to write about today; I wrote last November about my great uncle Buddy, who served in World War 2 and never made it home from Normandy. That post is poetic, if I do say so myself; but it’s not poetic because I wrote it, it’s poetic because of the fantastic artifacts my family managed to hold on to while Buddy trained for war. Click >here< if you are interested in that post.

As I was saying, I was reluctant about writing about Memorial Day because to me it’s gotten bastardized, corrupted, patronized, commercialized and shapeless. Memorial Day, to me, is like a National Day of Obligation (akin to the Holy Days of Obligation I grew up waiting to avoid) in which we sit, for just one moment or maybe sixty, in quiet repose to think about all the men and women who have died to protect our freedom.

There are those among us who are bitter about war (I raise my hand at times about it); I don’t understand war. On Mother’s Day, my youngest son, Thing 3 who is nine, asked me in front of his dad and two older brothers, “Mom, what do you wish for today? You have three wishes.” I said to him, “It will sound cheesy, like I’m in a beauty pageant, but I want simple things: health for you and your brothers and all your friends; happiness for you and your brothers and all your friends; and I want world peace everlasting. Not just for a day, but for all eternity.” A lump formed in my throat when I uttered those wishes. I meant them all.

So that means I don’t want war. That means that although I don’t want war, and I don’t understand war, I am aware of the fact that there is evil in the world. Sometimes I wonder if my beloved country is actively evil. I know to other people halfway around the world, we are considered evil. What makes us right? What makes them wrong? It all depends on what side of the barrel you’re on I suppose.

So that got me thinking, about war. Yesterday, when Thing 3 was watching Looney Tunes on the couch, there were the fantastic epic battles: Bugs v. Daffy in “Rabbit Seasoning” and Bugs v. The bull in “Bully for Bugs”; Elmer v. Bugs, Road Runner v. Coyote (for once I wish that bird would get his); Tweety v. Sylvester. Then there was one between Bugs and Yosemite Sam. The feud had escalated to a point from slingshot v. pellet gun to revolver v. shotgun to machine gun v. bazooka to canon v. Sherman tank v. atomic bomb and it dawned on me, again unfortunately, as it does every time I think about war, that this has been going on — the “who’s got bigger gun to hurt the other guy first” phenomenon for millennia and what it all boils down to for me anyhow is vulnerability.

I also saw a heartbreaking yet incredible example of that sort of horrifying detachment when I saw an episode of “Nature” when a zebra stallion encountered a foal that was birthed by his mare, but that it was not his foal, and this zebra went after this foal until it was dead. The stallion instinctually slaughtered the young foal because it was not his, and thus instinctually deemed to be inferior. So while I want to chalk it up to vulnerability; I want to believe that we are also part instinctual, that it’s fear (duh, but seriously deep fear that resides in the places we don’t like to talk about at cocktail parties) that foments war, and that fear is born of vulnerability.

But we are humans, we can reason. Right? Sometimes not so much. I catch myself wishing, perhaps foolishly, for people to a grip and not be so reactive, then maybe we’d have a chance at this everlasting peace thing. It takes awareness and humility and sacrifice, on all our parts. We all just want to live, right?

So I ask these senior officers what they think about it all and of course they want peace; they all have children, some have kids who are on active duty right now or whom have graduated from the service academies and will be serving soon. Others have grandchildren. A couple kids I know want to go into the service academies or enlist when they’re old enough. But these senior officers aren’t the ones making the calls; as high as they are in their rank, they still don’t have much of a say in terms of the massive global industrial war complex. We can’t solve these problems. After all, these men and women have children to feed and that happens to be closely tied to their military service. They’re no different from me and you.

So I bring it back down to the street-level view for them. “Given that this is Memorial Day, how do you feel about the way it’s commemorated?”

Lots of them grew up in little towns that dot the country. Many of those towns had parades honoring their fallen heroes. The whole town would shut down so everyone could go to the parade and watch the floats and banners and bands go by.

That doesn’t happen anymore. I suspect it does in some small towns, but when you live in the Pentagon’s bedroom, it’s not really possible. Just under 50,000 people live in my zip code alone.

So they think, these military officers. They don’t judge, but they don’t really answer. People have mouths to feed and people need work and if a half-off sale means they get use the saved money to feed their kids a little better for awhile, then who are we to say no? This is a free country after all; how do we take that right away from them? It’s complicated now. It didn’t used to be so complicated. Or maybe it’s always been complicated and I am finally catching on.

My street is the best street in the world. We work together and we talk to one another and we all truly enjoy each other’s company. I think we’re all in that place in life where we’re figuring it out — what’s important in life: the peace you can create in your own head. My husband and I made a cornhole game set; it was all the rage yesterday, once people loosened up a bit. He won against everyone he played. I couldn’t believe it. Even our current colonel lost to him. I thought that was madness. But I was still thinking about how we commemorate it; are we doing the intention of the holiday justice, just sitting here on our butts and playing as the sun sets?

Finally, one of them spoke up. “I like this. I like the way we’re commemorating it now: with a barbecue, and kids playing street soccer, and others playing hop scotch, and tag. And how we’re here grilling, with a beer in one hand and a spatula in the other, sharing our stories and being together. This is what we fight for; this way of life. I know of no greater country in the world than America.” He wasn’t just saying that. I instantly remembered a friend of my family’s who had served in WW2 saying about Memorial Day, “This is what I fought for; for you and me, thank God, to be able to do this: celebrate. This is who we are. If I died serving in the war, and you didn’t celebrate your freedom on Memorial Day, I’dve thought, ‘why’d I bother?'”

Thank you.

Veteran’s Day – My Great Uncle Bud McGowan

Veteran’s Day – My Great Uncle Bud McGowan

So I have always felt out of place on Veteran’s Day around here, where I live. In fifteen minutes by car I could be at the Pentagon. The other direction, I could be at Fort Belvoir, an army proving ground. Another thirty-five minutes from Belvoir and I would be at US Marine Base Quantico. In scant over an hour, I could be on the doorstep at the United States Naval Academy.

We are a civilian family, surrounded and befriended by senior officers, both active duty and retired in all the branches of the United States armed services. These people are some of the nicest and most dedicated people you’d ever want to meet. Their sworn oath to protect and defend has no bias or prejudice. Many have seen “action” in Iraq, Afghanistan, in Bosnia, in Viet Nam, in Korea, in the Pacific, and have proudly protected our ports and shores at home. I adore these people, I adore their spouses and children. I am grateful beyond measure for their service and their sacrifices. Yet I feel awkward around them on days like today.

I feel awkward because there is NO WAY I could ever repay them; there is NO WAY I could ever prove my gratitude. There are masses I could go to and there are ceremonies I could attend and while those are all nice ideas, they don’t seem to cut it for me.

I am grateful beyond measure that I don’t know anyone who has died in active duty and I know, living around here, that’s an anomaly. Maybe it’s because I know senior officers; but I know, boy do I know, that their knowledge of active duty deaths more than makes up for my supposed deficit.

I also used to think that I had no connection to the wars other than seeing my friends’ faces when they came back from their tours. I remembered earlier today, thanks to a bag of old family pictures my dad gave me in September, that I do have a connection. My great uncle, Anthony J. “Bud,” McGowan, Jr., a young tank corpsman, whose troop landed in Normandy immediately after the initial invasion, died in the war. Bud’s given name was that of his father’s, my great grandfather Anthony J. McGowan who hailed from Ireland.

Bud isn’t exactly a straight great uncle; my family’s story is one of those, “come again?” stories but here’s the super fast: Great grandfather Anthony’s first wife Sarah was my great grandmother. They had my grandmother and her sisters. Sarah died after returning from a trip to Ireland. Anthony sent word back to Ireland and Sarah’s niece Delia came to America to help raise the girls. Anthony and Delia married and then had seven more children. Bud is from Delia; my grandmother is from Sarah.

Ok. You’re welcome to re-read that a few times. Look, I know because Delia and Sarah were related, that the lines are even slightly more complicated than simple half-sibs, but I’m content to leave it at that. I have relatives with whom I can be both a cousin and a niece simultaneously.

My approach the photos and letters was bittersweet. I couldn’t give them enough respect, yet I couldn’t wait to learn more, and I knew there wasn’t a ton. I remembered my father showing me the collection of letters from Bud and he said, “Oh boy… There he is, poor guy. Poor Bud. There it is…” and he folded it up and we looked at more photos.

As I was going through those old pictures today, I remembered my father, a newspaper journalist and excellent writer in his own right, wrote a Memorial Day piece about Bud a few years ago that appeared in my hometown’s newspaper, in Buffalo, NY. I asked Dad about it today, and he told me this:

I wrote that his mother, Delia, would go downtown to the newsreels to see if they might have a scrap of [footage] Bud alive after the Normandy landing. It was heartbreaking. You have a picture of him there, [in the newspaper piece from 1944] as you said. Otherwise I didn’t know what he looked like.

I have better than a picture, I decided. I have some of his letters, pieces of him. The letters I have are those he wrote to my grandparents, my mother, and her brothers when they were children. Bud would have been in his very early 20s when he enlisted in January 1942. He went overseas in August 1943. In 1944, my mom would have been 10. He wrote these letters to my mother’s parents before he went overseas.

Seeing them today, when we have instant everything and can shoot a digital video on a phone and send it over the air to Iceland where it can be seen on another phone; when children aren’t being taught cursive in school anymore, it’s a lost art; and when actual words like “swell” and “top shape” were used often as “LOL” and “OMG” are today, I become nostalgic.

The letters make me grateful. They are private only because they’re personal. And by “personal” I simply mean: written to specific people; as you will see, nothing is scandalous. They make me wish for a simpler time. Without war. I don’t think I’m alone in that, you’ll see what I mean when you get to my grandmother’s letter that was returned.

Some context: ‘Bub’ is my grandmother’s nickname, she was Bud’s half-sister and maybe 10 years his senior; “Bill,” is her husband, my grandfather. Their children, “Mary Joan,” “Billy,” and “Peter” are my mother and her brothers, respectively, Bud’s very young and possibly only niece and nephews at the time. Well, ever, for him.

This is a post card from his time at training camp at Fort Knox, KY. It is dated February 7, 1942, about a month after he enlisted. He was preparing for his barracks inspection the next day.

The next letter I have in my records is dated seven months later. At the PS you will see that he explained why he couldn’t use ink.

page 1 – this final line on this page, “I suppose it’s silly to hope I never have to shoot but I do” touches me.

Page 2. (“Mimi” is Mary Joan’s nickname)

This letter is addressed on the envelope to my mom, who was just seven and a half years old at the time. I love his encouraging words and how he asks for prayers and promises some back. He must’ve been a terrific guy, to be so upbeat to his precious niece and nephews, telling them to be good when he was so new to the army.

Valentine’s Day letter 1942, page 1.

Page 2. This letter’s envelope is stamped Feb 14, 1942 1:30 PM. It had two one-cent stamps on it.

Here is another postcard from his training at Camp Polk, LA. He writes of starting maneuvers in the next month or so, which “ought to be something like the real thing,” he said.   

Imagine: he talks a bit about his neglecting his own letters home. I am guessing this post card was sent between the first two missives, but I don’t know. At this point, although Bud might think his notes are boring, they are not. I love his sense of “well, here I am…” and to me, writing that you have nothing to write, is still writing. The writer is considering you and your involvement; the writer doesn’t want to waste your time.

I don’t have much for about another couple years. He must’ve shipped off to Europe then. I have just two more separate items that can help tell the rest of Bud’s story.

On August 21, 1944, my grandmother wrote him this letter. I don’t have a copy of the letter she references that he sent to her on August 8, 1944, two months and two days after the formal invasion. “Berta” must be a nickname for Roberta, Bud’s sweetheart; Paula and Nancy are two of his sisters, referenced near the end of the letter:

page 1.

Page 2.

Page 3.

Page 4. You can see her signature on the bottom left of page 1. Seeing this makes me miss my grandma, “newsy news.” I can hear her. I really loved her. Her references to “your mother” when speaking to Bud about his mother is how she was, very proper and respectful.

Bud never read that letter. It was returned in the envelope below because seven days later, on August 28, 1944, he was wounded. I imagine the letter was in transit before he died and it didn’t reach him.

I don’t know when my grandmother received the envelope that held her letter above. Its jarring tell-tale stamp, “DECEASED” on the left side and the iconic “Return to Sender” stamped on the front give me pause.

And in October, he was written about in the city paper.

Bud’s picture is second column, lower right. You’ll read that he was engaged to be married. I see my brothers and my sons in his face. I see my cousins too. I see a life taken too soon and a man who, like too many before and too many after, never saw his people before he died. He died on September 4, 1944: two years to the day when he wrote the letter home to my grandparents and said of his nephew, Peter, “I’ll bet he’s getting awfully big & probably won’t even know him when I get home.”

The postcards themselves are in good condition, just yellowed, as you can see. And the envelopes are sound. their condition, better than anything else in the pack of family memorabilia is in the best condition, for obvious reasons. Why I am the lucky one to have this stuff is still a mystery, but reading these letters and seeing his face helps me remember that I am attached to Veteran’s Day, and Flanders Field whether I like it or not.

Thank you, Bud. Rest in peace.

I have many other family service members to thank for their dedication, and I am grateful to them all.

Thank you.