Memorial Day, 2016

Posted on May 30, 2016


Memorial Day started out as Decoration Day among the families of Civil War soldiers who died in that war. The graves of the dead were decorated and their service recalled.

Over the years Memorial Day, which in the early years actually had a day devoted to the Union dead and a separate one to those who died for the Confederacy, eventually evolved into one day to remember the fallen across all American wars.

Today Memorial Day also generally serves to remind us that summer is here, the kids are out of school, and vacations are in the air.

I don’t know how many of us actually visit the gravesites of those who died in war, especially since we live in such a mobile society where we may live far from our families and ancestors. So, many of us participate in public events to recall the ultimate sacrifice that our fathers, grandfathers, and their ancestors made for us in war.

Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day in the fall each year. Veterans Day recalls all who served. Memorial Day remembers all who fell. It is a small distinction I suppose, but I’d still rather like to be remembered on Veterans Day than Memorial Day, all things being considered, since I’m happy to be here.

There are several categories to those who died in service. Many are buried in foreign lands, in cemeteries across the world, especially Europe and in islands across the Pacific and we honor them at a distance. Some disappeared into the seas, dying in sea or air battles, and their bodies lie deep in God’s bosom in the oceans of the world.

Others, like my old friend Jim Egan, are still Missing in Action (MIA) and we don’t know what happened to them, other than they died and disappeared into a dark mist of the unknown. Let me indulge myself a bit this morning and share a very brief memorial of Jim. If you want to read the whole story, with images, go online to the Notre Dame Magazine at this address:

I probably have some relatives, buried somewhere, who died in war, since most male members of my family over the past three or four generations have served. But, as far as I know, none of them fell in action. Jim Egan wasn’t a relative, but he was a good friend.

We graduated from prep school in New Jersey in 1960, after playing a lot of golf together over the years and forming the bonds which last forever. Good Catholic Irish descendant that he was, he went to Notre Dame while I headed south to the land of my father and ended up at Duke. While we went in different directions, we kept up with each other loosely, and both of us took NROTC. I went into the Navy in 1964 and he choose the Marine option, going into the Corps that same summer.

I was assigned to the Amphibious Fleet homeported in Little Creek, Virginia and we stormed beaches and bars across the Caribbean and Mediterranean for the next two years. Jim was engaged by the time he was commissioned in the Marines and he was posted to Hawaii, the perfect place to get married to his college sweetheart Carole.

But, instead of a prolonged honeymoon in Hawaii, the winds of war were whipping up in Southeast Asia and the Marines, almost always at the tip of the American spearhead, were sent in early. It was, in fact, the dawn of one of longest wars in our history, with little glory and over 50,000 Americans dead by the time it ended for us in 1975.

By the fall of 1965 Jim was already in South Viet Nam while I was in the Caribbean. I remember port calls at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Port au Prince, Haiti. Jim was sent to Chu Lai, an airfield, and, as an artillery officer, he was assigned as a forward observer, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines.

“I went on almost all the platoon, company and battalion-sized operations,” Jim wrote me in October 1965. “About the only one I missed 2 men were killed and four injured.” Jim added, with a bit of battlefield humor, “3 of them now have 4 legs between them—and one of the dead was a platoon leader named Jim Mitchell who was really great and a top notch Marine.”

I wrote him from Haiti about my adventures on an island infected with voodoo, endemic poverty, and a brutal dictator. He wrote me about life in an equally strange world for him.

That’s the last I heard from him. Jim’s war ended on the night of January 21, 1966 when his patrol was ambushed and he never made it back to the rendezvous point. No one who knew him, in the Marines or the South Vietnamese Army, ever saw him again.

I didn’t know Jim was MIA, or dead, until many years later. Our correspondence ceased early in 1966. I was off in the Caribbean and Mediterranean on my own learning experiences, determining I suppose where life would take me after the Navy. I think my mom mentioned in passing long ago, “Well, I heard from Jim Egan’s mother that he was missing in action, or dead in Vietnam.”

He and I, like so many of our generation, were “citizen soldiers.” I don’t think Jim planned to stay in the military any more than I did. But we both grew up in the service. The difference was that my growing continued. Jim’s did not. And so I always take a bit of time on Memorial Day to remember him, and all the others like Jim who died in service for me, my country and you.

Carlton and I at the Wall 2000 pointing to Egan's name

My son Carlton and I in 2000 pointing to Jim Egan’s name on the Vietnam war memorial.