A Guest Post by Judge Jim Troupis
The Civil War had ended just 36 months before the first Memorial Day. (“Decoration Day”) The wounds of war ran deep. Indeed, so deep that more than 150 years later some still remembered and demanded symbolic recompense in the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans and Confederate flags in North Carolina. In that light I found myself twice in recent weeks reflecting on what this day ought to mean.
Meeting with a close friend with whom I have fought epoch legal battles, our conversation turned several weeks ago to our fathers. Mine, a Greek immigrant’s son and college student in 1941, volunteered and became a communications specialist in the Pacific. He would rarely reflect on his time in the Pacific, though he left a daily diary of those war years. He watched as ships around him burned and sank. He learned to fight and he felt the heat of battle in a foxhole. He never hesitated in his approval of the horrific, but necessary, end of that war. As he would have been in the first wave to touch ground in Japan, it is probable there would be no ‘today’ for me had the war ended differently.
For my friend, WWII was much different. His father was a minister who volunteered for the Marines. He would never carry a gun, but he knew his place was among those soldiers. As the Japanese dug-in on the seemingly endless Pacific Islands, his father became a true hero. The order had gone-out from Japan that no Japanese soldier was to surrender. Each would fight to death (as they would have in Japan itself but for the emperor’s surrender), and it was in that light that my friend’s father was called. (A “calling” is a true act of faith. A belief that we are called to a moment, to an occupation, to a life.).
Late one night, the minister without a gun (he would never carry one during the war), crossed alone through enemy lines. He heard there was a cave where a group of Koreans enslaved by the Japanese to build the tools of war on that island were being housed. Those Koreans were all destined to die because the Japanese would never surrender. The minister entered the cave expecting a certain death, but as the Koreans spoke to him he spoke back in their language! They were taken aback as he explained that they would all die in that cave. They asked who he was and he told them his name. Instantly, several of the men asked if he was, in fact related to a person of the same name who had ministered to them back home. “Yes”, he answered, “he’s my father.” Those who had asked immediately explained to the others that this man must be trusted—his father had been such a good man. Many of those in that cave had actually converted to Christianity as a result of his father’s good works.
After a brief discussion, all of those Korean men followed the minister through the night, through the jungle and miraculously were not discovered. Forty souls saved by a man without a weapon, with only his faith.
These are the stories of real people doing heroic deeds to protect our freedom.
In distant times soldiers too performed great acts of courage but more often than not they were meant to preserve not ‘freedom” but instead, “privilege.” The privilege of a monarch. The privilege of a class. The privilege of a master. So, the fact that Memorial Day was founded not at the beginning of the Republic but only after a great price had been paid for the sin of slavery is instructive. Pre-Civil War, this was a great country, but it was not the country we now have. The Civil War was itself an act of faith in equality. It was an act that transcends time because it was an act to secure freedom for all, for all time. It was not an act taken, or a sacrifice made, for privilege.
Reflecting both on the removal of those Civil War symbols and the work of our fathers is an appropriate thing to do this Memorial Day. True freedom for all is an essential component of this country and it comes in many forms and comes in many different ways.
The stories of our fathers—mine and my friend—are of warriors in very different cloth, but each was a hero. Each represents what we have come to expect and often take for granted. They are stories worth remembering this Memorial Day.