Conventional wisdom reveals Memorial Day, originally Decoration Day, was inaugurated right after the Civil War to honor those military members killed in combat during that war. Later, it was modified as a day to honor those who died while on duty in the armed forces of the United States.
For me, not being especially conventional, as Memorial Days in the long-ago past then began approaching, names like Dick Maddox and Frank Kitchens, both killed in action in Vietnam, entered my thought processes. Since they were killed in combat in Vietnam, I had always had beer toasts to Frank and Dick on Memorial Day. Frank was my cousin, I brought his remains home to his bride for burial, and Dick was my relief (replacement) during that war. He was killed a short time after he arrived.
As I approach age 81, deaths of military war veterans have escalated, not from wars, but mostly from age. So, like many military war veterans, Memorial Day has a significant personal meaning to me. In that regard, I have been friends with two very different, yet similar, war veterans here in Mount Pleasant. It is my opinion they, and others like them, also deserve to be remembered on Memorial Day.
Some may argue it's inappropriate because that’s what Veterans Day is about. But while Veterans Day is for all veterans, Memorial Day is for remembering and memorializing dead veterans. These two men -- one a career Marine, the other an active-duty Marine for only about two years -- both served in war and were so eager to serve their country that they tried to enlist while under age. Both survived some of the most savage combat in the 20th century, one on Okinawa in 1945, the other at Chosin Reservoir in 1950. Both died recently in Mount Pleasant, and both died as Marines.
Dick Whitaker was not only a fellow Marine, he was a good friend. His attachment and duties to our Corps of Marines is significant. He tried to enlist when he was 17. His parents would not sign the required approval forms, so he waited patiently until he was 18 to enlist. After Parris Island Boot Camp and Camp Lejeune infantry training, Dick sailed to Guadalcanal for more intensive training. From there, he sailed again, this time going ashore on Okinawa to participate in the last battle of World War II.
Not many Americans reflect on the historic battle of Okinawa. More and more that last battle is becoming less and less memorialized. Instead, it is D-Day that continues to hold significance for most Americans today. I will not detract from the significance of those brave men sailing from England to land on the coast of France to begin to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany. But history is incorrect to refer to that amphibious operation as the largest amphibious landing in history.
Okinawa was much farther away from the base of support than was England from France, and it was a larger amphibious operation than Normandy. About 180,000 American troops landed on Okinawa while 156,000 American, Canadian and British troops landed at Normandy. Okinawa was a larger, more violent battle -- Japanese kamikazes and fanatical defenders established that fact. In addition to the Army and Marine casualties, 4,900 American sailors lost their lives in the waters off Okinawa. At Normandy, Americans and their allies faced 50,000 German defenders. At Okinawa, Americans faced 130,000 Imperial Japanese defenders. Neither battle was a cake walk, but let’s put the battle of Okinawa in proper historical perspective without detracting the resolute determination of our heroic fighting forces in both locations.
Dick participated in 88 days of continuous combat. He was wounded and lost a considerable amount of weight. He is featured in the book "Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb," by George Feifer.
John Flinn also attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps while underage, and was partially successful. A go-getter, he quickly rose through the ranks. His crucible was the frozen Chosin Reservoir in 1950 Korea. After the successful amphibious landing at Inchon, Korea, by the First Marine Division, the Allied forces moved into North Korea. It was here that hundreds of thousands of Communist Chinese forces entered the war.
Due to faulty intelligence and poor upper-echelon decision making, the First Marine Division became trapped at Chosin Reservoir. Surrounded by six to eight Chinese divisions, outnumbered but not outgunned, the Marines fought their way from the frozen mountains to the sea in sub-zero temperatures. John Flinn was there. He ultimately re-enlisted in the Marines and retired a captain.
Dick served as a school/college administrator while John had a successful career as a Secret Service bomb technician. They came together in Mount Pleasant. Both belonged to the Low Country Leathernecks and were volunteers at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. Both were my friends.
I will reflect on and celebrate the lives of all four of these Marines this year. This means I have four beer toasts. I will remain home and pace myself.
So in Marine jargon, "Semper Fi" to those four men on this Memorial Day and to all those who gave their life for freedom while in the service of our country.
Ralph Stoney Bates Sr. is a retired Marine major and a Mount Pleasant resident.