Monday, May 30, 2011

Have a nice Memorial Day, folks

Happy Memorial Day, readers. While you're enjoying your day off, grilling, drinking beer, spending time with the family, whatever, please remember why today is a holiday.

Anyhoo, the Sentinel yesterday published a column by county Law Director Joe Jarret entitled: "Memorial Day ceremony solves WWII mystery."

I think it's worth reprinting here. Enjoy.

It was on D-Day, June 6, 1944, that soldiers with the American 51st Infantry Battalion, 4th Armored Division, fought their way up a portion of the French coast, code named Utah Beach, under withering German machine gun and artillery fire.

Nine months later, on March 25, 1945, these same soldiers, now battle-hardened and advancing towards Hitler's Germany, engaged the enemy near St. Avold, France. Several American soldiers died in battle that day, among them Sgt. Freddy Jarret. He was 25. He was my uncle.

Little was known exactly what happened to my dad's beloved older brother. The family had to make do with a simple "Killed in Action" telegram. It was a mystery that haunted my father for decades: "Where was Freddy when he died?" "How did he die?" "What became of his remains?" Question after heart-breaking question was asked by my father, his mother and his father, all of which remained unanswered.

That all changed in 1985, when I found myself in uniform and, coincidentally, close to where Uncle Freddy died in service to this great nation. I was a U.S. Army Armored Cavalry officer serving along the then-West German/Czechoslovakian Border. A scant 200 meters from our outpost was an imposing Soviet tank battalion and motorized rifle regiment. We were outnumbered 10-1, but accepted what might have been our fate if hostilities between the two superpowers ever climaxed into war. And I guess it was fate that brought me to the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg, a landlocked country in Western Europe bordered by Belgium, France and Germany.

My troops and I were in Luxembourg for a Memorial Day ceremony and, like so many visitors before us, took the time to stand next to the grave of Gen. George S. Patton, who died in Luxembourg in December 1945. While there, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman who would have a profound effect on the Jarret family.

A caretaker of those hallowed grounds, accustomed to hearing the mournful wail of taps and being peppered with questions from visitors, he casually mentioned that a large part of his day was spent assisting American visitors with locating the final resting place of their fallen loved ones. When I mentioned the plight of my Uncle Freddy, he remarked, "Our recordkeeping has gotten a bit more sophisticated since the war, lieutenant. Follow me."

I dutifully fell in behind the gentlemen, who brought me into a cavernous room containing large, leather-bound books (I've since learned that much of this information is now computerized) containing the names of the fallen. Within minutes of telling him my uncle's name and place of birth, he looked up at me and smiling said, "Your uncle is buried in the Lorraine American Military Cemetery in St. Avold, France."

And that was it. In the flash of an instant, what some would call fate, coincidence, or just plain luck, a 40-year-old family mystery was solved.

After receiving permission to verify the information, I drove straight through the night, arriving in St. Avold just as the morning mist rose lazily into the sun. And that's where I found Uncle Freddy, buried among his comrades-in-arms atop a green, peaceful meadow that twice in one century had experienced the ravages of war. Upon returning to my base in Germany, I called home, inquiring of my mother what she suspected would be my father's reaction to the news would be. She correctly surmised, "he'd be delighted son."

And he was. Two months later, I flew my parents over to Germany for their first and only visit to Europe. I took my dad to where his brother lay. Mom and I gave him time alone with Freddy. Today we call such experiences "closure." To dad, it was a chance to finally say goodbye to his beloved big brother. More than 400,000 Americans lost their lives in World War II. Lest we forget.


Brian Paone said...

One has to wonder how many other stories like this are out there. Thanks for the reprint!

...especially since the link you've got to the Shed's article just points to Blogger. ;-)

Mike Donila said...

Ha ha. Thanks for pointing that out.

Brian Paone said...

I live but to serve.