My great-uncle, U.S. Marine Corps Private William L. Brasfield, also known as Lee, died long before I was born, but I heard all the stories. As a young man, he enlisted because he believed that was what a patriot was supposed to do.
For a while, he wrote fascinating letters home to rural Alabama about the exotic places he had been. It was an adventure, not just a duty. Then, just a few months after Pearl Harbor, he was aboard the USS Houston (CA-30), which was deployed to escort and protect convoys carrying troops to Indonesia. By late February, 1942, the Houston was located in the Java Sea, where it and four other cruisers from Australia, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands, and 10 destroyers became engaged in battle with the Japanese.
Early on the morning of March 1, after an arduous and commendable show of force that was later called the Battle of Sunda Strait, the Houston was hit by four Japanese torpedoes, rolled over, and sank to the bottom of the sea. Of the 1,061 men aboard, including the 74 Marines, only 368 survived and were captured and sent to Japanese prison camps.
Lee’s parents back in Alabama were never certain he had not been among the captives, so they held out hope he might still be alive. It wasn’t until the war ended in 1945 that they learned he had not survived. So they erected a headstone in the family cemetery that denotes the date they got the news, not the actual date he was killed in action.
There is no body in the earth under that headstone. Lee’s remains were never recovered, but every year on Memorial Day, I remember him and his sacrifice. He was only 22, but he was a true patriot.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died and another 79,000 were unaccounted for — a number that includes those missing in action, buried at sea, lost at sea, and those buried with honor as “unknowns.”
Not quite 30 years before that, we lost 320,518 Americans in World War I; another 128,650 in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Between 1955 and 1975, we lost 211,454 in the Vietnam War. In all the wars fought by Americans — either abroad or on our own soil — more than 2.8 million lives have been lost. They were more than just casualty statistics; they were young men and women who had dreams for their lives, goals they hoped to accomplish when, not if, they ever got home. But they went and they did their duty and when they did not come home, we mourned them, and today, we honor their ultimate sacrifice as patriots.
So, there’s a word that needs some attention: sacrifice. It seems today, some people have forgotten what that means. Today, we are in a war of sorts, and in the space of less than three months, we’ve lost 100,000 Americans to a deadly virus. That’s an incredible number. It’s one-fourth of all the lives lost in World War II, and it happened in just three months, not years.
We can’t see this enemy, but we’re told it’s in the air, it’s on surfaces, and it’s all around us. We’ve been asked to make some small sacrifices to help keep each other safe from infection. Those at greatest risk include some of the very same people — civilians and veterans — who made tremendous sacrifices for the good of the country during times of war.
During World War II, vanity and convenience and creature comforts took a back seat to the needs of the troops. There were no nylon stockings because that material was needed for parachutes. Gasoline, fuel oil, coal, sugar, butter, and canned milk were rationed. Much of the produce was earmarked to feed the troops, so families became resourceful about growing “Victory Gardens,” which were sources of pride. Those were the things people on the home front did to show that they, too, were patriots.
Today, there are too many people who don’t have even a fraction of this same fortitude or the sense of the common good that their grandparents had. They balk at wearing face masks in public because it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient, or they claim it’s an infringement on their rights. It smears their $20 Kylie Jenner lip gloss.
“If a face mask doesn’t protect me, why should I wear it?” they ask. The president doesn’t need one, they point out, because it’s all a hoax anyway.
And then they storm a state capitol in their Rambo cosplay attire, purchased at an Army surplus store, waving their guns and demanding that the governor lift stay-at-home orders. They claim they’re patriots trying to jump start a failing economy, but this is not patriotism. This is terrorism — the homegrown, ignorant, good ol’ boy brand.
And today, while we should be celebrating the greatest sacrifices made by true patriots, we are sadly watching the death toll creep past the 100,000 mark. Until we have an effective vaccine against this virus, the only measures we can use are hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, face masks, social distancing, and staying home as much as possible. Scientists and medical professionals say we could cut the number of cases by 80 percent — if only everyone would just wear a mask.
Is this really too much to ask?
On Memorial Day, as we think about the 2.8 million brave warriors we have lost since this country was founded — people who died so that we all might enjoy a multitude of freedoms –– maybe it’s time to set down the barbecue and the corn on the cob and ponder what genuine patriotism means.