Veterans Day is traditionally a day when those who have served and who are currently serving are acknowledged for their service, and appropriately so.
“Thank you for your service” is a salute paid and accepted with pride because service to country is a badge of honor.
There are also monumental services that make every Veterans Day a day of deep historical reckoning for service that can never be repaid.
On this and every Veterans Day, my memory drifts back to June of 1942, to something that haunts as one of the darkest of ominous threats in American history. It was the eve of the Battle of Midway. Before that battle, in six months of offensives, the Japanese war machine had triumphed throughout the Pacific, in Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, and every island group it wanted to conquer.
At Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had decisively destroyed our battleship fleet. Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, then sought to destroy the remaining elements of the U.S. fleet and establish total Japanese dominance of the Pacific. He sought to attack Midway Island in order to draw out the remaining American aircraft carriers and destroy them. Then, there would be nothing left.
He sent out his best carriers, four of them, battle-hardened and undefeated. We had three carriers to commit to the battle, one of which was the Yorktown, recently battered at the Battle of the Coral Sea and barely seaworthy. Slow and barely seaworthy, out it went. We had no choice but to fight the onslaught with everything we had.
We had broken the Japanese code, and we knew they were coming. So, we sent out three carriers against their four. On the morning of the battle, American pilots ate their breakfast, put on their flight suits, got into their cockpits and prepared to take off.
At that moment, they knew that they would be facing perhaps the most fearsome of enemy battle fleets ever assembled. But they took off and headed straight out toward the enemy to do battle. They took off from their home base carrier, knowing full well that there was no guarantee that there would be a home carrier to which they might return.
In the most epic of victories in the annals of naval warfare, the U.S. won that battle. All four Japanese carriers were destroyed, and the tide of the Pacific war turned in the American favor.
However, one thought keeps coming back to me. It is the pilots revving their engines to take off, committed to fly into battle with everything at stake — everything — and not knowing that they would survive. And, on that day, for 145 of them, that possibility became reality. The price of victory was paid with the extinguishment of young lives laid upon the altar of American history.
After the Battle of Midway, there would be 145 times when naval officers, often in the company of local pastors, would arrive in dark limousines at the doors of homes across America to tell the families of these young fliers that their sons and brothers would not come home again.
Mothers and fathers would grasp each other and cry the despair of their souls. They would know on that day and every day thereafter that the faces of their sons would never again be seen, their voices never heard. With the darkest knell of tragedy, they would know that the bright, anticipated futures of their sons and brothers were gone, paid over in full measure to the safety and future of their country.
Tonight, I bid that we might go out and look into the night sky and try to imagine 145 young smiling faces with flight goggles, faces that will never grow old, and I bid that we say one thing to them. “I will remember.”
And, of course, the remembrance of the fallen can never stop at Midway. The enduring sacrifices of our veterans extend over beaches, fields and jungles of all other wars — the pivotal battles of Trenton, Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Normandy, the Bulge, Pork Chop Hill, Khe Sanh, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and all of the other places where the best of America were laid to rest. Now, American flags gently wave in the breeze above rows upon rows of graves at Arlington, the Ardennes, Normandy, Flanders, and countless islands of the South Pacific.
Today is the day of all of those young and vibrant faces. They are lost, but they will never be gone as long as we remember — on their day, on Veterans Day.
Don Tortorice — Qui Nhon, Vietnam, 1966-67 — is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary.