By ACE ROBISON
Several weeks ago, a group of aging Korean War veterans made a pilgrimage to the nation’s capital. For two days they were treated like royalty and upon their return were given a hero’s welcome. My brother Bryant, was among them. Bryant is a survivor of the bloodiest battle of that tragic war, the Battle of Pork Chop Hill
In many ways Bryant typifies his generation. Eleven years older than me, Bryant persistently refused my questions about Korea. The memories were too painful. Now however, in his old age, Bryant has become active in veteran’s organizations and joined the pilgrimage to Washington, DC.
In May 1953 newly inaugurated President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the decommissioning of the small naval vessel Williamsburg which had served as a presidential pleasure craft. Eisenhower thought the ship frivolous and wasteful. He ordered it to be used for recreation by GIs who had been injured in the Korean War.
One evening the president met the ship at the dock in the Washington Navy Yard as it returned from a cruise on the Potomac. Boarding the Williamsburg, he stepped in among the soldiers, brushing aside his Secret Service guards with the words, “Just let me be for a while. I know these men.” The soldiers crowded in around him. They were young men whose bodies had been ravaged by war. Some lacked an arm or a leg, others had heartbreaking facial disfigurements. They gathered as close to the President as they could get. They listened as he talked to them. He talked of love of country, and of sacrifice. He said their country would never let them down, but no matter how much America did for them it was nothing compared to what they had done for it. And then he said that even with all they had already given, they must yet be prepared to give more, for they were symbols of devotion and sacrifice and they could never escape that role and its responsibilities.
Captain Edward Beach Jr., Eisenhower’s naval aide was there. He described the scene. Said Beach, “There sat the most powerful man in the world, relaxed in a circle of wounded soldiers, men who had given so much for their country, men who would never be whole again. It was a moment of quiet intimacy, a gathering of brothers”. “I know these men,” Ike had said.
They were men bound to one another not by their desire for power nor their yearning for material rewards. They formed a family because of their belief in the ennobling act of personal sacrifice and public service. As Ike spoke to them he drew their attention not to the benefits they could now expect from their government but to the additional role they must play as exemplars of the American spirit.
As Bryant and his aging comrades traveled to Washington, DC recently I couldn’t help but think of their lives since the horrors of Korea. Most came home and led dignified and honorable lives. They married, built homes, made a living, supported wives and children. None of them, not Bryant nor his buddies, were aboard the Williamsburg that evening, yet each of them instinctively followed the admonition given to those maimed soldiers in the Washington Navy Yard by President Eisenhower, “You have yet a role to play as exemplars of the American spirit”. And they did it.
May each of us accept the same role, the same responsibility. May we impart the same lesson to our children and grandchildren. Lest we forget.