Memorial Day 2016

Below is the speech I gave on May 30, 2016, at American Legion Post 131 in Valley Springs, South Dakota.

Welcome to today’s ceremony and thank you for being here. This is one of those few years when Memorial Day falls on both the traditional date of May 30th and the last Monday in May. Memorial Day has evolved in the past century and a half, from Decoration Day that honored those who died on the battlefields of the Civil War, to Memorial Day that honors those who died in all wars. It now also includes all deceased veterans and deceased civilian family members and friends. But the main focus is still those who lost their lives in battle.

Today is not for living veterans—we have Veteran’s Day for them. Today is not for active duty members—we have Armed Forces Day for them. Today we remember the millions of Americans who fought and died on battlefields around the world to defend our freedom. From the soldiers who shivered and starved through the winter at Valley Forge, to the doughboys crouched in the muddy trenches of France, to the platoons patrolling the jungles of Vietnam, to the young service members dying in the mountains of Afghanistan, we remember and honor them all.

I’d like to talk about one specific South Dakotan from World War II. John Waldron, of Oglala-Lakota heritage, was born at Fort Pierre in 1900. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1924 and became a Naval Aviator. At the time of the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, he was a lieutenant commander and the commanding officer of Torpedo Squadron Eight on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.

Before the torpedo planes, bombers, and fighters were launched from the aircraft carriers to find and attack the Japanese fleet, Waldron requested fighter cover for his slow-flying, obsolete Devastators. He was turned down. With no fighter support, he told his pilots, “You and your gunners must be prepared to shoot it out with the Japs. Be prepared this time for all their fighters to jump on us.”

Ignoring intelligence estimates issued by the task force, LCDR Waldron used his experience and instinct to calculate where the Japanese fleet would be. He was right. He was the first to find it. “If there is only one plane left to make a final run in,” Waldron reminded his aircrews, “I want that man to go in and get a hit.” He led his squadron down to the wave tops to make a low approach in an attempt to keep the fighters off.

“Torpedo Eight went gallantly to its doom,” wrote one historian. The Japanese fighters “methodically tore into Torpedo Eight with a succession of shattering attacks from above and behind—wolves ripping into a herd of deer.” All 15 planes were shot down, with 29 of the 30 pilots and gunners killed. LCDR Waldron was one of the first to die. There were no hits on the carrier.

With the Zero fighters down low on the water chasing the torpedo planes, there was almost no opposition to the American dive bombers that came in from above. They hurtled down to drop their bombs on the Japanese flight decks. Four of the six carriers were sunk, and the Battle of Midway became known as the turning point of World War II in the Pacific.

The heroism of John Waldron and many other aircrews that day helped make it happen. That is just one of thousands of examples throughout our history of dedicated Americans who died to protect our nation.

Let us remember that tyrannical regimes have been toppled and genocides stopped because Americans sacrificed life and limb. Let us remember that terrorist plots were foiled and killers brought to justice because Americans were willing to pay a high price. Let us remember that without a U.S. military, the world would be a far more oppressive and darker place.

We owe it to those who died and the loved ones left behind to make sure their sacrifices are remembered and their service to this nation always honored. Long after the battlefield guns have been silenced and the bombs stop exploding, the children of our fallen warriors will still be missing a parent. Spouses will be without their life partners. Parents will continue to grieve for their heroic sons and daughters.

This is a day for us to remember the promise President Abraham Lincoln made to “care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.” We can offer family members a shoulder to cry on, assistance with educational expenses, and assurance that their loved one’s sacrifice will not be forgotten.

One commemoration granted to every deceased veteran, regardless of circumstances of death, is the right to a funeral honors ceremony. By law, military units are required to provide a two-person uniformed detail to fold and present a flag and to play taps. A member of the deceased veteran’s service presents the flag.

Because our military services are short on funding and personnel, veterans’ organizations frequently take up the slack. They also provide a color guard and rifle salute. The members of these honor guards are all veterans themselves–volunteers who are proud to honor those who have served.

When I joined the honor guard, we still had World War II veterans participating. Now they are gone, as are most of the Korean War veterans. The majority are Vietnam era, and we’re losing some of them. Many of these honor guard members are combat veterans whose stories aren’t readily visible. When you see these people, appreciate them. They served and are still serving.

“If you ever think of me, think of all your liberties and recall, some gave all.” Those words from a Billy Ray Cyrus song are a fitting ending to today’s Memorial Day ceremony. “All gave some; some gave all.”


Sioux Falls Argus Leader profile of the ceremony

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