Opinion: A few costly sacrifices for America’s freedom

Memorial Day is the only true American people’s holiday. Though Major Gen. John A. Logan is credited with General Order 11 establishing May 30th as the fixed date of Decoration Day at National Cemeteries, it rested solely on the American people to keep it and they did for a century without official decree or legislation.

Memorial Day is not a day for veterans. Ask one and they’ll tell you. It’s a day to honor men like Hospital Corpsman John Willis, who landed with the 27th Marine Regiment at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Ed Hooper
Ed Hooper

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Going ashore, he rendered aid to wounded until he himself was knocked down and ordered to treatment. Disregarding being officially released, the Tennessean was back in the battle, aiding wounded, advancing to the extreme front lines. Willis was administering plasma under fire when grenades started dropping around his patients. He threw eight back at the enemy, wreaking havoc and raised the ninth to throw when it exploded, killing him.

Private 1st Class Sadao Munemori was a Japanese American who served with the legendary 442nd Infantry Regiment in Europe. He survived five days of brutal combat with his regiment battling to rescue 211 Texans of the lost battalion in 1944. Six months later, in the battle for Rome he cleaned out two German machine gun nests and was crawling back to a bomb crater for cover when a grenade hit his helmet rolling towards two helpless soldiers in the pit. He pushed himself up in the withering fire and died smothering the blast with his body.

In the Korean War, it was Private 1st Class Eugene Obregon at the second Battle of Seoul. He was carrying ammunition and armed with only a sidearm when he saw fellow PFC Bert Johnson wounded in the middle of a road. The Mexican American drew his pistol and started firing at an advancing enemy platoon with one hand while dragging Johnson into a shallow ditch and started bandaging his wounds while under fire.

When the enemy platoon turned on him, he pushed Johnson down, grabbing the wounded man’s rifle and covered his body with his own returning fire until he was killed. The Marine beneath him survived to tell the story.

It wasn’t the first battle for 1st Sgt. Pascal Cleatus Poolaw in the Battle of Loc Ninh, Vietnam. His service record and medals went back to World War II and made the 45-year-old Kiowa the most decorated man on the field. For nine days, he and his 26th Infantry Regiment’s C company battled the Viet Cong.

On a search-and-destroy mission, his unit was ambushed and Poolaw countered the attack. They beat back the Viet Cong when he saw a wounded soldier and pulled him to safety -- sustaining the wounds that took his life.

A year later, senior Special Forces advisor Sgt. 1st Class Eugene Ashley Jr. would hastily put together an assault force to rescue trapped soldiers at Camp Lang Vei. When communications went down, the 37-year-old Black American sergeant led four unbelievable charges against a determined North Vietnamese Army. It was the fifth charge that carved a tunnel in the enemy forces, allowing the men to escape. Ashley lost consciousness from the wounds received accomplishing it. He was killed by an artillery explosion while his men were carrying him to the medics.

White, Asian, Latino, American Indian and Black American. Sailors, soldiers, and marines who gave their lives in battle saving others. They didn’t give a damn about the color of their comrade, the way he prayed, thought, or how he voted.

All but Poolaw were posthumous recipients of the Medal of Honor. Rule one of that award is a sailor or soldier can’t be following orders to receive it. The sacrifices made by them were their own decisions. They weren’t servicemen at those moments. They were Americans saving Americans.

They’re five among 1.3 million citizen-soldiers who have given their lives in U.S. wars since our founding in 1776. We celebrate that beginning on every July 4th, and it is fitting we honor on a date in May the men and women who gave their lives to keep this nation.

Ed Hooper is a documentary producer and writer based in Knoxville.