It was a cold January day when the doorbell rang at our little house on the dead-end of Netherwood Street. My father answered the door, and a lady presented a telegram from the War Department. There was anguish in his voice when he alerted mom, “Mother, Jimmy is dead”. My brother, Jimmy, had been killed on December 24, 1951 in Korea.
I remember these things as if it were yesterday. Everyone in the whole house went into screaming fits of crying, with my mother and father retiring to their bedroom with their grief. It was not their first son to die for his country. Their first-born, Charles, had been declared dead after missing in action in the South Pacific during World War II.
It was what every soldier’s parents fear the most. Their child will come home, no more.
Jimmy was a big guy, standing about six feet, two inches tall. He would come home from school, or delivering newspapers and throw me over his shoulder, rough-housing with me like big brothers do. He was the guy everybody liked, and he sang bass in a gospel quartet. Somewhere in our family keepsakes is a small vinyl record he and a group of soldiers cut while on leave, singing a gospel song titled, “Keep On The Firing Line”. It was appropriate for a singer of Christian songs, and a soldier.
While in high school, Jimmy talked our parents into signing for him to join the National Guard in Memphis. This was supposed to keep him out of the war in Korea because the Guard was not expected to be called-up for active duty in that war.
The National Guard was federalized, and units from all over the country were used to bolster the fighting units having a hard time in Korea. The Memphis unit was the 196th Field Artillery. It was a battery of 155 millimeter howitzers. Those are the really big guns.
At times he would send home pictures, and one set showed a field littered with the bodies of dozens of Chinese soldiers. I don’t know how Jimmy got these pictures past the censors, but we still have them.
The 196th had been firing their howitzers for over 24 hours when it happened. Jimmy was the crew leader, and they loaded a defective round. It exploded in the gun’s breech, killing the entire gun crew. Years later as I was graduating from college with my engineering degree, I interviewed with a unit of Sperry-Rand out of Louisiana that had manufactured ammunition for 155 mm howitzers. The interviewer told me that there had been a problem with defective ammunition they had manufactured during the Korean War.
If you remember I spoke of two brothers dying while in service to their country. I never knew the brother killed in World War II. He was also much-loved, and it was years before my father stopped going to the train station in Memphis, looking for a son who never returned from the war. I am writing about Jimmy because he is the one I knew.
Some people don’t understand why we honor our war dead. In my opinion those who don’t understand this just don’t understand honor. Honor is not something automatically given, it has to be earned. Just living a life and dying does not generate honor in and of itself. Honor is given to those who serve others.
It is this service to others we honor, and do so in memory of those who gave their lives in battle for things some people don’t understand.