AIN Blog: Memorials Prove Their Worth

 - September 21, 2011, 6:15 AM
“I have run my hand over the names of friends who died so far away.” Vietnam
“I have run my hand over the names of friends who died so far away.” Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. (Photo: Fotolia)

Lately, I find myself growing tired of memorials, most recently the one that fills the empty hole in the ground where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers once stood, which its creators hope will, in some way, fill the empty holes in the hearts of so many. Standing at the edge of that pool and listening to the water as it spills in bright sheets, I remember those who died in the terrorist attacks of that September day a decade ago, and I recall other memorials.

Perhaps chief among these for me is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. When I saw the design by Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old student of architecture, my heart cried against this cold slash nearly hidden in the dark earth. But I have been there since. And I have run my hand over the names of friends who died so far away, and shared tears with others who also stood before that black wall. I found it remarkable that these dark marble slabs could carry such power of closure.

It was in 1974 and I was in the Navy when I attended the annual ceremony on the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. As the dignitaries and other visitors left, I stayed behind, and soon there were only three of us remaining. On the other side of the memorial was an older man standing quietly as tears rolled down his face. Beside him was a younger man, an arm around the older man’s shoulders.

I watched for long moments, and when the young man walked away for a moment, I approached and asked him if his companion had been present during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He told me that the old man was his grandfather, and that he had been working in the cane fields above Pearl Harbor and had watched the attack. Even before it was over, he said, his grandfather and more than 20 of his fellow-Japanese workers marched down the hill to the Army recruiting center in Pearl City and tried to enlist.

There is another memorial in Hawaii that I visited that same year: the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Located near downtown Honolulu in the broad, shallow dish of an extinct volcano, it is not as well known as the Pearl Harbor memorial, but no less impressive. The remains of more than 34,000 veterans of World War I and World War II rest there, each remembered by a simple plaque set into the ground.

I walked among those markers, stopping now and then to read a name, and was struck by one in particular, that of American journalist Ernie Pyle. Perhaps no journalist has ever covered a war as he covered World War II for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who wrote of generals and strategy, Pyle wrote from the beaches and the mud, where the grunts fought and died. And in the end, he found his own death under enemy fire on the Japanese island of Ie Shima. Appropriately, his marker is no more and no less than that of the thousands of others interred there:  Ernest Taylor Pyle; Indiana SEA2, U.S. Navy; World War II; August 3, 1900 [to] April 18, 1945; Purple Heart.

Ernie Pyle said it far better than I ever could when he wrote of war, “I’ve been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great.”

And so I am tired of memorials, however heart-felt and however good the intentions. But I will remember.