This Is Why We Stand: The Ultimate Memorial Day Tribute
On Memorial Day, we dedicate our time and thoughts to honoring those who made the supreme sacrifice for the freedom that we cherish. President James Garfield once proclaimed, “For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” When one looks at history, it has always been clear that freedom is not free. The American spirit resides in all those who fought and died for our country. That spirit has propelled us to this day, and we must never take it for granted.
This article will serve as a tribute to the men who exemplified the American spirit through every major conflict and operation in the history of our nation.
American Revolutionary War: Washington’s Immortals
Members of the 1st Maryland Regiment charge a superior British force to allow for the retreat of General George Washington and his army. Painting by Alonzo Chappel, 1858. (Photo: en.wikipedia.org)
Our forefathers endured hardships that none of us could ever imagine in their fight for Independence against Great Britain. When the war began, General George Washington and his rag-tag army were handed a series of crushing blows. At the Battle of Long Island in 1776, Washington’s Army would have been destroyed had it not been for the courage of 400 men of the 1st Maryland Regiment. During the ever-important opening battle, Washington was badly outmaneuvered on the battlefield by British General William Howe. Howe simultaneously attacked the front lines of the Americans and moved his troops behind them. Washington’s only hope of retreat was a small gap in the British line that was being held by the Marylanders. To allow for an orderly retreat, the 1st Maryland Regiment acted as a rearguard and repeatedly charged a British position to allow the remainder of Washington’s men to withdraw. Because of these brave men, the retreat was successful and the cause was still alive. 256 Marylanders died during the heroic stand of their regiment. When Washington observed their bravery during the battle, he uttered, “Good God, what brave fellows I must lose.” This Maryland Regiment earned the nickname of, “The Immortal 400” for their actions that saved the American Revolution.
War of 1812: Captain Oliver Hazard Perry
"Perry's Victory, painted by William Henry Powell of Cincinnati in 1865." (Photo: ohiohistorycentral.org)
America was only 36 years old at the start of the War of 1812. While the nation had grown considerably during that short time, it was still a new nation in every sense of the word. In 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain over several disputes, including British impressment of American sailors on the high seas. America’s resolve was greatly tested during this conflict, but as the nation showed through the Revolution, the American Spirit was capable of extraordinary things. Captain Oliver Hazard Perry embodied that special spirit. Perry commanded U.S. forces on Lake Erie during the war. He had nine ships built to serve this area, but only two of them, the Lawrence and the Niagara, were serviceable for battle. On September 10, 1813, the Battle of Lake Erie was underway. While aboard the Lawrence, Perry survived two hours of intense British bombardment. 75 percent of his crew aboard the Lawrence were either killed or maimed. With his ship close to its end, Perry and his remaining men boarded a longboat and rowed while under fire to the Niagara. Before leaving, Perry grabbed his battle flag from the Lawrence. It was emblazoned with the words, "Don’t Give Up The Ship.” The Niagara was able to turn the tide against the British. In a bold move, the Niagara rammed the British lead ship and its sailors fired their rifles at the British seamen. As night approached, the British had lowered their flag and surrendered to Perry. After the battle was over, Captain Perry sent a dispatch to General William Henry Harrison. In his message recounting every detail of the fierce battle, he wrote, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” Perry’s victory ensured America’s control over the Great Lakes and was a shining moment in what was a challenging war for the United States.
Mexican-American War: The Future Leaders of the Civil War
A painting depicting the Battle of Buena Vista. (Photo: history.com)
The Mexican-American War lasted two years, by its end; the United States had acquired lands that would become the future states of California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Militarily, the war was a decisive United States victory. While the U.S. never lost a major battle during the conflict, it still had one of the highest casualty rates of any American War. According to history.com, “Of the 79,000 American troops who took part, 13,200 died for a mortality rate of nearly 17 percent- higher than World War I and World War II.” A large reason for this was troops falling ill to diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, and smallpox.
The Mexican-American War was also incredibly important because it featured the combat debuts of several future Civil War generals of the Union including, Ulysses S. Grant, George Meade, and George McClellan. Before they took up arms with the Confederacy in the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and George Pickett. Lee all fought for America against Mexico as well.
American Civil War: Battle Of Gettysburg, Rufus Dawes At The Railroad Cut
The 6th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment charges the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment at the Railroad Cut during the Battle of Gettysburg. Painting by Dale Gallon. (Photo: gallon.com)
The American Civil War lasted four agonizing years. This was the bloodiest period in American history. To make our nation whole again, thousands of brave men sacrificed their lives. Sacrifices were made on an almost unimaginable scale during the Battle of Gettysburg. During this battle, which would emerge as the turning point in the war for the Union, Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes led the 6th Wisconsin Infantry of the Iron Brigade. His regiment was composed of 420 volunteers from the Western Frontier. These men were some of the greatest fighters of the war and fought in countless major battles. On the first day of Gettysburg, Dawes’ regiment faced Confederate troops positioned in what is known as the Railroad Cut. His men were outnumbered two-to-one against the well-positioned Confederate forces. The 6th Wisconsin Infantry would have to advance 175 yards to the Confederate position. It cost Dawes one man for every yard his regiment advanced. Dawes himself had written that, "Men were being shot by the 20's and 30's but the boys crowded in right and left towards the colors and went forward." The fighting was so fierce that he lost 10 men in a matter of minutes carrying the America flag. After an arduous 20 minutes, Dawes’ men had reached the Railroad Cut. The price of this victory was incredibly high for Dawes as he lost half his men during the fighting.
Spanish-American War: Albert Leopold Mills
Albert Leopold Mills. (Photo: en.wikipedia.org)
Between April 21, 1989 and August 13, 1898, The United States and Spain fought each other in both the Pacific and the Caribbean over differing views of Cuban Independence. In only 10 weeks, the United States had asserted its dominant military power and achieved victory over Spain. It is estimated that 3,000 Americans lost their lives during this quick conflict. Like the Mexican-American War in 1846, most of these deaths were from disease rather than combat. Yellow fever and typhoid were the main culprits that did the damage.
Even through this short war, the American spirit was never in doubt. During the Battle of San Juan Hill near Santiago, Cuba, Captain & Assistant Adjutant General Albert Leopold Mills made his mark on history. During the battle, Mills was shot in the head, and according to his Medal of Honor Citation, was, “Entirely without sight.” Despite the massive injuries that he suffered, he continued to encourage and direct his troops as the battle raged on. Mills was awarded the Medal of Honor on July 9, 1902 for his actions at San Juan Hill. He continued to serve his country until he succumbed to an illness in 1916.
World War I: Sergeant Fred William Stockham
Sgt. Stockham laying front row center. (Photo: findagrave.com)
It’s no coincidence that the First World War ended a year-and-a-half after the United States committed its forces to the battlefields of a war torn Europe. Sergeant Fred William Stockham was one of nearly four million Americans to serve in this conflict. In 1918, he was part of a large Marine effort to drive the Germans out of a highly contested area known as Belleau Wood. On the morning of June 13, the Germans began an artillery barrage on the Marines 6th Regiment. Stockham and others were targeted by explosive and gas shells for hours during the bombardment. Many of the men under his command were killed and wounded during the onslaught. During the chaos, Sergeant Stockham had noticed that one of his soldiers was lying wounded on the ground in the midst of a cloud of gas. An excerpt from Stockham’s Medal of Honor Citation describes how he proceeded, “Stockham, upon noticing that the gas mask of a wounded comrade was shot away, without hesitation, removed his own gas mask and insisted upon giving it to the wounded man, well knowing that the effects of the gas would be fatal to himself. He continued with undaunted courage and valor to direct and assist in the evacuation of the wounded, until he himself collapsed from the effects of gas, dying as a result thereof a few days later.”
Sergeant Stockham sacrificed his own life so that another one of his men could live. He is one of only eight United States Marines to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions performed during World War I.
World War II: Corporal Charles Berry
Cpl. Charles Berry. (Photo: marinemedals.com)
General Douglass MacArthur once said, "We have know the bitterness of defeat and the exultation of triumph, and from both we have learned there can be no turning back. We must go forward to preserve in peace what we won in war." The Second World War demanded America's full strength to fight in every corner of the world. The conflict challenged us, pushed us to our limit, and redefined our strength as a nation. The United States lost 416,800 of its finest heroes in World War II. While there are so many well known names that come to mind when reflecting on this conflict, we must never forget the uncommon names like Charles Berry. Without men like this, the world would have been a much different place.
27 individuals were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Corporal Charles J. Berry was one of those men. Berry served with the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, 5th Marine Division. On the night of March 3, 1945, Cpl. Berry was a part of a gun crew stationed in the front lines. Shortly after midnight, Japanese soldiers launched a surprise attack, attempting to overrun the American position. According to Berry’s Medal of Honor citation, “He engaged in a pitched hand grenade duel, returning the dangerous weapons with prompt and deadly accuracy.” During the fighting, a grenade directly landed in the foxhole that Berry and his comrades were in. Cpl. Berry immediately threw himself on top of the grenade to absorb the explosion. In sacrificing himself, Berry had saved the lives of his fellow Marines. When it came time to act, he selflessly gave his life for his country. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his undaunted courage and ultimate sacrifice.
Korean War: Corporal Joseph Vittori
Cpl. Joseph Vittori. (Photo: homeofheroes.com)
After World War II, the world faced another great danger in the form of Communism. Five years after victory had been declared against Germany and Japan, another conflict was brewing in Korea. North Korea was backed by Communist China and the Soviet Union when they invaded South Korea, which was supported by the United States. The war lasted from 1950 to 1953. It is estimated that over 30,000 Americans gave their lives in defense of South Korea.
Corporal. Joseph Vittori served in the conflict with the United States Marine Corps. During an assault on Hill 749, he volunteered to defend a machine gun position on the Northern part of the American line. His position was almost entirely isolated from the rest of his unit. During the battle, a 100-yard breach was made in the American Line. Vittori ran from flank-to-flank, firing on the rapidly advancing enemy. In the pitch black of night, he held off the enemy and manned the machine gun alone after its gunner had been killed. The enemy got to within 15 feet of Vittori’s position, which he held until being mortally wounded. When he was found the next morning there was over 200 dead enemy bodies around his position. He prevented the entire American battalion’s position from collapsing. Joseph Vittori was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic final stand.
Vietnam War: Captain Riley L. Pitts
Captain Riley Leroy Pitts. (Photo: Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)
Few wars in American history have ever caused as much controversy and public disagreement than the Vietnam War. Much like the Korean War, Vietnam was split between the Communist North, and the democratic South, which was backed by the United States. After years of sending military advisors to train South Vietnam’s military, the U.S. determined that it was necessary to commit its own forces to the conflict to ensure South Vietnam’s survival. While the war was unpopular in America, over three million of its citizens were deployed to Southeast Asia between 1964 and 1975. 58,220 of them lost their lives.
Captain Riley Leroy Pitts served in the United States Army during the war and became the first African-American commissioned officer to receive the Medal of Honor. On October 31, 1967, in Ap Dong, South Vietnam, Captain Pitts led his men in an assault against a strong enemy force. As his men pushed forward, they received fire from three directions, including four enemy bunkers. Pitts threw a grenade at one of the bunkers, but it hit foliage and rebounded back. Immediately recognizing the danger, Captain Pitts threw himself on top of the grenade to protect his men and absorb the blow. Thankfully, the grenade did not explode. After that incident, Pitts continued to lead his men forward while pinpointing the enemy’s fortified positions for friendly artillery to target. He was relentless in his duty until he was mortally wounded. Captain Pitts was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on December 10, 1968.
Operation Gothic Serpent: Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart
Sergeant First Class Randall David Shughart and Master Sergeant Gary Ivan Gordon. (Photo: GritFire.com)
In 1993, the United States initiated Operation Gothic Serpent in Mogadishu, Somalia. The purpose of this mission was to capture a vicious warlord named Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Aidid and other faction leaders plunged the impoverished and lawless nation into a desperate civil war. Famine was claiming the lives of scores of innocent people. American Forces hoped that they could help restore order.
On October 3, 1993, a U.S. task force of 19 aircraft, 12 veichles, and 160 men were sent to arrest Aidid and some of his top leaders. The American task force encountered heavy resistance during the mission. After hostile forces shot down two Black Hawk helicopters, the operation turned into a nightmare. Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart were part of a Delta Force sniper team that was providing aerial cover for American ground forces. Recognizing that friendly forces were unavailable to secure the second Black Hawk crash sight, Gordon and Shughart volunteered to be inserted by ground in order to help the critically wounded survivors. They requested to secure the crash sight three times until they were finally given permission. Once on the ground, Gordon and Shughart fought their way to the downed Blackhawk. Both men were able to extract Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant and other crewmembers from the aircraft before establishing a defensive perimeter. Large numbers of Somalia militiamen converged on the crash sight, hoping to either capture or kill the Americans. Outgunned, outnumbered, and alone, Gordon and Shughart fought of the attackers until they were killed. Specialops.org writes that, “Immediately after the battle, the Somalis counted at least 25 of their own men dead with many more severely wounded." Gordon and Shughart were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Battle of Mogadishu. At the time of the operation in 1993, they were the first Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.
Operation Iraqi Freedom: Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith
Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith. (Photo: en.wikipedia.org)
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and later, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq to take the fight to the enemy and fight terrorism on a global scale. These distant battlefields presented unique challenges that required special men like Paul Ray Smith to achieve victory.
Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith served in the 11th Engineer Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division in the United States Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom. On April 4, 2003, he was posted at a prisoner holding area by Baghdad International Airport. This position suddenly came under attack by a company-sized enemy force (Between 80-250 men). Smith instantly recognized the vulnerability of over 100 fellow soldiers and organized a defense of the area. While under fire, he personally engaged the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank-weapons. During the intense fighting, an armored personnel carrier was hit by a rocket propelled grenade and a mortar round. Sergeant First Class Smith ensured that the three soldiers inside the vehicle were safely evacuated. Smith feared that the enemy was in danger of overrunning his men and their position. He then exposed himself to heavy enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged APC. Smith unhesitatingly held his position against the advancing enemy until being mortally wounded. His final stand allowed for the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers and helped to repel the enemy attack. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on April 4, 2005.
Operation Inherent Resolve: Sergeant Joshua Rodgers and Sergeant Cameron Thomas
Sgt. Joshua Rodgers and Sgt. Cameron Thomas. (Photo: Heavy.com)
Operation Inherent Resolve is the U.S. military’s name for the war against the Islamic State. Many brave Americans have suddenly been committed to the fight against this incredibly dangerous enemy.
On April 27, 2017, Sergeant Joshua Rodgers of Bloomington, Illinois, and Sergeant Cameron Thomas of Kettering, Ohio, were killed in a night raid against an Islamic State compound in Afghanistan. Rodgers and Thomas were members of the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment. They were a part of a force that was composed of 50 Army Rangers and 40 Afghan commandos. The raid targeted Abdul Hasib, the head of ISIS’ Afghanistan Branch.
The assault force came under heavy fire moments after being inserted by helicopter into the area. The firefight lasted nearly three hours. According to ABC News, “Airstrikes from fixed-wing aircraft and Apache helicopters were called in to support the American and Afghan forces in the firefight.” After the fighting had ended, 35 ISIS fighters had been killed. The primary target, Abdul Hasib was among them.
Rodgers and Thomas were injured during combat, extracted, and later died of their wounds. Both men epitomized what it means to be an American. They were each serving their third deployments to Afghanistan at the time of their deaths. They were 22 and 23 years old respectively.
If you needed a line to remember each of these heroes by, they would be these two.
Sgt. Rodgers: “Joshua would go above and beyond for any of his friends and family members, before he would even hesitate to do something for himself.” - Brandon Reeves (Friend of Joshua Rodgers)
Sgt. Thomas: “He was always there to help everyone, and we knew him affectionately as ‘Captain America.’” - Tina Hohl (Friend of Cameron Thomas)
This Is To Remember
To all who have given their lives for our country, I always say this, they will live on forever in the form of our flag. The American flag is the ultimate symbol of sacrifice. This is why we must always cherish it so dearly. The American Spirt has done wonders in all ages. We must never forget those who gave life to that special spirit. Be proud of your country. Be proud of those who have written the pages of its history. Never take any of it for granted.