(Providence, Rhode Island) – I was thinking this Memorial Day weekend about famous people who have served this country in wartime, some of whom were killed in action. You’d be hard pressed to see famous athletes, musicians and actors serving their country in battle these days, but decades ago they had no hesitation. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:
“American Patrol” – Big Band leader Glenn Miller was one of the most famous Americans to die during World War II. He persisted in enlisting in the Army, after being rejected by the Navy. Miller was - by the early 1940s - a world-class musician, but thought his band-leading skills in the military would be inspiring to the troops. He rose to the rank of Major before his plane disappeared over the English Channel in December, 1944. Miller didn’t have to serve, but his patriotism demanded it. “American Patrol” was among his best known compositions.
"'Say Hey’ Service" – Willie Mays is arguably the greatest athlete ever to play the game of baseball. He was an All Star in 24 seasons, and with 660 career home runs, he ranks fifth on the all-time home run list. But how many more could he have hit, and might he be ranked number one? We’ll never know. In 1952, after his Rookie-of-the-Year season, Mays was drafted to serve in the Korean War. He missed most of that season and all of 1953. Aside from ranking 5th in home runs, he’s 11th among the all-time hit leaders. He came back from war for a stellar career, but one wonders where his stats would be had he not missed those two seasons. The always-classy Mays has never complained a peep!
“A ‘Pyle’ of Honors” – It is a rare occurrence when a reporter is honored and revered for his or her wartime coverage. Sometimes journalists must report truth that an honored military and the nation do not want to hear. That said, good reporting during war or any other time is a critical and sometimes painful attribute of a thriving democracy. Ernie Pyle was a World War I veteran who served as a civilian war correspondent in World War II. He was killed by enemy sniper fire in Japan in 1945, just four months before the war ended. Pyle was revered for his brutal, unvarnished war coverage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the longstanding respect of his nation and his professional colleagues.
“General ‘Wonderful Life’” – I confess, Jimmy Stewart is my favorite American actor. While “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Philadelphia Story” and “Harvey” get all the headlines, my favorite of his movies will always be “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Stewart was an accomplished private pilot years before World War II began. He was twice rejected for enlistment because of his age (mid 30s) and his low weight (140s). In any case, he was finally allowed in, but was used as an instructor pilot stateside, in part because of his Hollywood fame. He resented that, too, and argued for combat missions. He eventually flew dozens of them, including the bombing of Berlin. Following the war, Stewart remained in the Reserves, retiring with the rank of Major General. Now that’s an American patriot and hero!
“Modern Day Hero” – I believe Patrick Tillman is an authentic American hero. Tillman was a college football star, then a three-year NFL player with the Arizona Cardinals. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Tillman gave up a million-dollar pro football career to help his nation fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004 Tillman was killed – at first report, by enemy fire, but later confirmed to be by friendly fire. The Pentagon’s mishandling and lies about Tillman's death and the subsequent press coverage of it became a national embarrassment. Some felt it tainted Tillman’s legacy, which was wrong, wrong, wrong! He died defending his country and certainly had nothing to do with the gross distortion of the truth. The name "Pat Tillman" is synonymous with "Hero." End of story!
“The Kennedy Honors” – There are those who love the Kennedys and those who despise them. But, when called upon, they stepped up and served. Joseph Kennedy, Jr., was only 29 years old, but was already planning a political career laid out by his father. As the eldest child of Joseph Kennedy, Sr., he was eyeing a Congressional race to pave the way for an eventual White House run. Joe Kennedy, Jr., died when his Navy plane crashed in the English Channel in 1944. His brother John was nearly killed a year earlier in the Pacific Theatre, when his Navy PT-109 was cut in half during combat with the Japanese. John was elected President in 1960.
“Not Bush League” – Certainly the Republican equivalent of the Kennedys of that era is the Bush family. Prescott Bush became a Republican Senator from Connecticut. His son George H.W. Bush was a Navy pilot in World War II, who was shot down and left for dead in the Sea of Japan. The fact that John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush each narrowly escaped death in the Pacific and that each persevered to become President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States just amazes me.
“Hands on Approach” – Despite being a U.S. House member in 1941, Rep. Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) enlisted in the Navy and served in the South Pacific through 1942. Yes, he was a special envoy for President Roosevelt, but he was in combat situations assessing the war effort. Johnson could have passed, but didn’t.
“Why All of This Matters?” – Well, it matters; then again it doesn’t. My first point is that, in more idealistic generations, famous people didn’t hesitate to serve; and many did so honorably, even losing their lives. But, they garnered special attention just by virtue of their fame or stature. In truth, most military veterans – including those who die – are just ordinary people, doing extraordinary things. I dedicate this week’s column to Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua "Chachi" Corral, from my former hometown of Danville, California. I knew him from Little League baseball, where his dad and I were both coaches. He was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2011. No, his last name is not Kennedy, nor Bush, nor Stewart, nor Mays. But his service and his sacrifice were equal, if not greater, and must never be forgotten. God bless his family and those of other fallen heroes this weekend.
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