Too many of us take for granted or have all but forgotten the effect American soldiers, sailors and Marines had on a generation of people around the world—who are now declining in numbers. Just look at Jefferson Barracks, and
But I've had few poignant encounters over the past 15 years in my travels, that taught me lessons about what Americans in uniform can mean.
A week after September 11, 2001, my wife and I are on a train travelling through central Germany. At a stop, a well-dressed Dutchman, who we later learned was 71 years old, joined us in the compartment. When he learned we were Americans, he excused himself and left.
But he returned in 10 minutes, and handed us two cold Cokes and an English language newspaper he'd purchased in the dining car. Then, he sat down and explained why.
He was 11 years old when Nazis invaded Holland. For five years, his family was forced to live a harsh life and nearly starved, before they were liberated in 1945 by paratroopers of the U.S. 101st Airborne. After pushing the Nazis out of Holland, the Americans left and Canadian soldiers followed. They provided food and medical care to Holland until the end of the war.
The man said that any time he sees an American or Canadian, he tries to repay the debt he and his family feel they owe to the solders, by offering something as a gesture of thanks.
American and Canadian soldiers had such an impact on the young man that 56 years later he was in some small way still trying to repay Americans for his freedom.
Another time, on an Autumn vacation to Europe, my wife and I found ourselves in Basel, Switzerland. It was 8:30 on a rainy night and we were trying to read a map to find a restaurant near a river. We were fooling with the map under a streetlight in front of a row of 400-year-old buildings.
A woman driving a sleek Mercedes pulled to the curb and asked if she could help us. The elegant woman, with a thick French accent, was in her early 60s. After finding we were Americans, she told us to wait right there. She drove off. Five minutes later, she opened the door in the building behind us. She invited us in.
We walked into an amazing house that was built in 1590, and was furnished with what we consider museum pieces here in the United States. Our hostess told us we shouldn’t go to the restaurant we were searching for—it just wouldn't do. She picked up the phone and reserved a table for us at another restaurant—she insisted we go there. After giving us directions, we thanked her. Then, she told us she was still thanking Americans for freeing France in World War II.
Finally, there is the saga of Duck Lee. In 1998 I lived in the Washington, D.C. area. I had a job as a sportswriter covering college sports and minor league baseball. Duck Lee was a pitching coach for a local college baseball team.
I asked Duck Lee one day about his uniform number, 63. It was his age. He then sat down, and explained why it was important that he put his age on his uniform.
Duck was Korean and born in Manchuria, China about 1935. The Korean colony there was later occupied by invading Japanese troops. Near the end of World War II, he escaped from China, traveling at night on a frozen river and eventually reaching Seoul, Korea.
His father went on to prosper as a government official in Seoul, and Duck dreamed of playing American baseball in high school. But by his freshman year of high school, North Korean soldiers had overrun Seoul, and Duck’s family went into hiding.
After U.S. troops retook Seoul in the Korean Conflict, Duck started hanging around a Marine rifle company. For several months, he used his two years of grammar school English to serve as an unofficial interpreter for the Marines.
But he never got to play high school baseball.
“War to many Americans means something that happened far away. To me war means something that swept through my town, my school and my home. It killed all sports, not just baseball,” Lee told me.
Lee eventually came to the U.S. for college. He tried out for the baseball team but didn't make the varsity squad until his senior year, as a relief pitcher. He stayed here in the U.S., and retired from Bell Atlantic in 1995.
After his retirement, Duck coached baseball. Amazingly, he had stayed in contact with some of the Marines who befriended him as a teenager in Korea.
“I vowed I would not allow the Communists to steal baseball from me, and I thank the American soldiers and Marines who allowed me to eventually play and now coach,” said Lee.
He said his age on his jersey served to remind him of that vow he made as a teenager.
These three encounters remind me of the role Americans played 65 and 70 years ago today, and what those sacrifices mean to people from around the world.
Author's note: This Memorial Day column appeared in Chesterfield Patch, before. I've realized I am not going to do any better than this, on this important day.