My family have fought in most of America's wars, from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. My great-grandfather fought in both World War I and World War II, lying both times about his age to enlist. My father carried his .38 revolver on helicopters throughout Vietnam. There were many others through the years, and they all returned safely from service save one: my great-uncle Robert E. Flynn, whose last known whereabouts was somewhere along the Bataan Death March.
Robert Flynn enlisted in the Army in 1941. He had been slated to attend the University of Notre Dame, like his brother, my grandfather. My father jokes that Robert chose the army instead to "get away from my grandfather." The family was greatly relieved, though, when he was deployed to the Philippines, as any threat of war at the time was focused on Europe. Obviously, everything changed on December 7th that year.
Nobody in my family ever saw him again. They did, however, receive two letters from him while he was on what became known as the Bataan Death March.
It is hard for me to even fathom how one gets letters smuggled out of that march. My family's assumption is that somehow he interacted with a sympathetic local or bribed someone to get them out. Every account I've ever read of the march reads like a realization of hell on earth. They were starved. They were shot or bayoneted if they lost their pace. A large number never survived. And yet, my great uncle marched, seemingly with hope, exerting every effort to communicate with his family that he was alive and well.
Where does the strength come from to do that? When pushed to the very brink of survival, how does one think, I must let them know? I must chronicle what is happening.
Heroism is far different than we think it is as kids. We imagine manning the battlements or pouring in to fill a breach in the line. We think of men, single-handedly turning the course of a battle through their own exertions. That is not it at all.
Heroism is simply a refusal to give up. It's a will to persevere against all odds, no matter how bleak the landscape. My great-uncle is just a man. But, to me, he typifies the kind of person who, over the years, has answered our nation's call to defend liberty. Sometimes, the greatest defense of liberty is just to not give up. To see it through until the last breath has left us.
General Patton said, "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived."
I thank God my great-uncle lived. He is but one of a long line of men who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to keep us free. I don't know where or how my great-uncle died. But I know how he lived, and that is the greatest lesson of the greatest of our national holidays, Memorial Day.