Typically, and understandably, the bond between mother and son is very close.
The gift of life and nurturing comfort given to a child by a loving mother is never forgotten by a grateful son—especially one still lucid as he takes his last breath on a battlefield.
This bond is not necessarily a product of nationality or culture. Battlefield witnesses have attested to its existence in various conflicts as the last cogent thought uttered by a young dying warrior.
Mother’s Day is perhaps an appropriate time to recognize this bond. While sad to do so, it is a most telling tribute to a son’s love for a mother.
In her book Year of the Comets, Jan Deblieu shares a conversation she had with her husband, Jeff, depressed as his mother lay dying of cancer:
’I heard somewhere,’ Jeff said, ‘that soldiers dying on the battlefield cry out for their mothers. People walking through the carnage at Normandy heard grown men calling out ‘Mommy!’ He shook his head. ‘Calling not for their girlfriends or wives, but for their mothers.’
Decades later, Normandy survivors attest to still hearing such cries. As emotional D-Day veteran Frank Devito noted in a 2014 interview with Tom Brokaw commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, “You know there’s a fallacy people think that when a man is dying. They don’t ask for God. The last word they say before they die is ‘Momma.’”
There is a tendency by those who have never known combat to dismiss stories of this bond as fantasy. But numerous battlefield testimonials from wars past and present tell us otherwise.
The last survivor of World War I, Harry Patch, who died in 2009 at the age of 111, bore witness to the bond.
A website dedicated to the British soldier notes:
[Patch] recalled, with a sense of guilt, crawling across no-man’s land with the wounded crying out in agony all around him and just passing them by…He remembered coming across a still-living shattered bleeding wreck of a man who begged Patch to shoot him, but in the time of Patch’s indecision the man uttered the cry ‘Mother!’ and died.
Robert Serafin—a U.S. Army corpsman assigned to a mobile field hospital—landed in France in February 1945. He supported the U.S. 1st Army’s advance deep into Germany.
Serafin had vivid memories of the pain and suffering the wounded endured. He recalled one young soldier, for whom little more could be done than offering morphine, who cried out for his mother.
Serving in Vietnam as well, Serafin found there, too, “as soon as a guy would be in bad shape, he’d always ask for his mother. Whenever I heard that, it killed me inside.”
A young warrior’s dying battlefield cry for a mother he will never again see knows no cultural boundaries.
In 2014, Ukrainian surgeon Oleksandr Zeleniuk tended to the wounded on a Crimean battlefield. Twelve soldiers died on his operating table. “We struggled for their lives,” he said, “but death won. When soldiers are dying, they all say the same thing: they call for their mother…”
An amazing testimonial to the strength of the mother-son bond is forged into the steel of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial outside of Washington, D.C.
The inspiration for this memorial came from Joseph Rosenthal’s famous photograph of six Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II.
A heartfelt story about one of those Marines and his mother is told by James Bradley in Flags of Our Fathers.
His book shares the individual stories of each of the six Marines—of which Bradley’s father was one.
When the photograph first appeared in U.S. newspapers, Bradley tells us, the six were not identified.
The mother, Belle, of one Marine, Harlon Block, took a look at the photograph and exclaimed, “That’s Harlon.” Harlon’s younger brother chided his mother as the photograph was taken from behind the flag-raisers so faces were not visible.
A few days later the photograph was re-published, this time with names. But Harlon’s was not among them. Belle remained adamant—the Marine on the far right was most definitely her son.
Only days after the photograph was taken, three of the six—including Harlon—were dead.
After the war, one of the three remaining survivors, Ira Hayes, visited Belle to inform her an identification error had been made—it was her son in the photograph. The official record was corrected to reflect what a loving mother knew all along.
When asked how she was so confident it was her son in the photograph since his face was not visible, Belle commented she had changed his backside as a baby so many times she knew Harlon’s when she saw it!
With such stories attesting to the bond between mother and son and with all the battlefields of all the wars humanity has fought, one wonders how many cries of a dying warrior son for his mother have gone unheard.
While sad, it is a beautiful tribute to the mother-son bond that the last thought of the latter is for the former. In the throes of death, the son cries out for the mother who not only gave him life but nurtured and comforted him before he answered his country’s call to arms.
It is beautiful, but also merciful the mother is not there to witness it.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.