Memorial Day has a special meaning for me and the rest of my family. Below are the remarks I made at the American Legion Post 26 in Aiken four years ago on Monday, May 21, 2017:
Memorial Day and Historic Memory
On December 30, 1970, a small, single engine propeller-driven O-1 observation plane took off from the American air base at Long Tieng in northern Laos. The pilot was a thirty-year-old United States Air Force captain seconded to the Central Intelligence Agency in support of a “secret war” on the periphery of the larger conflict in Vietnam. The political situation in Laos itself was complex, almost Byzantine, but the immediate objective was support of the Hmong tribesman under Gen. Vang Pao who were fighting the communist Pathet Lao in and around the Plain of Jars.
The pilot had just turned thirty – a relatively old man in a young man’s war – and was weeks away from completing his tour. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s first graduating class of 1963. President Kennedy had traveled to Colorado Springs to address his class. After graduation, the pilot flew B-52 bombers for the Strategic Air Command, and then served for a year as a forward air controller in South Vietnam. The job was hazardous, flying in fragile, slow moving aircraft to spot enemy units, call in air strikes from the fast movers, and linger around long enough to assess the damage.
For his second tour, the pilot enlisted in the more dangerous Laotian project. Given that our country wasn’t officially involved in Laos, he and his fellow Americans flew out of uniform in civilian clothes – sometimes flamboyantly in Hawaiian shirts and cowboy hats. Capture would have been a death sentence. Known as “The Ravens,” these Americans helped the brave but primitive Hmong tribesmen endure annual offensives from the Soviet equipped Pathet Lao.
According to historian Christopher Robbins in his 1987 book “The Ravens,” the pilot was “indifferent to enemy fire and held the current record among his group for the most bullet holes in his O-1.” He had been fortunate thus far, but on December 30 he spotted enemy tanks and according to Robbins he “dropped low for a better look. A rapid-fire 14.5mm antiaircraft gun – deadly to a height of 4,500 feet – opened up at close range and nailed the engine.” The pilot survived the crash landing, though the Thai back seater evidently did not, and he found himself surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers. According to some accounts the pilot took some of the enemy down with him, but he was killed at the scene according to both a fellow Raven and a Skyraider pilot who braved the intense ground fire to fly over the scene.
That pilot, Cap. Park George Bunker, was my father. I was three at the time, and while I barely knew him and have but only fleeting memories of him, I know vividly what a loss it was to my mother and grandparents. My paternal grandfather suffered a near fatal heart attack soon after, and I grew up in the shadow of the family hero. And it would be a joyous reunion were he to come through that door and sit at that table – if only for a day, an hour, or even five minutes. But such wishes are not for this world.
Let’s fast forward a decade to May of 1981 in the leafy, idyllic small town of Homewood, Illinois. I grew up there close to both sets of grandparents. And on that Memorial Day weekend I marched with my junior high school band to the war memorial at the village green that featured a Second World War cannon – I think it was an antitank gun. And as we stood at attention on that sunny morning, the contingents of veterans marched past. The last group consisted of five elderly men – my town’s last surviving veterans of World War One, the so-called Great War. When the marching stopped and after the politicians spoke, it was silent save for the chirping birds. Then from seemingly out of nowhere, for the band director cunningly hid the trumpeters behind nearby buildings, a lone trumpet played taps while a second provided the echo.
Four years later I was again at the village green in Homewood, this time as a member of the high school band. Again the contingents marched. But this time I was struck by the fact that the number of Great War veterans had been more than halved from five to two. Never had I been so aware of the fragility of our living history. Time and mortality sap our historical consciousness, and heroes and events that we vow never to forget slip away like sand in an hour glass.
Today, over thirty years later, I read that the last Great War veteran to wear a uniform, Florence Green of the Women’s Royal Air Force, passed away in 2012 at the age of 110. We now see the Second World War generation dwindling away from its millions to mere hundreds of thousands. An 18-year-old soldier in 1945 is today 90 years old. Our Korean and Vietnam War veterans are following the same path as the years march on.
And what did these men fight for? It’s easy to talk about the glittering abstractions of “making the world safe for democracy” or “spreading democratic capitalism” or “preserving the four freedoms.”
But in the end, isn’t it about protecting us? Of ensuring that the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping around the globe don’t destroy what we’ve built here at home? In the end, it’s about defending our kith and kin, our homes and hearths, or – as the Romans might have put it – protecting the temples of our gods and the graves of our fathers.
Who will remember them? Why should we remember them?
These questions are critical. Not only are they critical questions for our warriors and their families, but also for the survival of our nation as we know it.
Many wonder whether the United States of America is a nation in any meaningful sense of the word. When we see the splits and antagonisms between an endless number of factions and interests, it’s tempting to see us as warring tribes instead of “One nation, under God, indivisible.” Yet much still binds us together despite the fraying at the edges. If we can preserve a common tongue, a common culture, and – most importantly – a common history, then we will still be a nation.
The late Samuel Huntington powerfully wrote that, “A nation … is an imagined community, but it is more specifically a remembered community … and it is defined by its historical memory of itself. No nation exists in the absence of a national history, enshrining in the minds of its people common memories of their travails and triumphs, heroes and villains, enemies and wars, defeats and victories.”
Remembrance – of both our heroes and our history – is central to the survival of our nation. Memorial Day is more than a commemoration of the past. This holiday is far more than a day off or an excuse to hold a picnic or a sale. Instead, it reminds us of the great, mysterious chain of being that holds our civilization and our nation together. It reminds us, as Edmund Burke once wrote, that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”
This act of remembrance, then, is more than looking back towards the past. It is also the act of looking forward into the future. When we remember where we’ve been; when we remember the heroism of our fathers, sons, brothers, neighbors, and friends; when we remember the brave actions of our soldiers who bought us our freedom with their blood; when we remember who we are and who our enemies are and why we fight; then we can face the future as one people – confident and united.
The future is a dark and unknown path. Our only lights are the lamps of experience and remembrance. Let us dedicate ourselves to keeping this flame alive. If we refuse to forget, and if we ensure that our children and grandchildren don’t forget, then the sacrifices of those who trod the difficult path will not have been in vain. Memory is an active, not a passive undertaking. Let not their memories become mere names on fading plaques covered by moss.
Those we commemorate on Memorial Day deserve to be remembered, their lives and contributions passed on to the rising generation. Let those who have fallen or passed away be praised for their great deeds. Let them live forever in our hearts. Let those who served and are with us today be role models for those yet to serve. And let those who will serve, those who will carry the torch of freedom into the future, face the unknown with courage and fortitude.
May God bless our heroes, their families, and those who honor their blessed memories.