My perspective: The purpose of Memorial Day

  • Published
  • By Maj. Mary Teeter
  • 509th Maintenance Squadron commander
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was established in 1868 to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. 

On Memorial Day, we honor those who have given their lives for us. At 3 p.m., we pause for one minute to participate in the "National Moment of Remembrance" of the many who sacrificed (visit for more info.) 

We decorate the graves of the fallen with flags and flowers, and we fly the flag at half staff. 

We honor their memories by carrying out our daily duties, may they be in garrison or at war, in the same courageous fashion with which they faced every day. Certainly, the wing's performance in our recent operational readiness inspection would have made them proud. 

On Memorial Day every year, and on many others throughout the year, we honor them by listening to and retelling their stories. 

Take "The Greatest Generation," for example - they are leaving us every day by the thousands. 

Soon, so many will not be able to share their stories. We may not even know who they are, even if they are our eighbors. I want to share one such story with you on this Memorial Day, to honor a great man who is not with us any longer. 

Growing up, I'd always heard my grandmother talk of her neighbor and church friend, Les. And though I did not know Les when I entered the Air Force, she always let me know that he had been in the military and was very interested to hear of my service. 

I did not meet Les until I was in my early 30s and had been in the Air Force eight years. 

I was fortunate enough to live near my grandmother for a time, when I was stationed at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. When I was finally able to meet Les, he was very excited to meet me and hear of my service in the Air Force. 

But when I asked Les about his service, he shyly and humbly glossed over the details of his time in World War II. Not one to back down, I pressed him about the details. He was extremely humble, choosing to relate anecdotes and make light of the subject. 

But I would not be swayed from my purpose. I realized this man in his 80s had stories to tell, and I had an opportunity to hear history firsthand. 

So we set up a time where I would record his stories, in his own words and own voice, he could show all of his memorabilia, and his wife, my grandmother, and I would somehow try to understand all he had gone through. 

Les registered in the first military peace time draft Oct.16, 1940, and was drafted Feb. 27, 1941. 

At first an infantry scout, he said it was common practice to start out at dark and walk until noon the next day, covering two to three miles per hour. 

When Congress decided the draftees could be kept in service for 2.5 years, most of the morale went out of the troops. 

Many went AWOL, but all was forgiven when Pearl Harbor was attacked Dec. 7, 1941. In May 1942, he passed his test for Aviation Cadet School, and despite the infantry trying to send him to Alaska, he went to Santa Ana, Calif., for preflight training. 

He chose bombardier training after noticing that the washout rate for pilots was very high - 25 percent. 

In September 1942, he attended flight training at Midland, Texas, and graduated Dec. 17, 1942 as a second lieutenant bombardier.

Les' first assignment was to the 12th Anti-Submarine Squadron at Langley Field, Va. He flew convoy escort in B-18s near Cape Hatteras. 

With the weather as their main enemy, they saw only one German submarine and couldn't do anything but make it submerge. Les was also the navigator about one third of the 200 hours on sub-patrol. He flew his last patrol in July, and in September 1943 helped form the nucleus of the 492d Bomb Group in Blythe, Calif. 

Les became the group bombardier. After training on B-24 Liberators in 1943, Les and hissquadron began their trip overseas April 1, 1944. They flew the long way to their base in North Pickenham, England, 71.5 hours via northern Africa. 

Activated May 11, 1944, the 492d Bomb Group became part of 8th Air Force. 

They flew 66 missions from May 11 to Aug. 8, with 530 of the 725 personnel assigned to the group killed in action, 58 missing in action and 23 wounded. 

Les had flown nine missions. The 492d BG was demobilizing and Les and company joined the 44th BG at Shipham, England. 

The 44th BG did not receive Les, his fellow officers and enlisted well, and when his former commander of the 492d BG took over the 44th, things got worse. 

His commander was not well liked, and they were associates. Les' crew was a lead crew with a good record, despite often stepping in to take the assigned lead crew's missions at the last minute. 

The average life of a crew in the 8th Air Force was 15 missions. By Victory Europe Day, Les had 29 of the 30 missions required to complete his tour. 

His crew's stay in combat was longer than that of the average crew, and this fact was noticed by his commanding officer, Colonel Snavley. 

The day before his ill-fated mission, Colonel Snavley asked Les why they were still around. Les said, "We just didn't get a chance, and we were ready every time we were called on." 

Colonel Snavley was to be the command pilot in the lead aircraft for the 2d Division the next day. Les' crew was to be lead crew. 

Because the planes were already serviced and loaded, Les' crew did not take their own plane. The target was not disclosed until the briefing. The next day was a tough one, and it contained Les' most memorable mission. 

The next day was Jan. 16, 1945. The target was Dresden, Germany. 

Les describes the mission as follows. Once again, he glossed over the really tough parts, including returning to safety from behind enemy lines. 

When asked what he had to do to stay clear of the enemy and return to friendly territory, he merely replied: We did what we had to do to stay alive, failure wasn't an option. 

Flak knocked us out of formation and caught an engine on fire. The pilot wisely dove about 10,000 feet to put the fire out and stop the terrific vibration in number 2 engine. The prop froze flat, which caused drag. We were at 15,000 feet. 

The sky was clear and we could see from horizon to horizon. We were 600 miles from our base, all alone, and 400 miles from our lines. Soon we lost another engine, and it had to be feathered. 

With that, we threw out all the equipment we could, including guns and ammo, so we could stay airborne. 

Another engine went out, but we just let it windmill for what good it would do. It soon became apparent that our navigator had lost control of himself, so I took over the navigation chores. 

I knew Strasbourg had been taken by the Allies, so I thought that would be a good place to cross into our territory. While crossing the Rhine River, a German Ack-Ack shell went through our wing between number 3 engine and the fuselage. With that we lost our gasoline. A P-51 fighter had come up to check us out, and he went down to see whose territory we were over. But before he could report, we had to bail out. 

We were in the Alsace-Lorraine territory. We stayed a couple of days with the 95th Evacuation Hospital at Saarburg, France, before heading back to our base in England. 

Les was discharged after four years, 11 months and 22 days, in September 1945 at Fort Bliss, Texas. He was a captain. He was a member of the Caterpillar Club. He was awarded two campaign ribbons with seven battle stars, an Air Medal with five clusters, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Of his service, he said, "I still think I did more, saw more, and had more experiences during that time than all the rest of my life. Why I survived those odds, I often wonder. But I'll just have to wait until I get to heaven to find out." 

Les passed away in June 2003, less than one year after I recorded his story. 

They were my grandmother's lifelong friends and neighbors; God-fearing, deacons in their church; tremendous fathers and husbands; and, simply put, heroes. 

Not many understand the impact to all of us of those few short years: their courage, their service, and their sacrifice. Those of us who understand have a duty this Memorial Day. 

Our duty is to tell their stories and the stories of so many fading from our ranks, to honor their memory in doing so and to continue to live as they did, with courage, conviction, and honor. 

Enjoy your Memorial Day!