Editor’s note: John McClaughry gave the following Memorial Day address in St. Johnsbury.
Thank you, Commander O’Brien for that introduction, and thank you as well to my fellow Legionnaires of Post 58 who have for many years organized these Memorial Day observances here in St. Johnsbury.
Some years ago, on the eve of another Memorial Day, I came home late to my home on Kirby Mountain. It was a clear and moonless night, and the heavens were aglow with the light of a million stars. I walked up into my upper field and began to trace out the constellations.
There in the bowl of the heavens I saw the Big Dipper and the Lyre. Mars and Saturn shone brightly to the south. And from there my eye moved across the eastern sky, to Cygnus the Swan, also known to us as the Northern Cross.
As I stood there in the field, my thoughts paused on that celestial cross. In my mind’s eye each star in the heavens became a cross, marking where an American fell in the service of our country.
We come together once again on this Memorial Day to honor all those who answered our country’s call, over nearly 250 years, to leave home and family, and stand and serve in its defense.
We especially honor those who lie beneath row upon row of small white crosses, and stars of David, in cemeteries across the face of the globe. And we honor too those whose remains never came home to us, their bones washed by the currents of the Coral Sea, entombed in the mighty Arizona now lying peacefully at Pearl Harbor, unrecovered from battlefields from Saratoga to Bastogne, Pleiku to Fallujah. They are gone, but not forgotten. We remember their smiles, their laughter, their resolution, their courage, their patriotism. All of us, young and old, should remember what they went forth to do. They went forth not as the pawns of tyrants, not to conquer or enslave, but to defend this country and the cause of human freedom in the world.
They sought not to plunder and pillage, not to despoil and loot, not to do the bidding of some pompous monarch, but to defend their homes and families — to strike down bloody tyranny — and to restore the peaceful light of liberty, justice and human happiness.
As I look over the faces here in St. Johnsbury, I see among them some who went forth to serve, and many who anxiously awaited their return. And I see in many faces, a reflection of the courage and patriotism of their brothers and fathers and sons and daughters who served, so that the America we love can stand tall and proud, its promise undimmed, its ideals unpolluted, the stars and stripes of its flag floating proud and free in the gentle winds of the heavens.
Their faces are those of the heroes of our past. They are the faces of the men who set off with Seth Warner and the Green Mountain Boys to smash the Hessians on the field of Bennington, in the name of American independence. They are the men who wintered with Washington at Valley Forge, and stormed the last redoubt at Yorktown. They are the men who braved Spanish steel to raise the stars and stripes over the halls of Montezuma. They are the men who met their fellow Americans on a hundred fields of our nation’s most tragic war, and shed their blood for human freedom and preservation of the Union at Vicksburg and Shiloh, Antietam and Cedar Creek, Bull Run and Fort Wagner. They are the men who sailed with Vermont’s own Admiral Dewey to Manila Bay, and fought their way through the hell of Belleau Wood. They are the men who rose in righteous anger at the terrible news on that day of infamy — December 7, 1941. They hit the beach at Anzio and Normandy and Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, flew through deadly flak to destroy Hitler’s oil refineries, sank the great Musashi in the Sibuyan Sea, raced across France with Patton, and stood in the shadow of the Missouri’s 16 inch guns as the world’s greatest war came to a close. They are the men who stormed the sea wall at Inchon, who walked point down the perilous trails of Viet Nam, whose valor at Khe Sanh and the Ia Drang and a hundred other jungle battles wrote yet another courageous chapter in the history of American arms. They are the men who lifted the yoke of Communist oppression from the people of Grenada, humbled a tyrant’s army in the desert of Iraq, and brought sudden and lethal American justice to Osama bin Laden.
At the end of World War I, Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote a few simple but moving lines in memory of his comrades who fell in Belgium. His poem “In Flanders Fields” concludes with these lines:
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
From all those who fought and fell in two centuries and more of war, the torch has been passed to us. The firm voice of our honored dead echoes down to us through the ages. It reminds us that each rising generation, like theirs, must be prepared to give its blood, if need be, to protect the liberty of the people of these United States.
Let us be clear about the faith we must not break. It is faith in what America stands for — faith in freedom, faith in the right, faith in democracy, faith in ourselves as a people, faith in the God who has sustained us in our darkest hours. That is the faith that has preserved the America we love, the faith that has made our country the freest, strongest, republic the earth has ever known.
Let us resolve, each of us, to choose leaders who honor that memory, leaders of character and integrity, leaders who can, with courage, and vision, lead all the peoples of the world on into a new century where the bloody wars of the past are no more.
In doing so we, the living, can pay the last full tribute to our honored dead. And in so doing we, the living, can make our contribution to assuring the peace and prosperity and liberty and happiness of countless millions yet unborn.