Washington — If the New York Times obituary page the other day is any indication, it is now a good time for readers with an appetite for history to start pursuing the obit pages regularly. The last great figures of a momentous era in American history are passing on. The last heroes of World War II are well into their seventies and eighties. The commanding figures, the officers and strategists of the war, died years ago. Now the men who, when young, won the decorations for valor are dying too.
On June 11, not one but two World War II winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor died, and the Times duly eulogized both on the same page. Two things struck me about the men: how ordinary they were and how much suffering they had endured on the battlefield.
To say that they were ordinary is not to slight them. Most people are ordinary, and still they are capable of amazing things, amazingly good things. Democracy depends on that truth, and has been vindicated by it. Jack C. Montgomery, who died in Muskogee, Oklahoma, at the age of 84, on one day, February 22, 1944, attacked three German positions alone, having ordered his platoon to remain behind a stone wall. When he was finished, his heroics had accounted for 11 dead Germans, 32 captured, and an unknown number of injured. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart with Cluster. After the war he apparently lived quietly the rest of his life in Oklahoma.
As he did not talk much about his combat exploits, he was known more for his modesty than for his heroism. He liked wildlife and fishing. As I say, he appears to have been an ordinary man. When asked about how he had won his medals, he said “I was just doing the job I was supposed to be doing.” I can remember other heroes expressing similar sentiments. For whatever reason, heroes do not rise to the heights of eloquence when asked about their moments of valor.
That somehow seems right to me. Poets and charlatans might wax eloquently when asked about a heroic event, but not many poets and no charlatans are being asked about a heroic event of their own. Possibly even a heroic poet would merely shrug when asked about his own moment of valor. Former senator Bob Kerrey is no poet but I do remember the ring of authenticity when he, himself a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, discussed his basic training. He was just out of college, in training for the SEALs, when in the middle of some hellish obstacle course he said to himself, “What am I doing here?” That sounds just right. Many ordinary people in such circumstances must say that to themselves, but then not many go on to win Congressional Medals of Honor.
The suffering they endure is not ordinary. Gino Merli, who also died on June 11, in Peckville, Pennsylvania, age 78, won the Congressional Medal of Honor for standing alone against 100 Germans on September 4, 1944. All his comrades had either been killed or retreated. With his assistant machine gunner dead at his side, Merli held off several German attacks firing 2000 rounds at the enemy. Late at night as the Germans advanced on him he crawled under his assistant’s corpse and pretended to be dead. Inquisitive Germans stuck four bayonets in Merli’s buttocks to see if he was dead. Merli uttered not a peep, and after the Germans passed he turned his machine gun on them again. On the battle field after he was relieved American forces found 52 German corpses, 19 directly in front of Merli’s gun. On two other occasions Merli was wounded. Montgomery also was wounded in battle, and ex-senator Kerrey’s wound was particularly grisly.
Today Kerrey is president of the New School in New York. Members of the faculty have grown very indignant for revelations that have come out about Vietnamese civilians who were killed by his troops during a jungle battle decades ago. The North Vietnamese are even calling him a war criminal. The North Vietnamese, of course, are simply playing politics, but what are we to make of the faculty members at the New School?
I would offer two thoughts. The profs do not have much historical imagination; and, though they doubtless see themselves as peerless humanitarians, they are not displaying much humanity. My mind turns to Merli. In Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation Merli said that on September 4, 1944, after he laid down his machine gun, he went to a nearby church. “I asked Sergeant Patinski if he wouldn’t mind if I went and prayed for the dead — our dead and their dead. No matter how bitter you were against the enemy, you still had the heart to pray for him. Because he was in the same boat as you and I.” That last line could have come from Montgomery or Kerrey or any ordinary American, but maybe not from a faculty member at the New School.
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