Listening to ghosts of wars past

Posted May 22, 2009, at 7:29 p.m.

“My old man was in World War II. His stories are the same old bull,” a character in author Jack Fuller’s Vietnam War novel, “Fragments” tells a friend. The friend replies, “Maybe you ought to listen to them. Maybe he’s still got something on his mind.”

Maybe, indeed.

I thought of that exchange on Thursday as I visited several local cemeteries that workers were gussying up for Memorial Day weekend. I went in search of veterans’ graves, each one proudly marked by a miniature American flag flapping in a strong breeze on a patented picture-perfect blue-sky Aroostook County day.

As I read the epitaphs, it struck me that had I been able to communicate with these ghosts from wars past they — like Fuller’s fictional war veteran — might still have something on their minds regarding the folly of war; something well worth my time to hear.

At Webster Cemetery just up the road, I found the grave of Civil War veteran Charles Stetson, who served in Company E of the 15th Maine Infantry Regiment. History records that the 15th Maine, organized in Augusta in 1861, moved to Portland in 1862 before embarking for Ship Island, Miss.

Attached to the New Orleans Expeditionary Corps, it saw service in the Gulf Coast states early in the war, before moving northward for operations in the Shenandoah Valley and other locations. At one point it was temporarily attached to the 13th Maine at Harper’s Ferry.

The regiment lost only five enlisted men killed in action or mortally wounded, but lost three officers and 340 enlisted men to disease.

At the Catholic cemetery I paused at a marker for Sgt. Dolphis M. Daigle, a World War II Army medic killed in action in Belgium in 1944, while barely old enough to vote. I remember how hard the news of his death and those of too many other brave young men from our little town hit the home front in that epic war. Surely Sgt. Daigle’s take on the Battle of the Bulge, arguably the greatest battle fought by the United States Army, would have commanded our attention.

At a third cemetery, the inscription on the gravestone of PFC Stanley J. Kenneson, an Army grunt who served with Company F of the 135th Infantry, indicates he was killed in action in the North African campaign in February 1944.

In the words of famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, PFC Kenneson, like most of his fellow soldiers, probably would have admitted to being “scared stiff” as he headed into battle. The men manifested that fright “largely by just looking pitifully at each other and edging close together to have company in misery,” Pyle wrote in a dispatch from North Africa.

But they soldiered on, nonetheless, like others before and others since, their perseverance in the face of adversity becoming part of the national lore that inspires us each Memorial Day.

“The day is done,” Maine’s own Gen. Joshua Chamberlain declared in a Memorial Day address before fellow Civil War veterans in 1898. “Now this little hour draws us near; a lessening band, for one more greeting and farewell. You, my comrades, have called to vision again the days that tested manhood, and the forms of those who stood with you and gave their lives for something they held more dear…”

On this Memorial Day weekend, when the number of young Americans killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars nears 5,000, and when the newspaper obituary pages confirm that the ranks of veterans of preceding wars are growing noticeably thinner with each passing day, the “lessening band” is on a nation’s mind.

“The soil of Arlington and other sites is filled with liberty’s defenders and is nourished by their heroism. It is watered by the silent tears of the mothers and fathers, and husbands and wives, and sons and daughters they left behind,” President George W. Bush said in his final Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery last year. Barack Obama, yet to make his first Memorial Day address as president, will undoubtedly express similar thoughts.

“Though lost to sight, to memory dear” is engraved on the headstone of Charles Stetson of the 15th Maine, presumably the promise of his wife, Harriet, who buried her husband in 1873. The sentiment seems apt, as well, for a nation paying Memorial Day tribute to liberty’s defenders 136 years later.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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