MACHIAS, Maine — We drive by a cemetery in May and there are all the little American flags, each standing with miniature dignity at the grave of an American veteran.
We watch a Veterans Day parade and solemnly clap for a group of aging soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who served in America’s wars.
But what of the stories behind these heroes’ ribbons and medals? Who are these men and women, and what were their experiences?
“It is so important to remember,” Robert P. Coles, 85, of Machias said recently. “If you don’t remember your heritage, you are adrift.”
Coles was playing cribbage at the American Legion Post 9 in Machias recently, talking about his service. He is a rarity today — a Pearl Harbor survivor.
Coles participated in 17 battles in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor to Okinawa, from the Coral Sea to Midway. He was 17 years old when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I’m not a warrior,” he said. “I’m a serviceman. We served. If we don’t remember that, we’re going to go through it all over again.”
Norman Dineen of Calais is full of war stories — tales of his five brothers and his father, Daniel T. Dineen, all of whom served in the Navy and the Air Force.
Dineen has been placing plaques in Calais’ Veterans Park to honor his family and he’s worried that no one will remember the story behind those markers.
“My dad was on a ship in the Pacific when it was hit by a kamikaze raid,” Dineen said. “Of 39 men on the boat, only nine survived.”
Dineen said he was 10 years old when his father came home from the war.
“He and the other vets talked,” Dineen said, “and I remembered the stories.”
“It is so important to remember anyone who put on a uniform,” he said. “They served. They served this nation and a lot don’t come back.
“Up here in the Calais cemetery, there is Dick Groves’ brother Steven who was shot down at the Battle of Midway. Next to him is his brother Lawrence who spent four years in the hospital after he was shot up at the Battle of the Bulge,” Dineen said. “And then there was Doc. Everyone in town knew that Malcolm ‘Doc’ Foster survived the Bataan death march.”
And he added, “Our freedoms were purchased at a very hard price.”
Robert Coles recalls every detail of Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941. He was an ordinary seaman acting as a lookout on the USS Bagley.
“I had just left the mess hall and was chewing my toast when I looked up and saw the aircraft coming in with a big red circle,” he said.
At first Coles thought it was maneuvers, but when he saw and heard the explosions, he knew the U.S. fleet was under attack.
“I turned and ran to the Number Two 50-caliber machine gun and broke the padlock off the ammo locker with a wrench,” he said. Coles had never had training on the big gun but managed to load it and shoot and hit the first two torpedo planes.
During a break between the first and second waves of the attack, Coles stood on the deck as a lookout.
“We were steaming out to sea and Chief Gunner’s Mate Skinner told me the whole Japanese fleet was out there. The only thing that held me up from falling down was that my pants got caught on the door handle.”
Coles said, “I know what I did. I did the best I could. But this isn’t about my service. I’m insignificant.”
Coles said it’s important to remember, as we still fight wars today, that the country is divided.
“Is it right? Is it wrong? Our job is to simply serve,” he said.
“War is the most terrible thing humankind can do,” Coles said. “War is killing people to change their minds and stop the fighting. The more often a nation wages war to a stalemate, the easier it becomes for that nation to accept defeat. That is what we have been doing since World War II — taking defeat. We have to remember our heritage.”
Coles said that on this year’s Veterans Day it is important to remember the military’s wives, mothers and sweethearts.
“They have a harder time, wondering, ‘Where is my Charlie and is he alright tonight?’
“We must remember, remember and say, ‘Thank you for saving my freedoms.’”