KENT WARD

Memorial Day a time to be grateful

Posted May 25, 2012, at 3:43 p.m.

Like thousands of young American men eager to see action in World War II, Maurice Phair of Limestone enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in May 1941 because the United States had not yet entered the war.

After the United States declared war on the Axis powers later that year, Phair’s cousin, John Phair — who was just shy of his 18th birthday when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — quit high school to enlist in the Navy.

On a cold winter night in January 1942, a heavily loaded four-engine Lancaster bomber bound on a mission over Essen, Germany, carrying a crew of Canadian and British airmen with pilot Maurice Phair at the controls took off from an airbase in England and never returned.

It was Phair’s 18th mission over Europe. Just 24 years old, he was Limestone’s first casualty of the war — one of the two men for whom the town’s Obar-Phair American Legion post was named.

Seven months later, in August 1942, John Phair — a crew member on a reconnaissance plane stationed aboard the aircraft carrier Wasp in the South Pacific — was lost at sea when his plane failed to return from a scouting mission in search of Japanese warships. The Wasp was later sunk, with a huge loss of American lives.

The deaths of the Phair relatives cast a pall over their hometown, as did the deaths of other warriors in other hometowns throughout the nation, in staggering numbers.

In Maine, as in other states during those dark days, young men in record numbers and a good number of women, as well, enlisted in the armed forces. Uncle Sam needed them in this time of peril, the recruitment posters shouted, and the volunteers turned out in force. No less patriotic were the many more who were drafted into service for the duration of the war.

As the young people left home to begin their military training, their families prepared themselves for the day when a dreaded telegram from the War Department might arrive, informing them that their loved ones had been killed, wounded or captured and made prisoners of war. “The War Department regrets to inform you …’’ the telegram would begin, and life for those affected would never be the same.

Small flags featuring a blue star for each member of a family serving in the armed forces were proudly displayed in windows of homes throughout the nation. When a flag bore a gold star indicating that a native son had been killed in action, the entire community grieved for the Gold Star Mother’s loss. Suddenly, the war didn’t seem so far away.

Those who have rallied around the flag in a burst of patriotic fervor whenever the nation has issued a call to arms have always been a diverse lot, as befits this melting pot called America. From the heartland and the corners of the country they have come — small-town residents and urban dwellers alike, representing all occupations and ethnic groups, rich and poor, optimist and pessimist, liberal and conservative or middle of the road. Marching to the beat of a new drummer in their lives, they accomplished great things on behalf of freedom.

At Memorial Day observances across the country on this long holiday weekend, a grateful nation will once again pay its respects to the servicemen and women of all the nation’s armed conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the present 10-year war in Afghanistan.

To visit cemeteries spiffed up for the occasion is to be impressed by the sea of crisp new miniature American flags marking the graves of military veterans gone to their heavenly reward. The flags grow more numerous with each passing year, as aging veterans pass on.

I came away from one such visit this week mindful of the words of legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, beloved by the troops who fought and won World War II.

“We have won this war because our men are brave, and because of many other things — because of Russia, and England, and the passage of time, and the gift of nature’s materials,’’ Pyle wrote of victory in Europe that came in May 1945. “We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud. I hope we can rejoice in victory, but humbly. The dead men would not want us to gloat …’’

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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