Sometimes on one of those late spring days when Memorial Day comes, you can almost see them, marching, marching onward, the legion of the forgotten dead. In the soft stillness and solitude of a country graveyard in the evening hush, occasionally you can hear the muffled beat of a drum as the endless ranks of that forgotten legion slip by, file after file, in ghostly procession never ending.
They materialize, these war dead whom we honor on Memorial Day, somehow, when the eye wanders idly across old grave markers to halt at a small obelisk with worn carvings making the words almost indecipherable: Died at Andersonville, Dec. 13, 1864. A rusted metal emblem droops over the ground. Once shiny and new, it then bore proudly the inscription of the Grand Army of the Republic. Once flowers were strewn upon it to honor this grave of a lad of 18 who marched so proudly away to war in 1863, and died so miserably in a Georgia prison camp just before Christmas.
And now he keeps step with his comrades, forever, as the legion of the forgotten dead marches by.
Hear the whispered cadence. On they come.
The ranks are silent now. Those ragged fellows there at the front were at Valley Forge. See their bloody, bare feet, which left such grim footprints in the howling Pennsylvania snow. They died for freedom. And they march past.
Dirty gray coats, butternut trousers, mingle now with uniforms of blue in the still columns filing past. The passions which set men from north and south at each other’s throats are erased now by the chill of death. All are still, now. Little remembered are Antietam, Shiloh, obscure place names made immortal because of the bravery of valiant opponents who died there, convinced that theirs was the only right. They step silently along, slouching, yet moving with deceptive swiftness. They march eternally for they are the forgotten legion of the dead.
Others move up. Quiet now; listen. Isn’t that the chorus of “Over There,” so soft you can barely hear the words that “The Yanks Are Coming. The Yanks Are Coming!” Seems you can hear them singing it softly as they step along … And we won’t be back ’til it’s over, over there. These came back, in metal boxes.
Somehow it makes the march seem shorter if the men can sing. Any military man knows that, and so we hear the faint chorus as they move by with their round helmets and brown puttees, the wide-eyed innocence with which they approached the grim tasks of war erased by the stark reality of the Argonne and Soissons.
Then, in a more sentimental age, a buddy never was killed in Flanders mud, young life cut short by an impersonal artillery shell flung into the air from miles distant. He had gone West or bought the farm. But no matter what the term employed, they did die, did American men by the thousands, in France to make the world safe for democracy. And so the silent ranks of the legion of the forgotten dead were swollen with those who march forever in World War I garb of drab khaki.
The next uniforms seem more familiar. Isn’t that a flight jacket? And those men aren’t keeping in step … Oh, that explains it. Army Air Corps. They should have flown by, but in the legion of the forgotten dead, all must walk in ghostly procession in their final encampment. Other place names recognized: Ploesti, Schweinfurt, Regensburg.
Red walks by, an apparition. Who now recalls a tiny Italian town named Roverto up there in the Brenner Pass, or remembers a boy named Red crouched in the waist of a B-25?
What ghastly remembrance of things past is this which intrudes on a happy, carefree holiday, with picnics and ball games? Why think now about Red with body crumpled and his head sliced off from a burst of flak from a German 88 far below? Red’s mother put a little gold star in the front window of her home, a little Pennsylvania town, and on Memorial Day the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars put a flag and flowers on his grave. Is this remembrance? Red marches on with the legion, the legion of the forgotten dead. With him in awesome numbers are the sailors from Pearl Harbor and Okinawa and all the vast expanse of the seas where death came so swiftly; with him the GIs whose blood made the cold gray ocean on the beach called Omaha dull, rusty red; who fell in Italy and France and Germany and nameless islands in the Pacific.
They trudge along so quietly now; the Marines who died on the sands of Iwo Jima and in the caves on Okinawa. There are many of them, so very, very, many … see them march by. Finally they pass. No such euphemism as going West for these. Their comrades said simply: They got it.
Red got it. All these got it. They are the legion of the forgotten dead. They are the reason the Stars and Stripes flies instead of a Nazi emblem or the Rising Sun over the Capitol.
Here come others along. The numbers of the silent marchers are fewer now. There’s a group of Marines dragging sleds loaded with comrades, frozen, grotesque caricatures of men lashed in layers.
They fell in Korea at a place called Chosin Reservoir, and the Marines vowed to fight their way out and take their dead with them.
They did, and now they pull those sleds along in the ranks of the forgotten legion forever. There are GIs in the group from Pork Chop Hill and Pusan; those whose families received the ominous telegrams with the introduction: The War Department regrets to inform you …
On they march. They’re almost past, now. This last group of marchers is looking off to one side, as if they’re unsure of their reception. Hear the whispers from the Navy pilots and Marines and GIs of Vietnam.
They’re by, now, finally, all of them. And the legion of the forgotten dead has disappeared once more, shrouded in the mist of antiquity.
The backbone of every American should stiffen in salute this day to the legion of the war dead of our country; that forgotten army whose sacrifices mean that we live in freedom.
Is it too much to ask to remember them, honor them, on this one day, this legion of the forgotten dead, who have died for America and thus for you and me?
March on, brave legions. For some remember, and solemnly resolve: Your march for freedom has not been in vain.
Adam Kelly (1924-1990) wrote The Country Editor column for The Intelligencer, Wheeling, W.Va.