Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Veteran's Day

In recognition of Veteran's Day, I thought I'd run this post from last year:

National Review's Quin Hillyer reviews two books apropos for this Veteran's Day. One of the books, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, by Rorke Denver with Ellis Henican, describes the brutal training undergone by men who aspire to be SEALs. The second book, Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea, by William C. Latham recounts the many acts of courage and endurance demonstrated by American POWs in Korean prisoner of war camps in the early 1950s.

Hillyer discusses Denver's book first:
Where this book fully captivates is in its description of the process of creating a SEAL in the first place. We may know, intuitively, that the training (and winnowing-out process) is incredibly arduous, but the details still astound.

Despite Denver’s assurances that SEAL training stays just on the right side of “the fine line between tough and torture,” his descriptions of “the random acts of instructor violence” — “more random and more violent every day” — are enough to give pause to any reader. Forced swims in 52-degree Pacific surf, on next to no sleep after days of physical abuse, “sand and salt water in your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth,” followed by paddling sea races so intense that participants hallucinate: It’s enough to make one cringe just to think about them.

To read about this training, and then to read about the missions for which the training prepared the SEALs, is to understand that the warrior’s life is not one of video-game glamour but of grit and pain — pain borne, as Denver goes to great lengths to emphasize, by real human beings with real fears and real families.
Hillyer then turns to Latham's account of a different kind of heroism:
The privations suffered by many of the POWs matched some of the horrors of World War II’s Bataan Death March. In one particularly horrific incident, a Korean major nicknamed “the Tiger” summarily executed a lieutenant, Cordus H. Thornton, for the offense of having too many of his men “fall out” of a forced march because of severe exhaustion, grievous injuries, and rampant dysentery.

In one prison compound, “typhus, hepatitis, and pneumonia spread throughout the camp, and the doctors soon found themselves treating more than 350 cases a day, with very limited success.” Day after day, more would die, with one historian writing that “here were the bodies of America’s finest young men, covered with filth and lying in stacks in a hostile country.”

In the midst of these horrors, numerous incidents that Latham recounts involved heroic acts of mercy and courage: men carrying each other despite Korean (or Chinese) orders to abandon them; other prisoners sneaking around camp, at mortal peril if caught, to forage for extra food or medical supplies for the wounded. Chief among these heroes was a chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun, whose ministries to the sick and suffering, despite his own serious infirmities, went far beyond the ordinary call of duty.

Particularly riveting was Latham’s description of Easter Sunday 1951:
Kapaun openly defied Communist ideology by celebrating an ecumenical sunrise service in the ruins of a burned-out church. Holding a makeshift crucifix, Kapaun wore his priest’s stole, as well as the purple ribbon signifying his pastoral office, and recited the Stations of the Cross. Most of the men in the officers’ compound attended, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews and atheists. While the Chinese guards watched nervously, Kapaun ended the service by leading the men in song; “America the Beautiful” echoed from the surrounding mountains, still blanketed by snow. The officers sang at the top of their lungs, hoping the music would reach the other prisoners at Pyoktong.
Two months later, Kapaun was dead. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously last April.

In addition to these books I would add a favorite of my own, Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, written by Laura Hillenbrand. Zamperini was an Olympic distance runner who became a bomber pilot in WWII. His plane crashed into the Pacific during a mission and Hillenbrand recounts his absolutely astounding tale of human endurance and survival. He and another crewman were afloat for over forty days on a tiny life raft in the vast ocean only to be "rescued" by Japanese soldiers and sent to a POW camp on the mainland where he and thousands of others were held for years, all the while subjected to unimaginable deprivation and suffering.

As Hillyard says in his concluding sentence, on this special day each year we should thank God for putting such men and women in our midst.

P.S. Louie Zamperini passed away on July 2nd of this year. He was 97.