Keeping the memory in Memorial Day

Sometimes time travel is possible, in a way, and the results can be bittersweet. When my father first visited our new home in Baton Rouge two years ago, during Memorial Day week, we spent a morning in 1945.

His military career, as for many young men who came of age after Pearl Harbor, started abruptly. Along with practically every other male in his high school class, he volunteered for the armed services. Some friends went into the Army; two were killed at Normandy. For reasons he has forgotten, my father entered the Navy. After training, he eventually found himself a chief engineering lieutenant (junior grade) on the USS Strong, a Fletcher-class destroyer, patrolling the North Atlantic.

It made sense to tour one of the last Fletcher-class destroyers left in the world, the USS Kidd (DD-661), which lies on the Baton Rouge riverfront. The Kidd was named for Rear Admiral Isaac Campbell Kidd Sr., who was killed aboard his flagship, the USS Arizona (BB-39), during the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1945, a kamikaze plane crashed into the Kidd; 38 crew died, and the ship was saved only by the heroic actions of the survivors.

Now the Kidd is a fully restored museum and testament. My father found every rivet, every bucket and gun station, as he remembered them on its sister ship. And I watched with a reclaimed child's awe as he inspected his refrigerator-sized cabin. On a shelf were the exact engineering manuals he spent hundreds of nights studying. And we noted that the Kidd's chief engineering lieutenant (junior grade), who inhabited this space, was killed in the 1945 attack.

Then occurred an irony of past and present. The only other people on this ship were Germans, one of whom was a middle-aged man who introduced himself as a Navy buff and the son of a U-boat sailor. He was very excited to meet an actual World War II US destroyer officer. The thoughts in both men's minds were unspoken but self-evident: My father and his father were trying to kill each other more than half a century ago.

So my dad matter-of-factly shared details of patrol procedure and depth-charge deployment with his new-found fan. The man's wife exclaimed at one point, "But it must have been so hard - you are a hero!" My father smiled, shook his head, and said that he just did his duty and served like millions of others.

I understood then why his generation deserves the title "greatest." My own generation resorts to game shows to call ourselves "survivors." His lost their innocence or health or life so that so many of mine can live long and remain free.

How long will we honor their memory this Memorial Day or any other? As historian Rose Coombs documents in her book on World War I memorials, "Before Endeavors Fade," the heroes and battles that were once headlines, then proverbial, fade into textbook obscurity.

We even changed the traditional date of the Memorial Day holiday (May 30) to the "the last Monday in May" for the convenience of our vacations and barbecues.

Though the original root of "memorial" is the Latin "memor," which means mindful or remembering, this practice of forgetting the heroes is nothing new. "Memorials abide but a brief time," wrote the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus, "being continually destroyed by man and nature."

In the end, we left the Kidd at high noon. A metal deck was too hot in the Southern summer sun for this life-long civilian and his veteran father. The German man bade us farewell with a cheery half-salute, half-wave goodbye.

But some part of both of us remains on the destroyer on the riverfront. I hope, when my children are old enough to understand such things, to take them onto the Kidd. I plan to remind them that some stories are no longer told by living witnesses, but that we, the new generations, must be ever mindful and remembering.

David D. Perlmutter is a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. He is the author of 'Photojournalism and Foreign Policy' (Greenwood, 1998) and 'Visions of War' (St. Martin's, 1999).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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