May 31

Why We Remember

Thursday, May 31, 2018 12:01 AM


Military cemetery

Military cemetery

On Memorial Day, it is important to reflect on the soldiers, sailors, and airmen that have kept the United States safe. Each of us on that day should reserve simple, single moments of reverence—spots of time, as Wordsworth called them—that allow us to look back and reflect on lives lived and moments lost.

For most of the 20th century, regardless of what our political stripes were, Americans stood as one when it came to the military and its role as our country’s protector. That changed during the Vietnam era, when U.S. political and military leaders systematically deceived the American public about the nation’s ability to win the war. It reached new heights during the Iraq War when, for a variety of reasons, President George W. Bush and his top advisors desperately wanted to believe Saddam Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). While Saddam was a tyrant and a murderer, he did not produce WMD, as it was later shown. But the war came anyway and further soured the reputation of U.S. military policy makers in the eyes of the American public.

When wars become politicized—as they did in Vietnam and Iraq—what gets lost in the chaos of angry words are the fighting men and women of the United States, those individuals who sacrificed in innumerable ways and come home broken, or not at all.

In Hue, Mark Bowden’s book about the Tet Offensive (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), he chronicles a number of the Marines who fought and died defending Vietnam’s ancient imperial capital city in 1968. Bowden wrote that each death reverberated halfway around the world to that soldier’s home “hurling families and even whole communities into grief, often with shattering consequences for generations.” War can do that, even in peace time.

In going through some family records recently, one of my aunts uncovered one such death in World War II. His name was Richard H. McCaffrey, a U.S. Navy lieutenant from Baltimore killed in 1943 in Sicily.

Richard McCaffrey

LT (j.g.) Richard McCaffrey

McCaffrey’s mother, Elizabeth, read a story in The Baltimore Sun in 1959 by my grandfather, Lee McCardell. McCardell, a Sun World War II correspondent, then serving as the paper’s Rome bureau chief when he wrote a piece about a ceremony honoring the 7,862 Americans interred at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, just up the coast from Anzio, Italy. Americans came ashore there in January 1944, in their march to capture Rome. It elicited Mrs. McCaffrey’s interest because Richard, like many casualties from the Sicily campaign through the liberation of Rome, was buried there.

After reading McCardell’s story she wrote to him with a request: “Although I desire more than anything else to visit the cemetery at Anzio, I doubt if I shall ever have the opportunity to do so.” In her crisp, clear handwriting she added, “I am writing to ask you, if at any time, you are there you will pay a visit to Richard’s grave.” And then she wrote down on a second sheet of paper, with the clarity and certainty only a mother can have about her child’s whereabouts, the location of Richard’s grave: Plot F, Row 1, Grave 18.

Mrs. McCaffrey's letter from 1959

From Mrs. McCaffrey’s letter from 1959

In writing about the loss of Marines at Hue, Bowden stated, “No matter who died, there was no time or energy to grieve. This haunted them.” Mrs. McCaffrey, like any mother who lost a child, clearly still grieved, and had been doing so since Richard’s death; it was made worse knowing she would never see her son’s final resting spot.

McCardell knew little about Richard’s life. Mrs. McCaffrey wrote that after graduating from high school in Baltimore he worked in the local IBM office before going into the service. After his death, a requiem mass was said for him at Loyola College where he was a student in the 1930s. It served as a remembrance of sorts locally for his relatives and friends, but the service was not the same as the concrete evidence of death needed to move forward and get on with our lives—a body resting reverently in a coffin and a burial witnessed by all who loved the deceased.

McCaffrey’s internment in Italy seemingly awaited the future joint Italian-U.S. ceremony in 1959 covered by my grandfather. The event was filled with “prayers, speeches, wreaths, taps, and three volleys of rifle fire” celebrating McCaffrey’s sacrifice and those of other Americans during the war who were buried there, McCardell wrote.

In his World War II reporting from Europe, McCardell did his best to mention local soldiers in his dispatches home. It was a way to let family members know that, at least on the day the story was written, their son was alive. And, apparently, he did the same in honoring Mrs. McCaffrey’s request, by letting her know that his grave was the ultimate safe spot. A year later, in another letter from her found in my grandfather’s papers, she thanked him and my grandmother, Nancy, for being so kind to visit Richard’s grave following her request. “Am looking forward to seeing you and your wife when you are in Baltimore next month. I hope that you will spend an evening with me and my two sons,” she wrote. Both of her surviving sons served in the armed forces during the war: Read in the U.S. Coast Guard in the South Pacific and Robert in the Army as a captain in Europe.

Mrs. McCaffrey's letter from 1960

Mrs. McCaffrey’s letter from 1960

When McCardell visited Nettuno on Memorial Day in 1959, he wrote “he was an old man on a sentimental journey.” Although a non-combatant he “began to know the air of unreality that old soldiers must feel when they go back to old battlefields.” It was the first time he was back in Anzio since he covered it during the war, and the scene was much different. There were no LST’s offshore. Now, in their place, were pleasure boats, small yachts, and cabin cruisers. “Bathhouses lined the beach above the breakwater, a bare beach in 1944,” he wrote. Even though summer had not yet arrived, the brilliant sunshine drew people to the same beach wearing their bathing suits in anticipation of warmer months ahead. So many changes, he thought, particularly the peace and serenity he found at a place where the violence of war raged only 15 years earlier.

“It must be very noisy during a war, isn’t it?” asked one of my aunts, who accompanied him that day. Yes, he said, he forgot about the noise of war. “It’s funny—the things you forget, the things you remember,” especially in wartime.

One thing he remembered, though, was Lt. (j.g.) Richard H. McCaffrey, Plot F, Row 1, Grave 18. May each of us do the same this Memorial Day and remember our own Lt. McCaffreys wherever they may be.
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