Rev. David Ryan

Walking among Heroes: A Memorial Day Meditation

By the Rev. David Glen Ryan,
Pastor of Kensington (Old Brick) and Bridesburg UMCs, Philadelphia (Part-time Local Pastor)

Every year as Memorial Day approaches, I find myself thinking about the words of Jesus to his disciples, recorded in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Those are haunting words. They are words that some soldiers who have seen combat can deeply appreciate, in a way that we who have been spared that often grisly experience cannot.

I often ponder whether those words are meant to be instruction or affirmation, or maybe solace. I think it depends on who is listening. To those who have gone into harm’s way and actually seen someone lay down his or her life, I doubt such a lesson would need to be taught. The action would certainly speak for itself. To any who are related to heroes who have made that ultimate sacrifice, I expect these might be words of solace.

To those who have neither seen such a sacrifice, nor had a relative or loved one affected by it, I suspect that they might be words of instruction—an explanation, perhaps, for those who might not grasp the depth and extent of the price paid by such action. It may be as if Jesus was saying, “This is what is at the heart of that. This is the true reason for it.”

If we look at the Scripture passage that surrounds this verse, we can get a sense of that deeper truth. Look at John 15:9-17:

”As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandment and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My commandment is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my commandment: Love each other.

The passage opens with Jesus establishing love as the foundation of everything else he will say in this lesson (as it is the foundation of all that Jesus is). This love flows from God to Jesus, and from Jesus to his disciples. And if the disciples want to remain in Jesus’ love, they must keep his commandments. Then Jesus leads the disciples to see a greater depth in this love: joy. From love to joy. Imagine that. Jesus has taught them so that his joy may be in them and so that their joy may be complete. What a blessing!

Immediately after repeating his command to love one another as he has loved them, Jesus raises the stakes as high as they could go for mortal man: There is no greater love that one can show for one’s friends than to lay down his or her life for them. Jesus again assures his disciples that he is their friend if they keep his commandments. This teaching about the ultimate sacrifice is a short lesson in the passage, which soon concludes with one last reminder: his commandment is to love each other. But now, we understand what that love could cost.

Down through the years, soldiers have paid that price, and it is important that we never forget it.

There is a place dedicated to honoring those who made that sacrifice. It is called the Freedoms Foundation, and it is located just down the road from Valley Forge National Historical Park, about 24 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

On the campus of the Freedoms Foundation, which was founded in 1949 and is dedicated to “helping students, teachers, and citizens gain a greater awareness and appreciation of the principles of a free and democratic society,” there is a wooded area called the Medal of Honor Grove. In this grove, one acre has been reserved for every state in the Union as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Each reserved area contains an obelisk that is patterned after the Washington Monument and in each area are markers for every person from that state who received the Medal of Honor—our nation’s highest tribute to bravery and courage under fire.

It is a peaceful place with clear, wide paths and gentle slopes that are not difficult to navigate. One may feel a sense of serenity while walking there, which is fitting, for it is a place that honors sacrifice, not a place that panders to the carnage of war.

The nearby Knox Building holds archives for the more than 3,400 Medal of Honor recipients honored by the grove. Of those, I would like to focus on one particular aspect: those from Pennsylvania who received the Medal of Honor during World War I. It was the Great War, the War to End All Wars, the war that saw over 16 million military and civilian dead and over 20 million injured, making it the deadliest conflict in human history so far. This is the war that saw, among other grim outcomes, 58,000 British troops lost (one third of them killed) in a single day—making it a one-day record that still stands. This is the war that saw the first widespread use of poison gas, a very nasty weapon of war, but in which most of the carnage was achieved by the use of more conventional weapons like artillery, tanks, rifles, machine guns and bayonets.

Five men are on that list, and these are their stories (these citations can also be found on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Website at www.cmohs.org).

James Mestrovitch, Sergeant: On 10 August 1918, seeing his company commander lying wounded 30 yards in front of the line after his company had withdrawn to a sheltered position behind a stone wall, Sgt. Mestrovitch voluntarily left cover and crawled through heavy machine gun and shell fire to where the officer lay. He took the officer upon his back and crawled to a place of safety, where he administered first-aid treatment, his exceptional heroism saving the officer’s life.

Orlando Henderson Petty, Lieutenant (Medical Corps): For extraordinary heroism while serving with the 5th Regiment, U.S. Marines, in France during the attack in the Boise de Belleau, 11 June 1918. While under heavy fire of high explosive and gas shells in the town of Lucy, where his dressing station was located, Lt. Petty attended to and evacuated the wounded under most trying conditions. Having been knocked to the ground by an exploding gas shell which tore his mask, Lt. Petty discarded the mask and courageously continued his work. His dressing station being hit and demolished, he personally helped carry Capt. Williams, wounded, through the shellfire to a place of safety.

Dwite Schaffner, First Lieutenant: He led his men in an attack on St. Hubert’s Pavilion through terrific enemy machine gun, rifle, and artillery fire and drove the enemy from a strongly held entrenched position after hand-to-hand fighting. His bravery and contempt for danger inspired his men, enabling them to hold fast in the face of three determined enemy counterattacks. His company’s position being exposed to enemy fire from both flanks, he made three efforts to locate an enemy machine gun which had caused heavy casualties. On his third reconnaissance he discovered the gun position and personally silenced the gun, killing or wounding the crew. The third counterattack made by the enemy was initiated by the appearance of a small detachment in advance of the enemy attacking wave. When almost within reach of the American front line the enemy appeared behind them, attacking vigorously with pistols, rifles, and hand grenades, causing heavy casualties in the American platoon. 1st Lt. Schaffner mounted the parapet of the trench and used his pistol and grenades killing a number of enemy soldiers, finally reaching the enemy officer leading the attacking forces, a captain, shooting and mortally wounding the latter with his pistol, and dragging the captured officer back to the company’s trench, securing from him valuable information as to the enemy’s strength and position. The information enabled 1st Lt. Schaffner to maintain for five hours the advanced position of his company despite the fact that it was surrounded on three sides by strong enemy forces. The undaunted bravery, gallant soldierly conduct, and leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Schaffner undoubtedly saved the survivors of the company from death or capture.

Oscar Schmidt, Jr., Chief Gunner’s Mate: For gallant conduct and extraordinary heroism while attached to the U.S.S. Chestnut Hill, on the occasion of the explosion and subsequent fire on board the U.S. submarine chaser 219. Schmidt, seeing a man, whose legs were partly blown off, hanging on a line from the bow of the 219, jumped overboard, swam to the sub chaser and carried him from the bow to the stern where a member of the 219’s crew helped him land the man on the afterdeck of the submarine. Schmidt then endeavored to pass through the flames amidships to get another man who was seriously burned. This he was unable to do, but when the injured man fell overboard and drifted to the stern of the chaser Schmidt helped him aboard.

Joseph Thompson, Major: Counterattacked by two regiments of the enemy, Maj. Thompson encouraged his battalion in the front line of constantly braving the hazardous fire of machine guns and artillery. His courage was mainly responsible for the heavy repulse of the enemy. Later in the action, when the advance of his assaulting companies was held up by fire from a hostile machine gun nest and all but one of the six assaulting tanks were disabled, Maj. Thompson, with great gallantry and coolness, rushed forward on foot three separate times in advance of the assaulting line, under heavy machine gun and antitank-gun fire, and led the one remaining tank to within a few yards of the enemy machine gun nest, which succeeded in reducing it, thereby making it possible for the infantry to advance.

Just in case you missed it, Major Thompson walked ahead of an armored tank, guiding it to a location where it could dispatch the enemy.

There is one last story to tell. It is not about a soldier from Pennsylvania, but it was one of a few accounts set aside on a table in the Knox building, enabling people to have a special look. It is remarkable, and worthy of inclusion here.

It is the story of Freddie Stowers, a Corporal. Stowers distinguished himself by exceptional heroism on 28 September, 1918, while serving as a squad leader in Company C, 371st Infantry Regiment, 93d Division. His was the lead company during the attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, during World War I. A few minutes after the attack began, the enemy ceased firing and began climbing up onto the parapets of the trenches, holding up their arms as if wishing to surrender. The enemy’s actions caused the American forces to cease fire and to come out into the open.

As the company started forward and came within about 100 meters of the trench line, the enemy jumped back into their trenches and greeted Corporal Stowers’ company with interlocking bands of machine gun fire and mortar fire causing well over fifty percent casualties. Faced with incredible enemy resistance, Corporal Stowers took charge, setting such a courageous example of personal bravery and leadership that he inspired his men to follow him in the attack. With extraordinary heroism and complete disregard of personal danger under devastating fire, he crawled forward leading his squad toward an enemy machine gun nest, which was causing heavy casualties to his company.

After fierce fighting, the machine gun position was destroyed and the enemy soldiers were killed. Displaying great courage and intrepidity Corporal Stowers continued to press the attack against a determined enemy. While crawling forward and urging his men to continue the attack on a second trench line, he was gravely wounded by machine gun fire. Although Corporal Stowers was mortally wounded, he pressed forward, urging on the members of his squad, until he died.

Inspired by the heroism and display of bravery of Corporal Stowers, his company continued the attack against incredible odds, contributing to the capture of Hill 188 and causing heavy enemy casualties. Corporal Stowers’ conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men were well above and beyond the call of duty, follow the finest traditions of military service, and reflect the utmost credit on him and the United States Army.

I’m pretty sure that none of these men did what they did with a fat promotion in mind. I’m pretty sure that none of these men did what they did with the hope or expectation of earning a pretty ribbon for bravery, maybe a Silver Star or Bronze Star or Navy Cross, that they could wear on their Class A uniforms. And I strongly doubt any of them even remotely thought that their actions would result in them being awarded a medal that would cause four-star generals to salute them when they saw the unmistakably distinctive ribbon that represents the medal on the breast of surviving recipients.

These men did what they did out of their love for their fellow soldiers. God gave them that love and the courage to see it through; and see it through, they did. Not all survived. In World War I, 27 percent of the Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously.

I’d like to share a poem with you that also honors those who fell in that war. It was composed on May 3, 1915, at the battlefront, during the second battle of Ypres, Belgium, by a medical officer named John McCrae. His close friend and former student, Alexis Helmer, had been killed the previous day by a German shell. In a letter to his mother, this is what McCrae had to say about that “nightmare” battle: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time, while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

McCrae had earlier conducted a funeral service of sorts for his friend, in the dead of night for security reasons, and on that morning, he took notice of how quickly the poppies seemed to spring up between the grave markers as he began to write. A Sergeant Allinson, who was standing nearby, recalled that John McCrae’s “face was very tired but calm as he wrote. He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer’s grave.”

Within moments, John McCrae had completed “In Flanders Fields” and when he was done, without a word, McCrae took his mail and handed the poem to Allinson. Allinson was deeply moved: “The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.”

This is the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe.
To you, from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

This poem charges those still living to keep the faith by taking up the torch and pressing the fight to final victory. There is another way to keep the faith that we today may strive to achieve. That is to press the fight against all that compels us to fight in the first place.

We have the ability to go down that path. God knows that as Christians, we have it in us to be able to express the wisdom and discernment and humility that can lead us to peace. God knows that we have that potential in us, because God put it there. We have the power to choose the path that follows Jesus, and if we want to call ourselves Christians, we have an obligation to do our level best to live and act as Jesus would have us do. We can choose the path that God offers.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Are those words of instruction, affirmation, or solace? They can be all three at once. If you don’t know the lesson, now is a good time to learn. If your knowledge of those sacrifices is absent or dim, attend to the affirmation found in that verse. If you have been touched by such a sacrifice, God invites you to seek the solace offered there.

In 1917, George Cohen wrote the patriotic song, “Over There” to encourage enlistment. Here are the final verses of it:

Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware –
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there

“We won’t come back till it’s over, over there.” It is fitting for us here today, to give thanks for what so many did over there. May God bless us, may God bless those heroes, and may God bless America. Amen.