It’s going to take me a minute to get us where we need to be so today I ask you bear with me. For much of my life I have passed our National Cemetery and wondered about the great majority of the 43,000 who sleep there. They each have only one thing in common but to me it is so revered I find it a close second to the day a Christian will stand before the Master. Each and every veteran wants unto this very day for those of us who cherish them in these United States to live full and free lives. It is a gift beyond measure.
Every Christmas, to see the wreaths standing at attention in the cold and snowy air, is a testament to our relentless thanks and never-to-die gratitude each deserves. But – no – of the 43,000 who forged America into the greatest country the Earth has ever known, there has been a façade of sorts. Most of us who drive past at Christmas believe every marker has a wreath but that’s not so. Only the most noticeable 10,000 have gotten a wreath since the custom began in 2006, yet who is to say who does and who doesn’t?
Enter one of our greatest patriots, Mickey McCamish. “Last December I participated in the wreath laying ceremony at Chattanooga National Cemetery. It was a great endeavor but what bothered me was that only approximately 10,000 wreaths were placed on gravestones and there were a total of 43,000. That really bothered me to think of all the veterans whose graves didn’t receive a wreath.”
Mickey, with Civil Air Patrol Major Larry Steward and a slew of other genuine gratefuls, will hold a press conference at the National Cemetery this Friday at 9:30 a.m. to champion “Wreaths over Chattanoooga.”
This December 15 every monument will bear a wreath and, while 33,000 additional signs of our love will be a heavy lift, I’ll guarantee this is going to happen. Again, I’ll guarantee the heart of this community will see to it that all veterans, both at rest and still in our midst, will know fully a heckuva bigger heart than a wreath will festoon them on Christmas Day.
I have studied and written and listened to stories emenating from the National Cemetery for years. For just as long, I have wondered about our native sons who were never able to hold their child, tell their mom how much they loved them one last time, or who actually gave their life without morphine, a priest, or anyone nearby who cared as much as they did.
My Jesus loves to play tricks on me. I laugh over the fact He sets me up all the time so several weeks before I found out about Mickey’s “Wreaths over Chattanooga,” my morning readings brought me to the great actor Tony Lo Bianco’s reading of “Just a Common Soldier.” The poem, also known as “A Soldier Died Today,” was written by famed Canadian veteran and columnist A. Lawrence Vaincourt. It now appears in numerous anthologies, on thousands of websites and on July 4, 2008 it was carved into a marble monument at West Point, New York.
Several days later, as though to add an “exclamation point,” I was sent an obscure tape of a gunner being returned to the USS Essex on Nov. 5, 1944. This is official Navy film, grainy but quite real. I believe that thousands in our National Cemetery were just like Loyce Deen. Loyce, a product of Depression Oklahoma, was a gunner with the legendary Carrier Air Group 15 in the Pacific.
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The AG 15’s World War II heroics were beyond measure. The unit scored 312 enemy aircraft destroyed, 33 probably destroyed, and 65 damaged in aerial combat, plus 348 destroyed, 161 probably destroyed, and 129 damaged in ground attacks. Twenty-six “Fighting 15” pilots became aces, including their leader, Commander David McCampbell, who became the U.S. Navy’s “Ace of Aces.” Twenty-one squadron pilots were killed in action and one in an operational accident aboard the carrier Essex.
The fighter squadron’s partners, Bombing Squadron 15 and Torpedo Squadron 15, scored 174,300 tons of enemy shipping, including 37 cargo vessels sunk, 10 probably sunk, and 39 damaged. As well, Musashi, the world’s largest battleship, was sunk, along with a light aircraft carrier, a destroyer, destroyer escort, two minesweepers and other craft?plus the Zuikaku, the last surviving carrier that participated in the Pearl Harbor attack. Incredibly, every pilot of Torpedo 15 was awarded the Navy Cross, the highest award for bravery after the Medal of Honor. All of this took place between May and November, 1944.
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On Nov. 5, a superb pilot from New Orleans, Robert Crosgrove, miraculously flew a totally-decimated Avenger some two hours from the skies of “The Battle of Manila Bay” back to the USS Essex. Behind him, dead from antiaircraft fire, was 23-year-old Loyse Deen. The bridge was notified Deen’s body was so horribly mutilated by the 40 mm. rounds it could not be removed from the aircraft and the plane was, in today’s venacular, “absolutely totaled.”
Moments later a new order was given. Loyse Deen should be buried at sea in “his airplane.”
Soon, another order came from the bridge. Understand, this was at a time when every usable part on any disabled warplane was to be salvaged. “No parts are to be taken from the damaged warplane. They belong to Loyce.”
(To view videos, click here and here.)
As you watch what happened on the fantail of the USS Essex, and study the men who stood in reverence at last rites and then watch the airplane sink, I beg you’ll recognize our National Cemetery is filled with Americans exactly like Loyse Deen. Each deserves a Christmas wreath in perpetuity. (Note: Loyce Deen is not interred in Chattanooga, but buried in his native Oklahoma.)
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Believe this: You mighty right we are going to get a wreath for each and every one.