On June 14, citizens of the United States celebrate Flag Day and spend the following days commemorating the promises represented by the ‘Stars and Stripes” while remembering those who have served our nation. From the five local chapters of Daughters of the American Revolution to the numerous veterans’ organizations in the Chattanooga region and beyond, Flag Day will be recognized in events as a day that combines the best of our history and the “more perfect” vision for our nation’s tomorrows.
On June 14, 1777, while the fledging American colonies were in a fight for their independence, the Second Continental Congress, led by John Hancock, signed a resolution that read: “That the flag of the United States shall be of thirteen stripes of alternating red and white, with a union of thirteen stars of white in a blue field, representing the new constellation.” The committee’s chose of the word, constellation, reiterates the John Winthrop’s image in his statement that "We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." Countless presidents and other citizens have referred to our republican, representative government as a “shining light.”
While we struggle with the fulfilment of those promises represented by our flag, it is Medal of Honor recipient Sammy L.
Davis who best understands the challenge when he says “You Don’t Lose Until You Quite Trying,” the title of his inspiring book regarding “Lessons on Adversity and Victory from a Vietnam Veteran.”
At the Battle of Brandywine, the new flag was accompanied the Continental troops for the first time, but it would be almost one hundred years later before citizens began to celebrate Flag Day. Numerous towns claim the “first celebration” but the historical records show that, by the 1890s, schools across the country were hosting Flag Day programs. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation asking that June 14 be recognized as the National Flag Day, acknowledging the fighting sweeping across Europe in reaction to Kaiser Wilhelm’s attempts to expand the German Empire. Again, in 1927, a U. S. President, Calvin Coolidge, issued the same proclamation but it would not become law until Congress approved the observation in 1949. President Harry Truman announced his pride in signing the bill.
Why celebrate Flag Day 2020? Four brief stories serve to demonstrate the commitment to the ideals represented in our Declaration of Independence and further advanced by our U. S. Constitution in its most famous words, “We the People.”
Tibor Rubin, Medal of Honor, Korean Conflict: Tibor [Ted] Rubin, a native of Hungary, survived 14 months in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. After liberation by U. S. troops, Rubin immigrated to the United States and, in recalling that decision, he shared “I always wanted to become a citizen of the United States and when I became a citizen it was one of the happiest days in my life . . . It was the first time I was free. It was one of the reasons I joined the U. S. Army because I wanted to show my appreciation.” Rubin’s regiment was trapped inside North Korea by Chinese troops; most were killed and the remainder were captured. Although he was severely wounded, Rubin was credited with having “saved the lives” of his fellow POWS during the thirty months they remained captive. As former sergeant and POW recalled, “Almost every night, Rubin would sneak out of the prison camp to steal food from the Chinese and North Korean supply depots, knowing that he would be shot if caught. He shared the food evenly among the GIs. He . . . took care of us, nursed us, carried us to the latrine . . . he did many good deeds, which he told us were mitzvahs in the Jewish tradition . . .he was a very religion Jew and helping his fellow men was the most important thing to him.” More than 40 American soldiers recommended Rubin for numerous medals, crediting him with keeping them alive.
Roy Benavidez, Medal of Honor, Vietnam Conflict: Texan Roy Benavidez, son of a Mexican sharecropper father and a Yaqqui Indian mother, was orphaned by age eight, dropped out of school in the seventh grade, went to work to help his grandparents and then joined the 82nd Airborne Division in 1959, eventually moving to Special Forces. His first tour in Vietnam, 1965, ended when he stepped on a land mine and was sent back to the states with a prognosis that he would never walk again. Defying doctors’ repeated orders, Benavidez fought to regain his strength and, one year later, he walked out of the hospital, determined to return to the military. By January 1968, he was back in Vietnam when his regular prayer service was interrupted with the news that a patrol of the Americans and nine Nung tribesmen were caught in the middle of a NVA “hornets’ nest” of more than 1000. Benavidez grabbed a medical kit and a knife and forced his way onto a rescue chopper. From that moment forward, the accounts defy imagination. Benavidez, wounded 37 times, fought to save the surviving members of the patrol in actions described as “superhuman”. First awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, he received the Medal of Honor in 1981 from President Ronald Reagan who told the press assembled for the ceremony, ”If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.” Benavidez devoted his remaining years to working with young people, promoting education and community/national service.
Melvin Morris, Medal of Honor, Vietnam Conflict: Morris, who visited Chattanooga in 2018, was one of the first soldiers designated as a Green Beret and twice volunteered for deployments to Vietnam. On September 17, 1969, Sergeant Morris led an advance across enemy lines to save and retrieve fallen comrades, single-handedly decimated the enemy force that had pinned his battalion down. He was wounded three times as he ran back to his troops with the American casualties, never stopping in his mission to save his men. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and, by mid-1970, he was back in Vietnam. When his record following his retirement was reviewed more closely, his award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, based on the eyewitness accounts offered by his troops and other observers. On March 18, 2014, Morris received the Medal of Honor from President Barrack Obama. Today, Melvin Morris, U. S. Army [Ret], crisscrosses the nation working with students of all ages, committed to the Character Development Program created by the Medal of Honor Foundation.
Gary Beikirch, Medal of Honor, Vietnam Conflict: Beikirch, a New York native, joined the U. S. Army at the end of his second year of college, with a goal of becoming a Green Beret. He trained at Fort Dix, completed jump school at Fort Benning, passed the Special Forces test and then completed additional training to become a combat medic. He deployed to Vietnam in July 1969 where he was stationed at Dak Seang Camp, home to Montegnard villagers and fighters, in the Central Highlands. In April 1970, the camp came under attack from a much larger North Vietnamese force. While the Montagnard assistants treated the wounded, Beikirch grabbed a 4.2-inch mortar and returned fire until hostile fire disabled the weapon at which point he grabbed a machine gun. When he realized that a fellow soldier was wounded and in an exposed position, he ran through heavy fire to rescue him. Hit by shrapnel that resulted in his partial paralysis, he had his Montagnard assistants carry him from one position to another as he continued to treat the wounded. He sustained two additional serious wounds and yet refused to stop treating the wounded. Once placed on a stretcher for airlift, Beikirch continued to provide medical care while firing his weapon until he lost consciousness. After his military service, he graduated from White Mountain Seminary, obtained a Master’s in counseling and has served both as a pastor and a middle school guidance counselor. Beikirch, who visited Chattanooga in February, shares his story of resilience and God’s grace in his life.
Each of these men’s willingness to serve their nation, protect their fellow troops and, in civilian life, dedicate themselves to their communities bears witness to the continued work required to make ‘We The People’ a reality.
So, fly your flag with a renewed commitment that our history has proven that when we work together for good, our nation progresses and we move closer to ‘liberty and justice’ for all.
Happy Flag Day 2020!
Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Historian, Regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR and serves as VP, Education for the Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center.