In an essay on the many who “fought, bled and died” for our country, Chris Stirewalt, a contributing editor to The Dispatch, writes on Memorial Day 2021 a tribute to the dead and a reminder to the living:
We don’t know what Fred Stockham thought about the war. Did he have some sympathies for the neutrality cause because of Sophie Heinz, the German-American woman who raised him after his mother died and his father abandoned him? Did he back Republican Charles Evans Hughes over Wilson in 1916 like the majority of voters in Essex County, N.J., where he grew up? Maybe one of the two socialists running that year? We don’t know how Stockham felt about American exceptionalism. We don’t know how he felt about any of the swirling political, cultural strife that had consumed his country in the three years between the start of the European war and America’s entry. Lost to history is the state of mind of Gunnery Sgt. Stockham when he arrived in France in the winter of 1918.
Not lost, however, are the details of his actions on June 14 at the Battle of Belleau Wood. Those were recorded in his Congressional Medal of Honor citation: “During an intense enemy bombardment with high explosive and gas shells which wounded or killed many members of the company, … Stockham, upon noticing that the gas mask of a wounded comrade was shot away, without hesitation, removed his own gas mask and insisted upon giving it to the wounded man, well knowing that the effects of the gas would be fatal to himself. He continued with undaunted courage and valor to direct and assist in the evacuation of the wounded, until he himself collapsed from the effects of gas, dying as a result thereof a few days later.”
Like the nearly 2,000 other Americans killed in the horrific fighting at Belleau Wood near the Belgian border, Stockham helped make the U.S. Marines the most feared fighting force in the world. Legend has it that the Marines fought so ferociously that the Germans called them “devil dogs.” It was also where Marine Capt. Lloyd Williams replied to a French colonel’s order to turn back to Paris thusly: “Retreat, Hell! We just got here.” It didn’t matter what Williams or Stockham thought about Wilsonian interventionism. It mattered that they were willing to lay down their lives for their comrades and their mission. That’s the way that it works in a nation with a civilian-controlled military. The people who must willingly go to their deaths must also honor the decisions of flawed leaders in an imperfect system.
Stockham’s grave, like those of hundreds of thousands of our war dead, will be decorated today for Memorial Day. But we have to remember that those flowers are not just to honor them, but to remind us civilians of our duty. We must strive to be worthy of their sacrifices – most of all in the political system that will decide where the heroes of the next generation will be asked to give what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”
And we must remember that every lie told by a leader, every incitement of hatred for political gain, and every desperate grasp at power for its own sake desecrates the same monuments that will be garlanded today.
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