May 26, 2019

In Peril on the Sea: My Memorial Day Story

This is my Memorial Day story. Every year I may update it and add something new or remove something old, but I do not write another article for Memorial Day, because this is my story. This comes from the memories and the heart of 10 year old girl. It was the birth of my love for the United States Armed Forces. It is my requiem for those who have given their lives in service for America – especially for the men on the U.S.S. Scorpion.

Eternal Father, Strong to save

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave

Who bids the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep

Oh, hear us when we cry to thee

For those in peril on the sea.

Every Memorial Day, I search for Dennis in the faces of the worn and grizzled Vietnam veterans. I see thousands — actually, hundreds of thousands — of these faces. The veterans come to Washington, DC every year for the National Memorial Day Parade, and especially for Rolling Thunder, the convoy of bikers riding from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Memorial in honor of our fallen heroes and to raise awareness of all the remaining P.O.W.s and M.I.A.’s. (Rolling Thunder had announced that this year, the 32nd Ride, would be their last. The event had become increasingly expensive. But at last report it seems as if it may be that President Trump is going to find a way to help the Ride continue.)

Whenever the bikes roll into town, ridden largely by bandana-coiffed, leather-vested men prominently displaying American flags, I remember my brief childhood experience with U.S. forces that fought in the Vietnam War. These may be senior citizens with paunches, but I see the young, extremely clean cut young men of 50 years ago and I search for Dennis.

I never find Dennis. I don’t really expect to. Dennis didn’t live long enough to become a veteran and ride a Harley in the National Memorial Day Parade. He went down with the ship, along with the other 98 crewmen of the USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine that was lost on May 22, 1968. The Scorpion was one of only two nuclear submarines that have been lost. The other was the USS Thresher, which was lost April 10, 1963. There is still no definitive answer as to why the Scorpion sank, but its wreckage was found on the ocean floor at a depth of almost 10,000 feet.

If I was like a little sister,  Mom was definitely like a mother to the servicemen. She presided over the basement luncheonette counter and a dozen or so table and chair sets where the “boys” could get free coffee and tea, cold drinks, doughnuts, and what seemed to be their favorite – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – anytime the club was open.

On Saturday evenings and Sunday noon after Vespers, the Red Shield Club served a hot meal, such as tuna and noodle casserole (another favorite). I always thought it was odd that these big guys liked such simple food, but my wise mother understood that these meals reminded them of home. On Thanksgiving and Christmas there was a turkey dinner, accompanied by a small gift bag with aftershave, other toiletries, and a pocket-sized New Testament & Psalms.

Once a month, the club provided free phone calls home. Sometimes these calls came just before a young man was leaving for the war. I can remember my mother praying with many of these young men. Usually it was those who had presented the toughest veneer who crumbled first when my mom put her arms around them.

These big brothers were a fleeting presence in my life, there, and then gone. Few ever returned to the club once they had shipped out. And since I usually only knew their first names, I never knew what happened to them. But it was because of knowing them that I have had a lifelong love and appreciation for our troops.

I didn’t know much about anything then, particularly about the war, its pros and cons, or about Communism. It was only years later that I understood that many of those servicemen who visited the club may well have died in the war. And that Dennis definitely went down with the Scorpion.

Others, who had tried not to cry when my mother showed them tenderness, and who had watched television with me, sitting in cold, burgundy leather chairs on the top floor of the club, survived the war. But they were among those who were spat upon and called “Baby Killers” (by the forerunners of today’s loathesome Code Pink) when they returned home.

It took a few years for my intellect to catch up with my emotions, but even when I was totally uneducated in the ways of foreign policy and politics, I knew the anti-war crowd was wrong. Even before I had heard about the thousands of “boat people” fleeing from the grip of Hanoi or met Vietnamese Christians who told of their love and gratitude to the G.I.’s, I knew that the insults hurled at returning soldiers were diabolical lies by people who didn’t really care about Vietnamese babies (any more than Code Pink cares about Iraqi and Afghani babies). I wanted to say “sorry,” “please forgive us,” to every Vietnam veteran I met.

That’s what I think about every Memorial Day when I see Vietnam vets here for Rolling Thunder. I examine each face. I look for a trace of Roger, the Coast Guard who loved powdered sugar-covered jelly doughnuts. I try to find Paul, who wrote lots of letters back home, sitting in a leather arm chair. I search for a big Scandanavian-looking Ping Pong player with the unlikely name of Santa Klauss who always gave big bear-hugs to my mother. I will always look for them because, unlike Dennis, who taught me how to play pool and then left for the USS Scorpion, they may have come home from the war.

And although I know I’ll never find him, I will keep looking for Dennis in the worn and grizzled visages of veterans that once were young. I will look for him because he should have had the chance to be a worn and grizzled vet, with a paunch and bad knees, riding a Harley to Washington, DC. He should have had the opportunity to have grandchildren to whom he could tell endless stories about what it was like to be on board a nuclear submarine. He should be there so I can thank him, not just for teaching me how to play pool so many years ago, but for teaching me to appreciate and love our troops. I can’t thank him. So instead, I will remember Dennis when I remember the fallen this Memorial Day.


3 Responses to In Peril on the Sea: My Memorial Day Story

  1. Lee D. Cary says:

    “I will remember Dennis when I remember the fallen this Memorial Day.”

    And now thanks to you Ms. McDonnell, along with others i remember, I will remember him today, too.

  2. John Vick, Lt. USN [ret] says:

    Thank you for reminding us of all those who never had the chance to to become “old and grizzled”. My ship [USS Cromwell DE 1014] helped search for the Thresher when it went down in April 1963. The Navy Hymn is quite appropriate when remembering the men of the Thresher and the Scorpion.

  3. Donald says:

    As a Marine, that last verse is always amended by our Navy brothers whenever we are present, changing ‘brethern’ to ‘Marines.’ Now as a pastor (I was a Sergeant) I can never get through all four verses without tearing up. At 71 years old now, people still say, “I knew you were a Marine the minute you walked in the sanctuary the first time. You have that swagger.”
    Thanks for your remembering us as ‘forever young.’

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