- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

Where did we get such men?

James Michener, “The Bridges at Toko-ri”

Memorial Day is one of the two holidays, along with Independence Day, on which our thoughts turn to the men and women who have served in the military, especially those who died in service to their country. For me that means remembering the aptly labeled Forgotten War, the vicious conflict in Korea that ran from 1950 to 1953, in which more than 33,000 Americans died in combat, and so overlooked now that few realize it never came to an official end.

There is a photo from Korea that never fails to affect me whenever I see it. As images go from that war it is fairly well-known. Not as well-known, perhaps, as the photo of the grief-stricken soldier being comforted by his buddy, who gathers him in his arms. Or the photo of the soldier for whom it all has become too much, and he sits folded over, his downcast head cradled in his hands between his knees.

But those could be photos from any war. The photo I’m referring to could only be from the Korean War and expresses it perfectly. It shows a file of riflemen marching up the side of one of Korea’s endless mountains — in this case, men of the 9th Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, along Bloody Ridge in September, 1951. The line of them seems endless, too, and trails off into the grainy distance, as if to say this war will go on forever and the men must keep coming.

They trudge toward us, heads down beneath their leftover World War II steel helmets, grimly and determinedly putting one foot ahead of the other. We cannot make out their faces. They are the anonymous men of the forgotten war.

One of those men was — is, I might even say, since the line of infantrymen never stops — Jimmy Williams, my wife’s older cousin. He’s not part of that particular file caught by that particular photographer, but he’s there somewhere, in that country, that war, that time. Jimmy is one of their number, and if we could make out their faces, we would see his.

Jimmy’s life and the lives of his young comrades sometimes seem to me like an arrow soaring across time and space, from America the land of their birth to Korea the land of their maturing and, too often, death. Who made the quiver and the bow, who drew back the string and when, who chose the target? These are all elements in a personal and national story.

Louis Kronenberger, the critic and man of letters, said in a 1954 essay, “The Spirit of the Age,” that “the age just before our own … always seems glaringly wrongheaded.” Maybe or maybe not, depending on what you consider an “age” to be, whether a grand concept like the Age of Reason or a smaller one like the Roaring Twenties.

In our own time we like to deal in decades and to characterize each one as a certain age. Increasingly, too, we seem to see the decades we have lost as being lost indeed. Our age is the wrongheaded one, in other words, not the ones before it. Books have been published on this general topic, each arguing that a sense of the importance of things like community, obligation, respect, sacrifice, family and authority has gone out of our lives.

For Jimmy Williams and his generation, that sense was bred in the bone. In a way, he was a product of both the 1930s, when he grew up, and the 1950s, when he went to war. Jim’s generation, and the previous generations that reared them, have things to tell us, most certainly more than we have to tell them.

It doesn’t matter that increasingly fewer of them are around to do the telling. The way they lived their lives is both the teller and tale. They are the medium, they are the message.

Corporal James Eugene Williams, US 51 045 415, a rifleman in Company B, 38th Regiment, 2nd Division, died in a Communist Chinese prisoner of war camp in North Korea. We are not absolutely sure of the date of his death. The government says January 1952; comrades who were with him in the POW camp and survived believe it was December 1951.

That doesn’t matter, either. His remains rest now in a cemetery in Everett, Pa.

It only matters that he was. I never met Jim, but the example of his devotion to duty, honor and family has remained with me ever since I learned his story from my wife’s family. He looks at me nearly every day from a framed photo on my desk, smiling and challenging me never to forget that file of marching soldiers.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is writing a book inspired by the life of Jimmy Williams.

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