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Remembering Fallen Heroes

SAF/PA 2004 Air Force Public Affairs

Memorial Day, 2004

Today we gather to remember all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, to those fallen heroes who never came home to their families and friends. For generations, the men and women who served in our armed forces, in times of both peace and war, have helped preserve the precious gift of liberty that we Americans enjoy every day. We honor all their sacrifices. But Memo rial Day is the one day each year on which we pause to remember those who paid the highest price for their fellow countrymen. 

President Bush has said, "It is not in our nature to seek out wars and conflicts. But whenever they have come, when adversaries have left us no alternative, American men and women have stood ready to take the risks and pay the ultimate price." 

This day of remembrance was first observed to mark the terrible losses inflicted when Americans fought each other in the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of Americans fell on our own soil, giving "the last, full measure of devotion," in President Lincoln's enduring phrase. But succeeding generations have fallen on fields of battle far from home. They fell in the jungles of the South Pacific and the bloody beaches of Normandy; on the icy slopes of the Korean Peninsula and in the rice paddies of Viet Nam; the mountains and caves of Afghanistan, and the sands of Iraq. 

One of those who paid the ultimate price was TSgt John Allan Chapman, a combat controller from Pope AFB, North Carolina. He died in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan during Operation Anaconda. During a fierce firefight near the 10,000-foot summit of what came to be called Roberts' Ridge, Chapman had voluntarily gone in harm's way to rescue a fallen comrade. He gave his own life for those of his fellow Airmen. 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen John Jumper said, "John Chapman's heroism was not about combat control; it was about his dedication to the mission he was given and to the devotion to those on that mission with him. John saved the lives of his teammates, and there can be no greater tribute to any soldier, sailor, Airman or Marine, or to any human being." 

The tradition of valor embodied in TSgt Chapman is deeply rooted in the example of selfless and steadfast service set by generations of American warriors that have gone before. 

Gen. Douglas MacArthur once wrote this about the American soldiers who fought with him, island by island, in the Pacific, during World War II: "They plod and groan, sweat and toil. They growl and curse. And at the end, they die, unknown, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips, a prayer for victory." 

The courageous and unflinching dedication of America's military is illustrated in the actions of one crew of a lone B-17 that played a pivotal role in that island-hopping campaign of the South Pacific. Capt Jay Zeamer of the 43rd Bomb Group took off from Port Moresby, New Guinea, on June 16, 1943, on a mission to map the island of Bougaineville in preparation for its upcoming invasion by U.S. forces. Unbeknownst to him and his crew, 400 Japanese fighters had landed on Bougaineville the night of June 15th. They were flying into a deadly hornet's nest of fighters. 

Just 45 seconds from completing his mapping run, Zeamer's B-17 was attacked head-on by five Japanese fighters. In the nose of the B-17, 2 Lt. Joseph Sarnoski was wounded in the initial run, but continued to fire the plane's nose gun and shoot down two enemy fighters. Had it not been for Sarnoski's furious firing, Zeamer says, the B-17 would have been destroyed by the fighters' initial attack. 

Then a 20-mm shell exploded in the nose of the bomber, hurling Sarnoski into the catwalk under the cockpit and spraying Zeamer's arms and legs with shrapnel. Despite being mortally wounded, Sarnoski dragged himself back to the plane's nose and continued to fire until he fell dead over his guns. Meanwhile, Zeamer took violent evasive action for the next 45 minutes. He mana ged to crash land the plane without brakes or flaps, successfully bringing home the precious mapping footage needed for the invasion of Bougaineville. For their roles in this incredible mission, both Sarnoski and Zeamer were awarded the Medal of Honor. That was the only time in all of World War II that two crew members were so honored for independent acts of heroism. 

Next month [6 June] we mark the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, the World War II invasion of Normandy that began the liberation of Europe. It is fitting that we also dedicate a memorial to all World War II veterans on the Mall in Washington, D.C. [27 May]. Our country owes so much to what newsman Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation." 

A Normandy veteran named John took time to write home the month after D-Day. "There is a certain cemetery where some of my closest friends in the division lie. I saw it grow - shattered bodies lying there waiting for graves to be dug. Now it is filled. The graves are neat and trim, each with its cross. Occasionally I visit it when passing by." 

Each of those men knew his duty, but surely each of them also dreamed of going back to the people and way of life he knew. Each had families waiting for them and friends they expected to see again. We know they left those hopes behind when they went off to war, and they parted with them forever when they died. 

In India, an inscription on a World War II memorial reads like a message from the dead to the living: "When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today." 
Another Normandy veteran, recalling his service, said, "I feel like I've played my part in turning this from a century of darkness into a century of light." 

Throughout its history, America has been blessed with soldiers who were ready to risk all to fight the darkness that threatened our way of life. And once again, our country faces another great threat. This time it comes in the form of a global network of terrorists who despise everything America stands for, and who are determined to inflict as much pain and suffering as they can possibly muster in behalf of their cause. 

In the Cold War, weapons of mass destruction were considered weapons of last resort whose use risked the destruction of those who used them. But today, we face enemies who see weapons of mass destruction as their weapons of choice. As we saw on September 11, 2001, massive civilian casualties are a prime objective of terrorists. 

Soon after the Sept. 11th attacks, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was in the Middle East, where he met with the Sultan of Oman. The Sultan expressed his sympathy for the loss of life in America, but suggested that perhaps the tragedy might wake up the nations of the free world, spurring them to join together to prevent a September 11th-like attack involving biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. As Secretary Rumsfeld recalled the Sultan's words, "Perhaps, he said, the loss of those 3,000 precious lives, in the end, will help save tens of thousands of lives." 

Fear of casualties will not dissuade us from doing what needs to be done, rooting out the terrorist cells wherever they hide and taking the fight to them. In fact, as Gen. MacArthur said, "It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it." That is especially true of the global war on terrorism, where we are ultimately fighting for our democratic values and way of life. The task will not be an easy one, nor will it be achieved in a matter of months, or even years. But it must be done. 

The technologies of war have changed dramatically over the years, but the risks and suffering of war have not. For the brave Americans who bear the risk, no victory is free from sorrow. We fight reluctantly, because we know the cost, and we dread the days of mourning that always come - the flag-draped coffins that carry the remains of fallen heroes. 

Every life lost is a tragedy. It is a loss to our military, to our nation, and to the families who grieve. Every Memorial Day, we take time to honor the sacrifice that was made for us and for our freedom. When we see these white headstones, lined up neatly, row upon row, they should remind us of those fallen heroes who once stood in formation, answering their nation's call to duty. 

We can only hope that the anguish of the fa milies of these fallen heroes is tempered by the knowledge that their loved ones died in a noble cause - liberating millions of people from a violent and brutal regime. Last month [13 April] President Bush assured all Americans that these men and women had not died in vain. He vowed, "We will finish the work of the fallen." 

We owe it to them to finish the task for which they gave their lives: bringing peace, freedom and democracy to a troubled region of the world. In this war on terror, as in all previous wars, American troops do not come as conquerors, but as liberators. Their final act on this Earth was to fight the forces of evil in an effort to bring liberty to an oppressed nation. It is history's highest calling. 

Today we honor all those who left us never knowing how much they would be missed. On behalf of a grateful nation, we salute them, and pledge that we will never forget the sacrifices they made. Thank you.