Lest We Forget

This was a Memorial Day speech delivered by
Howard B. Austin

Mr. Chairman, Friends of Williamsville, Ex-Service Men, Ladies and Gentlemen:

In each and every part of America today, there are being held services similar to this one, in memory of those who have given their lives in the service of their Country. And we, who have gathered here this evening, have met in order that we too may pay fitting tribute to our soldier dead.

This coming together is not a mere formality, considered as a duty which is ours to perform, for I am assuming that there is not an individual present but who at some time has given up someone who was well loved and whose passing has made a vital difference in their lives.

It is indeed inspiring to see this splendid group here this evening upon an occasion of this character and it seems to me to be truly fitting that such a service be held in the House of God.

Memorial Day is one which is rich in significance and was originally an activity of the Grand Army of the Republic, but now it is generally accepted by all and it is the privilege of the younger veteran groups to Carry On. We have seen those veterans of the Great Civil War pass in review down through the years; we have noted their organization accomplishments and the places they assumed in the civil life of the Country. Their ranks are thinned almost to the vanishing point and just now in many communities we have nothing left but our memories. No, that is not all, for their influence will carry on and can not be determined until the end of time. I believe there is but one remaining in this community and advanced years prevent his being present here tonight. But it appeals to me as a heart-warming gesture to see this flag draped chair, dedicated to this one who is physically absent, but who is present in spirit and influencing the sentiment of this meeting.

There is little which may be said or done here which may change the attitude or the ideals of you older people; your ways of life are set. Your opinions were largely formed as children and there is little probability that they may be radically changed now.

Then it is to the younger generation that I would turn tonight in order that I may perhaps clarify certain things that are in your minds; in order that you may see a mental picture of the thing that is war; and that you may grasp the real significance of this Memorial.

Doubtless many of you have attended Memorial Services in some Cemetery today. Sad but impressive. You saw mounds covered with blankets of green and garlanded with flowers. You may have heard the beautiful American Legion Ritual, saw the firing squad and with bowed head reverently listened to Taps. You possibly thought of the glories of war. In fancy you saw a great army. You visualized the cadence of marching feet; the bands were playing and colors flying. You thought of the death of a soldier as though it were a sort of miraculous transformation, the hero breathing his last in a blaze of glory.

But you men of the American Legion, it is up to you, it is up to me to tell the whole truth as we know it, to tell the whole truth as we have seen it.

A hero, yes; but not going out to the strains of martial music under flying banners, but just a poor bedraggled boy, wallowing in the filth of the trench or shell hole, vermin infested, homesick, heart-sick, wounded and dying. And if there be left to him one memory, it is of the old home so very far away and looms as a sweet, sweet dream of another world, a dream of' Paradise.

In your experiences and mine, we can well remember when one of our loved ones was stricken here in the peace and quiet of our home country. We are taking consolation in the fact that we did everything possible in medical attention and loving care, and when that spirit had returned to its God, friends gather 'round with tear dimmed eyes and honest expressions of sympathy. And when those last sad rites were performed and that loved one was laid to rest in a beautiful cemetery we remember the flower-covered grave and the Holy Peace of the City of the Dead.

But I am thinking just now of that boy who, in the Hell of battle is wounded even to death; no loving hands to minister to his comfort, no water to cool his fevered lips, no ear to hear a last request, no sight of loved one or prayer for his safe passing into eternity.

For a shroud, his old and tattered uniform; his casket, a blanket torn from an abandoned pack; his hearse, a stretcher carried by comrades; no peaceful cemetery, but a shallow trench dug at random in a shot torn field; no choir to chant the music that he loved, but rather the deadly shriek of high explosives; no odor of sweet scented blossoms, but rather the awful reek of poison gas.

These things are said in order that you may make comparisons and that you may understand.

Orators today, from the north to the south, from the east to the west, have immortalized that hero of whom I have just spoken, and it is well. But all too little I am afraid has been said of another soldier.

It might well have been in this community that two boys grew to manhood. Inseparable friends from babyhood. They went to the same school, they worked together, they fished together and together they spent happy hours at the old swimmin' hole. When the call came in l918, together they went into the service of their country, together they went to the front and together they went over the top. They suffered the same hardships and privations, the same heartaches and disillusionments; they fought shoulder to shoulder and as one, they reverenced and deeply loved every stripe and every star in the folds of Old Glory. Heroes, yes, both of them, but providence decreed that one of them lay down his life an offering on the altar of his country. And that fallen soldier we are honoring today.

But can you not see with me that other figure limping slowly down the street, a bewildered, defeated look in his eyes, his chin on his breast, his shoulders sagging forward. You know him as the Village Bum. That soldier who never amounted to anything after he came home from the army. Have you forgotten that he is the selfsame soldier who shared the heartaches, the hardships and privations and dangers of his dead hero comrade? Who, in point of service gave just as much for the flag that he loved? Gave everything that he had and offered his life. And just now when he sees the sneers of one time friends and associates, when he realizes that he doesn't fit somehow, he envies that comrade who gave his life and wishes that he too might have been permitted to make the supreme sacrifice.

Ah, you may say, "A mere uniform can not transform a boy into a dauntless hero", you say that "He came back able bodied and physically fit". But let me say to you, "That so called worthless ex-service man may carry no scars of war on his body, but there is no one who has gone through the Hell that is war, but that scars of that conflict are deeply graven on his very soul".

Oh, for a little more of Christian charity, a greater degree of understanding;

Listen to the words of an old man:

Well sir folks, I'm sort o' worried
And I don't know what to do
'Bout that boy o' mine, you know him
And I hope you like him too.

'Course he aint a boy no longer,
Seemed to grow up over night,
When the call came back in '18
And he went away to fight.

I was proud the day he left us
And in spite of doubts and fears
Kept my eyes right on old Glory
Through the scaldin', bitter tears.

Don't take long to merely tell it,
All the Hell that Jimmy saw;
Wounded yes, but come up fightin',
Full o' grit, jest like his Pa.

Then the word came 'cross the ocean
When my soul was on the rack,
On my knees I read the message;
"My boy Jim was comin' back".

Oh, the bliss that come a stealin'
To my old and achin' heart;
Proud that my boy'd done his duty,
Proud that Jim had done his part.

All my soul was filled with longin'
All my doubts and fears confessed
Rushed right down to take my Jimmy
To his old Dad's throbbin' breast.

Was it my boy or a stranger
With that face so cold and grim,
Somethin' like, but oh so diff'rent
From the boy that I named Jim

Haunted looks, they told their story,
Of the horrors that befell;
At my questions always answered
"There aint nothin' much to tell".

All the day spent just in sittin'
Sort o' lookin' into space;
Sad and listless and indifferent
God, I'm needin' all thy grace.

Folks say, "Jim is mighty shiftless,
That he drinks more than he should;
That his habits are a menace;
Plain and simple, he's no good."

Prejudice is rankest poison,
You call my boy Low and Mean;
Don't despise him, claim his friendship
Same as back there in Eighteen.

If you'd do that folks, I'm certain
It would make a man o' him,
And you'd see the old smile brighten
And we'd all be proud o' Jim.

You say that I have painted a sad and gloomy picture. My friends, it seems to be only in fiction that things always turn out just right.

And frankly, it seems so heartless to me when I remember that one has to die in order to be fully appreciated.

However, we are not forgetting those who have forfeited their lives.

May we remember that all of the accomplishments, all of the sacrifice, all of the hardships, all of the suffering and death are of no avail unless we valiantly strive to tightly hold and keep sacred those things for which they fought.

God gave His only begotten Son, and even the death on the Cross was a useless sacrifice unless mankind opens its heart to his teachings.

Then may we ever keep green these memories, and on each Memorial Day may we assemble ourselves together