BIDLACK | Remembering the unforgettable on this Memorial Day

Author: Hal Bidlack - May 25, 2018 - Updated: May 25, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

Monday is Memorial Day. For many Americans, it is an extra day off work, and no doubt you’ll hear local news anchors talk about how Memorial Day marks the first “official day of summer.” There will be barbeques and trips to the pool. There will be baseball games and the Stanley Cup Finals will (finally) get under way. There will be hot dogs cooked and beers consumed. And all that is just fine. But I urge my fellow Americans to pause, even if briefly, to recall to memory those who went before, and ensured your freedom to enjoy such all-American activities. I ask that you stop to remember Murro McCracken. I ask that you remember the almost cliché  but profoundly true idea that freedom isn’t free.

Memorial Day in the U.S. got its start more recently than you might guess. After the end of the Civil War, which saw over 620,000 Americans fall, Union General John A. Logan, namesake of Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, suggested the citizens of the United States observe what he called “Decoration Day,” when citizens should place flowers on the graves of those lost, “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”  It’s not clear why, originally, May 30 was chosen. Some historians suggest it is because it was one of the few dates that didn’t fall on the same date as a Civil War battle. Others say it was because you could be sure that flowers would be in bloom. Surprisingly, Memorial Day did not become an official national holiday until 1971.

But the tradition of honoring those who fell in battle is not new. Following the first battles of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles offered a Funeral Oration in praise of fighting for the cause of freedom. He said, “Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.” Pericles called for honoring the war dead, as the entire world is now their tomb.

Other nations have their own traditions. In France, Armistice Day remembers those who were killed in war with a nationwide moment of silence at the 11thhour of the 11thday of the 11thmonth. England remembers the poppies that grew in Flanders Fields, row by row.

Remembering the dead is an important and touching duty for all Americans, though I fear too many will merely note the extra day off from work, rather than the sacrifice that created the freedom that surrounds them.

And so, let me tell you of Murro McCracken.

My father, Russell Bidlack, was born in 1920 and raised on a farm outside the very small town of Manilla, Iowa. He kept a diary from 1938 until shortly before his death in 2003. I have those diaries and am working on a book on his remarkable life. Dad was drafted into the Army while still in college, several months before Pearl Harbor. But in the summer months of 1941, Dad was at Simpson College, reading and studying. And it was there that he got the news that his childhood friend from that small town, Murro McCracken, had been killed on June 30th. My dad’s diary simply states “Murro McCracken was killed in an air plane.”

It seems that Lt McCracken, who was teaching cadets to fly in preparation for the war that loomed on the horizon, had been out flying with a young student. Something went wrong with the aircraft, and Murro ordered his student, as the newspaper report of the time said, “to take to his parachute.” Moments later, Murro followed. His student’s parachute opened, but Murro did not survive. He was 26. On that warm June day, Murro became one of 5,485 men killed in the Army Air Corps in 1941. My father would find himself in the Air Corps after reporting for active duty in the Fall. Murro’s death would be the first time the war touched the tiny hamlet of Manilla, but it would not be the last.

And so, on this Memorial Day weekend, please do enjoy it. Bask in the sunshine and eat the hotdogs. Really, have a wonderful time. But perhaps you could pause, even if briefly, to recall Murro McCracken and his brothers and sisters in arms, who gave the last full measure of devotion. From Valley Forge to Fallujah and beyond, raise a glass to their memory. For when people are remembered, at least a part of them lives on. I’ll be toasting Murro, who is not forgotten.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.