From Civil War to World War II and Global War on Terror: Remembering those lost

From Civil War to World War II and beyond: Remembering those lost
Memorial Day commemoration at NHB/NMRTC Bremerton - remembrance reflection and respect those who have been lost to their country, to their family, to their community, and to their fellow service men and women. Photo credit Official Navy/Douglas H Stutz

Since Memorial Day’s inception in 1868, the date has held special significance throughout our country, especially with those who have worn the cloth of their nation.

The backyard barbeques, ballgame bleachers and marching bands are all mere cosmetic accoutrements to the hallowed meaning of the day.

Across the entire land, our populace is afforded the opportunity to take a collective pause and remember, reflect, and respect those who have been lost to their country, to their family, to their community, and to their fellow service men and women.

This day allows us to honor our fallen, and acknowledge the profound loss of a father, mother, uncle, aunt, son, daughter, nephew, grandson, cousin, and/or friend. We gather to remember those who never made it home, thank them for their service and offer our heartfelt condolences to the families of those who never made it back and were lost serving their country.

Our Memorial Day tradition came about after our country’s Civil War, 1861-1865, a time of great animosity between Americans. In the years that followed the end of that bloody conflict, Americans observed the day and were brought together in their shared need to mourn those gone before their time.

Even in the Pacific Northwest, far from the Civil War battlefields, a local cemetery has sustained the memory of those who fought in the war between the states.

Ivy Green Cemetery, in Bremerton, Washington, has a sizable military section, with over 2,000 fallen Americans of all services represented, including U.S. Navy quartermaster John H. Nibbe, a Civil War hero and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.

Nibbe was assigned to the tinclad wooden steamer USS Peterel patrolling Yazoo River, Mississippi, as part of the Navy strategy to thwart Confederacy logistic efforts and control the Mississippi River and its many tributaries. On April 22, 1864, according to his citation, “the vessel came under fire and was raked by shot. He assisted in getting all the wounded away and proceeded to get prepared to fire the ship despite the escaping steam from the boilers, at which time he was surrounded on all sides by rebels and forced to surrender.”

Over a century later, that same belief of service before self was also displayed under fire in the heat of battle, and during another time of acrimony in our country by another U.S. Navy Sailor. That Sailor is remembered every day at Naval Hospital/Navy Medicine Readiness Training Command Bremerton’s David R. Ray Health Center located on Naval Station Everett.

The namesake of the health center, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class David R. Ray, might not be laid to rest at Ivy Green, but he’s out there in similar hallowed ground, along with all our other fallen.

Here’s who he was, and why he – like Nibbe and so many others - completely encompasses what our tradition, legacy and sacrifice are all about on Memorial Day.

Ray was born February 14, 1945, to David F. and Donnie M. Ray of McMinnville, Tennessee. After high school and three years of college, he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Navy on March 28, 1966.

His first assignment was aboard Naval Hospital ship USS Haven. From haze gray he went to the green side requesting a tour of duty with the Marines. He joined Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, in the Republic of Vietnam in May 1968.

On March 19, 1969, his unit, while defending their fire base at Liberty Bridge, Phu Loc 6, near An Hoa Combat Base, came under intense hostile fire during the early morning hours by an estimated battalion-sized (approx. 1,000) enemy force. The initial burst of enemy fire caused numerous casualties among the Marines.

Undaunted by the intense hostile fire, Ray moved from emplacement to emplacement, rendering emergency medical treatment to the wounded.

Although seriously wounded while administering first aid to a Marine casualty, he refused medical aid and continued his lifesaving efforts. Ray was forced to battle two enemy soldiers who attacked his position, killing one and wounding the other.

Even though he was rapidly losing strength as a result of his severe wounds, Ray still managed to move through the hail of enemy fire to other casualties.

Once again, he came under intense fire and despite grave personal danger and insurmountable odds, succeeded in treating wounded Marines and holding off the enemy until he ran out of ammunition, at which time he sustained fatal wounds.

His final act of heroism was to protect the Marine he was treating. He threw himself upon the wounded patient, thus saving the man's life when an enemy grenade exploded nearby.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

A friend of Ray, Hospital Corpsman Tommy Vickers, who was also in Quang Nam Province, wrote a letter back to his family, describing that fateful time. The letter was received by Mr. and Mrs. Tom Vickers from their son the day before the Rays’ were notified on their son being killed in action.

It read, in part, “They - the Vietcong - ran over An Hoa. This is the story I got from a Marine that Ray patched up, ‘They started when one got through the wire and pulled a satchel charge under a hutch. When it went off everyone ran outside. They started mowing them down as they ran out. Bob got hit but was still treating wounded when he was hit the second time.’

‘The Marine said Bob knew his job and was doing it. He said that the enemy was all over them, plus rockets and mortars as thick as flies.’

Vickers worked late in the night and well into the next day helping to treat and care for mass casualties.

The next morning choppers from An Hoa landed. Vickers still could not locate his friend and began asking Marines from Ray’s outfit if they knew his status.

“Everyone said he had been hit, but no one knew how badly. Then this one kid told me what happened. I couldn’t work. All I could do was sit and stare,” wrote Vickers.

Such sacrifice and a call to duty for fellow man and country are emblematic of our Memorial Day lineage.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, many a generation have suffered from loss, especially during major wars:

In our nation’s Civil War, 1861-1865, the union lost 140,414 in battle and another 224,097 in theater [referring to the geographic area in which wartime operations occurred and resulting from accidents, disease, injury. Confederate losses were 74,524 and another 59,297 in theater, and that figure does not include the estimated 26-31,000 who died in union prisons.

In World War I in the years 1917 and 1918, there were 53,402 battle deaths with an additional 63,114 fatalities.

In World War II, 1941 through 1945, America suffered 291,557 battle deaths and another 113,842 fatalities in service.

In the Korean War, there were 33,739 battle deaths and another 2,835 other deaths in theater and 17,672 fatalities non theater.

During the Vietnam War, 1964 to 1975, battle deaths totaled 47,134 with another 10,786 deaths in theater and 32,000 other deaths in service, non-theater, that actually cover the period from 1955 to 1975.

During 1990 to 1991 Desert Shield and Desert Storm, there were 148 battle deaths with another 235 deaths in theater and 1,565 other deaths in service, non-theater.

There have been well over 6,000 fatalities over the past two decades, specifically in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Overall, our country has suffered upwards of 655,000 deaths in battle, along with 310,000 other deaths in theater and more than 230,000 fatalities non-theater over our nation’s history.

We pay homage to all our men and women such as Nibbe and Ray on Memorial Day, who embody strength of character, service before self and courageous sacrifice for their ideals, nation and brothers-in-arms.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Official Navy/Douglas H Stutz