DETROIT - The 4th of July is so much more than the day off we can count on for hot weather. Yes, today is a scorcher! It's that holiday we dream of on that coldest, snowiest day of winter. The Independence Day cookout, vacation day or week makes and marks our summer.
That it has become more a touchstone of leisure than anything else is really quite sad really. I say that because today I met the real "Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on the 4th of July."
Glen Barnhart of Waterford is 87 years young today. He is one of those Greatest Generation guys who have so much to teach us all about patriotism, liberty and American exceptionalism.
He enlisted in the Marines at age 17 and had to wait until July 4th, 1942 to go to basic training. He became a demolition infantryman sent to the Pacific theatre. He wound up storming the sandy tropical beach of Peleiu in what became known as one of the deadliest and bloodiest battles of the entire war. Nearly 2,000 men died and eight thousand were injured [on the American side alone] on that spit of sand. It was supposed to be a quick operation and ended up dragging on two and a half months.
Barnhart stormed the beach on his fourth day there on a mission and a photographer snapped his picture that ended up published in the old Detroit Times in 1944. The fighting was so intense that day Barnhart told the photographer where he was from so they could send it home and five minutes later he claims the photographer himself lay dead in the waves.
Barnhart's job that day was to go in and resupply a group of Americans who'd fought all night against the Japanese and were surrounded. They ran out of ammunition and were hanging on by fighting with bayonets and fists. As he ran along the beach, a Japanese mortar struck next to him and one of his buddies. His buddy lost a leg. Barnhart got very emotional telling the story because he'd lost his hearing, had bloody eyes and shrapnel wounds over much of his body. His friend was screaming for help and Barnhart pulled him under what was called an amtrac tank. His friend was screaming about the pain. Barnhart himself was stunned and not thinking clearly and did what he thought best. He ran and found his friend's leg and brought it to him.
Barnhart eventually collapsed and was brought to a hospital ship with his buddy. But the worries of war were never far away.
An alarm sounded on the ship, an enemy submarine lurked in the area. Everyone scrambled to put on life jackets fearing they'd die or perhaps worse yet, become shark food. Can you even imagine that kind of terror? All of a sudden there were explosions near the ship. Dive bombing fighters were dropping bombs into the ocean. Much like a whale breaching, Barnhart said a Japanese submarine popped nose first out of the water and exploded before his eyes. The blast blew Japanese submariners all over the sea; many of them still alive. Because the Japanese did not conduct World War II with the kinds of engagement rules we did, the dive bombers pulled up and "finished off" those sailors to use Barnhart's description.
This was truly traumatizing to him. He openly weeps at the memory he's tried, but can't, erase from his mind.
You can not sit and look in an old soldier's eyes in the telling of stories like these and not be changed. Barnhartcdid his duty, and is rightfully proud of not only the job he and others did but proud of America for what id did in that war. He loves what America stood for; the good side, and as he put it, God's side. There is ambivalence. He is at once grateful he survived and uncertain why he did when so many others died. So many gave their lives in the defense of our freedom. Barnhart left his childhood and peace of mind on that Asian sand. This by any measure is true sacrifice and what makes Independence Day possible.
I am grateful for him and the others like him who were called on to make that sacrifice and did not hesitate. I was fortunate in that I was too young to have to serve in Viet Nam. Yes, the war mercifully ended when I was in junior high school but I was well aware had it gone on much longer I would likely have gotten the call. That anxiety I recall from that time pales in comparison.
Having the privilege to sit and talk with the Glenn Barnhart's of this world is a gift. I can take time on a hot Independence Day to savor that free pass I was given to enjoy unfettered liberty; that Glenn's had hundreds of sleepless nights so I wouldn't have to.
This is truly the meaning of the Fourth of July; of sacrifice, of liberty and hard won freedoms. I shook Glenn Barnhart's hand and thanked him for his service. It's not much but it's the least any of us can do on this or any other Independence Day. Scratch that! The very least we can do is take a moment or two to ponder people like Glenn Barnhart today and say a prayer of thanksgiving.
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