Road Blog: Oyster, Hero, Backhoe Man

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A week ago, I was traveling down the coast of Washington with my brother Chris and nephew Liam. Just after sunset, we passed through a couple little towns in Pacific County, on U.S. 101 north of Astoria–first Raymond, then South Bend. Both are right on the Willapa River, just inland from Willapa Bay. As we rolled through South Bend, population 1,700, with Chris carefully watching how fast he was going in case of a speed trap, we passed a sign pointing to a launching ramp for kayaks and canoes. I glanced over and saw what appeared to be a giant shell with a sign that said “Worlds Largest Oyster.”

“Turn around,” I said to Chris as we rolled past. He pulled an apparently legal U-turn, and we drove into a little waterfront park. The “oyster” turned out to be made of concrete–maybe a draw for the rubes, of whom I had apparently proven myself one. The main display in the park turned out to be a memorial to a son of Pacific County, Robert E. Bush, who won the Medal of Honor as an 18-year-old Navy corpsman during World War II. In fact, there was a sign saying Mr. Bush, who did well in the lumber and building-supply business, had donated money for the park. He died in 2005, but there’s a small pavilion with a plaque inscribed with Bush’s Medal of Honor citation and a statue depicting Bush’s actions. Here’s the citation:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Robert E. Bush, Hospital Apprentice First Class, U.S. Navy, for service as set forth in the following:

Citation: Robert Bush, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while service as Medical Corpsman with a Rifle Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Okinawa Jima, Ryukyu Islands, 2 May 1945. Fearlessly braving the fury of artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire from strongly entrenched hostile positions, Bush constantly and unhesitatingly moved from one casualty to another to attend the wounded falling under the enemy’s murderous barrages. As the attack passed over a ridge top, Bush was advancing to administer blood plasma to a Marine officer lying wounded on the skyline when the Japanese launched a savage counterattack. In this perilously exposed position, he resolutely maintained the flow of life-giving plasma. With the bottle held high in one hand, Bush drew his pistol with the other and fired into the enemy’s ranks until his ammunition was expended. Quickly seizing a discarded carbine, he trained his fire on the Japanese charging point-blank over the hill, accounting for six of the enemy despite his own serious wounds and the loss of one eye suffered during the desperate battle in defense of the helpless man. With the hostile force finally routed, he calmly disregarded his own critical condition to complete his mission, valiantly refusing medical treatment for himself until his officer patient had been evacuated, and collapsing only after attempting to walk to the battle aid station. His daring initiative, great personal valor and heroic spirit of self-sacrifice in service of others reflect great credit upon Bush and enhance the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

–Harry S Truman

Bush was one of the veterans featured in Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation.” He died in 2005, and is buried near South Bend. I see on Google Maps that U.S. 101 through the town is named after him. And so is a naval hospital in Twentynine Palms, in the Southern California desert.

There’s one other personal memorial in South Bend’s waterside park. And whereas you can easily track down the basics of Robert Bush’s life, buy his autograph on eBay, and find pictures of him receiving his medal from President Truman, I can’t find a thing about this second honoree. Here’s his marker:

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The text reads: “Burke J. Welsh, 1948-2005. Expert Backhoe Operator. South Bend Fire Department, 1975-1993. Lifetime Community Volunteer and Lifelong Friend.” That, and the fact folks in town thought enough of Mr. Welsh to remember him this way, is all I know about Mr. Welsh despite deploying my magical Internet skills (there’s a preview of my own someday plaque).

After we left the park, we saw that one of the local cops had pulled over a car–a gaudy PT Cruiser with British Columbia plates–about a block down the way. Always watch for that speed trap.

Journal of Interesting Things

Today’s edition of The Journal of Interesting Things You Learn While You’re Supposed to Be Doing Something Else (this installment could be called “Abe Lincoln and the Peeping-Tom Hero Guy,” but that would be silly and wrong).

Researching one topic, I stumbled upon another in the form of this letter from President Lincoln to Captain James Madison Cutts, Jr., dated October 26, 1863. The letter is fairly well known , and I encountered it in the Library of America’s “Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865” (pp. 530-31). Here’s the entire letter as published:

“Although what I am now to say is to be, in form, a reprimand, it is not intended to add a pang to what you have already suffered upon the subject to which it relates. You have too much of life yet before you, and have shown too much promise as an officer, for your future to be lightly surrendered. You were convicted of two offences. One of them, not of great enormity, and yet greatly to be avoided, I feel sure you are in no danger of repeating. The other you are not so well assured against. The advice of a father to his son “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee,” is good, and yet not the best. Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself, can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper, and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield less ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog, than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.

“In the mood indicated deal henceforth with your fellow men, and especially your brother officers; and even the unpleasant events you are passing from will not have been profitless to you.”

Reading this, one naturally wonders: who was the recipient of this profoundly wise and kind advice, and what became of him?

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The Conscientious Objector

Blackfive, one of the military blogs I follow to try to understand that perspective on the war in Iraq, mentions today the passing of Desmond Doss, 87, who won theMedal of Honor for his World War II service in the Pacific. What was unique about Desmond Doss and his recognition for bravery: He was a noncombatant, having enlisted in the Army as what he called a “conscientious cooperator” because of his pacifist beliefs. He served as a medic.

Before Doss ever saw a battlefield, he had to overcome the hostility of his officers and fellow recruits. He was a Seventh-Day Adventist, and refused to train on Saturdays. He declined to carry weapons. He was a vegetarian. Accounts of his service note that he was ridiculed and harassed by other soldiers; the brass, meantime, tried to throw him out of the Army as unfit for service, a move he resisted.

Eventually, Doss’s unit shipped out to the Pacific and wound up fighting on Guam, in the Philippines, and finally, in April and May 1945, on Okinawa. His Medal of Honor citation tells the story:

DOSS, DESMOND T.

“Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April-21 May 1945. Entered service at: Lynchburg, Va. Birth: Lynchburg, Va. G.O. No.: 97, 1 November 1945. Citation: He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them 1 by 1 to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. …”

There’s more, actually, about his own wounding. Doss’s tale is told in a book (“Unlikeliest Hero,” 1967) and a documentary (“The Conscientious Objector,” 2004). The Seventh-Day Adventists have reported a theatrical film based on his story is in production.

The religious component to the tale is not to be downplayed. This guy had a lifelong conviction that taking life, of any kind, was wrong; it was a belief intertwinted with his view of the Ten Commandments and his living relationship with his god. One of the stories about Doss on Okinawa has him calling his unit together and praying before the assault on a cliff; his unit was said to have suffered no casualties in the ensuing attack — and the believers hold that fact out as proof of a god extending a hand of protection over those devoutly seeking aid. Of course, I’ve got no problem believing Doss was devout, that his faith was sincere and suffused his whole being; on the other hand I have a little problem conceiving of a god who extends a hand of protection in the midst of a rain of violence, chaos, cruelty and death in which many, many other prayers go unanswered; unless, of course, the god is Zeus, Poseidson, Apollo, or Athena.

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Sports, Entertainment, History

In its listing of today’s important anniversaries and birthdays, the Wikipedia notes that it was on this date in 1970 that Vinko Bogotaj flew into television history. He’s the guy who was featured in the opening montage of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” tumbling off the end of a ski-jump ramp. You know — the agony of defeat. The surprise to me is that this happened so late; I would have sworn I’d seen it back during the Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew) administration.

The anniversary list also reports that Charles Lindbergh received the Medal of Honor — yes, the one usually called “the Congressional Medal of Honor” — on this date in 1928. That’s a new one on me, as I thought the medal was reserved for combat heroics (or for wiping out virtually defenseless Indians, as at Wounded Knee, which produced 18 or 20 Medal of Honor recipients). In any case, Congress’s vote to award the medal demonstrates how huge Lindbergh’s accomplishment loomed at the time. The citation said:

“For displaying heroic courage and skill as a navigator, at the risk of his life, by his nonstop flight in his airplane, the ‘Spirit of St. Louis,’ from New York City to Paris, France, 20-21 May 1927, by which Capt. Lindbergh not only achieved the greatest individual triumph of any American citizen but demonstrated that travel across the ocean by aircraft was possible.”