Keynote Speaker for Memorial Day

Keynote Speaker for Memorial Day

Larry had the honor of being invited to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Memorial Day celebration. It was well-received.

Click here for more from the Richmond Times-Dispatch

The text of the speech is available below

They sat at the table, rolling paper cartridges and joking nervously about being shot by the British. Minuteman Captain Isaac Davis, unusually somber, rebuked them and reminded them that some would, indeed, die that day. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he would be among the 1st to fall. A few days before, he had returned home to find an owl perched on his musket…a bad omen.

Soon, other volunteers of the Acton Minutemen gathered with practiced efficiency at Davis’ home. British regulars were headed their way—that much was for certain. Paul Revere, William Dawes, Dr. Prescott, & others had spread word among the surrounding country hamlets, including the Davis home near Concord, Massachusetts. In final preparation, Davis powdered his hair with white flour, to greet the British as befitting an officer & a gentleman. The Acton Minutemen now stood ready in formation…in fact, they were more than ready. Captain Davis had trained them exceptionally well. As a gunsmith, he saw to it that their muskets were in fighting shape, that each was fitted with a bayonet, and he provided enough powder for each man to become an accomplished marksman.

At Davis’ command, the formation of armed men stepped off sharply, but then, Davis curiously ordered them to halt. He strode up the walk to the front door of his home, and said to his wife, “take good care of the children”.

As a church bell pealed at 9am, he drew the men up into battle line alongside other minutemen & militia units. Then he saw them, holding the Old North Bridge. His Majesty’s famed redcoats, an awe-inspiring line of professional soldiers…the tip of the spear of a mighty global empire, upon which the sun never set, standing ready to receive them. Asked to lead the attack formation, Davis replied bravely, “I have not a man that is afraid to go.” The Acton Minutemen moved forward two abreast, with Davis at the head of the column. The redcoats marveled at the military crispness of the rebel force, and aimed their muskets at the advancing colonials. What happened next would change world history…

Fast-forward now to June of 1813, America was, once again, in a deadly struggle with the vaunted British Empire. Wildly popular, U.S. Navy Captain James Lawrence was adored by all who met him. Humble, kind, and capable, even the enemy admired him. After a previous sea battle in which Lawrence was victorious, an enemy British sailor was so impressed by his adversary, he had refused to allow the ship’s surgeon to saw off his maimed arm until Captain Lawrence sat with him, held his hand, and promised to adopt his son if the sailor should die.

On this particular day, another battle loomed, as the frigate USS Chesapeake cut through the waters past Boston Lighthouse. Captain James Lawrence delivered some last-minute words of inspiration to his crew. Awaiting the Chesapeake off-shore was His Majesty’s Ship HMS Shannon. Her tanned and hardened crew was widely considered the best-trained in the leviathan 900-ship British Navy. Simply known as the ‘Shannons’, the British sailors stood at their guns, stripped to the waist, barefoot, quietly preparing to ply their deadly trade. With the sun low above the oyster-colored waves, the ships closed to within 50 yards. Suddenly, thunder pealed from the gun ports of the Shannon, great clouds of white smoke bellowed, and a hornet’s nest of 32-pound iron cannonballs screamed across the deadly space. Almost simultaneously, an enormous geyser of dust, wooden splinters and humanity exploded upward from the deck of the American ship. The Chesapeake replied in kind, and this time it was the British ship which shuddered and rolled as if struck by a great iron hammer.

The two ships closed together, and as British sailors & marines swarmed across the Chesapeake’s railing, Captain Lawrence began to call out orders to his men, but was knocked to the deck as a musket ball struck his torso. What he said next has inspired generations of sailors and marines ever since…

Civil War General Ulysses S Grant ordered the assault on the Confederate earthworks for the pre-dawn hours of April 2nd, 1865. Although no one knew at the time, the surrender at Appomattox was only a week away. An imposing offensive force of union soldiers could barely be seen in their dark blue coats as they quietly moved forward through the pre-dawn gloom. Major Clifton Prentiss, from Baltimore, of the Union’s 6th Maryland Regiment was intent on being one of the 1st to scale the parapets of the enemy. As the northern soldiers neared the great wall of earth and logs, sheets of musket fire erupted along the battle line. Major Prentiss and the soldiers of the 6th Maryland hurled themselves over the top of the battlements and tumbled wildly into the confederate fortifications. In the midst of the bloody struggle, Major Prentiss, waving his sword to urge his men on, was shot through the left lung, and collapsed, horribly wounded. He was quickly carried to the rear, and laid on a blanket on the ground. There, a most incredible story was to unfold, which is still told to this day…

The ‘War to end all Wars’ was still feeding millions of soldiers and civilians into a human hash-grinder in 1918. Among the maze of trenches and craters spread across miles of France and Belgium, an American sergeant crawled through the mud in no-man’s land, defying the deadly statistics mounting all around him. He went by his given first name, Viggo, hinting at his immigrant background.

Along the Meuse River, his unit, the 33rd Infantry Division, had withstood two weeks of ceaseless fire from high explosive artillery and deadly poison gas. Casualties from gas were twice as high as that from explosives. By October 8th, every officer and soldier in the 33rd had been gassed to some degree, and were in no condition to fight. Nevertheless, they received orders to assault the heights beyond the river. After at least four attempts, the American ‘dough boys’ captured the German-held position at considerable cost. And, the young Sergeant named Viggo, has an impact on everyone within the sound of my voice, even now…

Cutting through the inky blackness of the South China Sea in 1944, an enemy convoy of 12 ships and 2 escort destroyers shuttled vital supplies needed to sustain Japanese troops warring against America. Suddenly, and without warning, an ominous shadow streaked across the night sky, rushing low past the ghostly-grey formation of ships. Surprise was complete. The B-24 Bomber roared past, and almost immediately a violent explosion rent the sea adjacent to one of the warships…but, it was a near miss. At the controls of the American warplane, Horace Carswell, Jr., better known as “Stump”, had a choice to make. He could return to base safely, and receive a ‘better luck next time’ from his squadron mates, or he could try again.

He circled back toward the enemy, fully realizing the entire task force was now on alert and ready at their battle stations. With fierce determination, the crew of 11 airmen hunkered down inside their craft and flew, alone, straight into the crisscrossing streams of orange tracer fire which rose to meet them in a hailstorm of exploding steel. Searchlights pierced the gloom and removed the veil of secrecy. As they roared overhead again, the cry ‘bombs away’ rang out through the aircraft, and 2 enormous plumes of flame leapt from a Japanese oil tanker below. Night turned to day, making the low-flying raider easy prey. Inside, orange light burst through holes ripped through the fuselage. The throaty noise of the 4 engines began to fade as one engine was knocked out, then the propeller of a second slowly wound down, and a third began to sputter. Gasoline began to spray dangerously from the fuel tank, the hydraulic fluid for the flight controls failed, and the aircraft lurched toward the black water below. As “Stump” Carswell battled to regain control, the co-pilot slumped, wounded, beside him. With herculean flying skill, Carswell narrowly missed the wave tops, and finally nursed the stricken craft over the far-away China shoreline. Stomachs churned, as the third engine abruptly failed. He ordered the crew to bail out. As “Stump” prepared for abandoning the craft, the bombardier turned and looked at him frantically with a quizzical look. He held up his shredded parachute, damaged in the raid. What “Stump” Carswell did next, was beyond brave…

It was called Hill 749, one of the targets of an American assault during what Korean War veterans call the ‘Battle of the Punchbowl’. An automatic rifleman in company F, Corporal Joseph Vittori didn’t have to be there. He had already served 3 years in the Marine Corps, and could have continued as a bricklayer at home in Massachussets. Instead, he chose to join the reserves, agreeing to an infinite tour of active duty. Wounded during early fighting on the Korean Peninsula, Vittori received the Purple Heart, and was subsequently given a desk job…his second chance to avoid harm’s way. He easily could have sat out the war. But, after a week, he volunteered to rejoin his buddies in his old infantry unit.

Thus, on the 16th day of September, 1951, Vittori was in position with his reserve platoon below Hill 749. The Korean People’s Army was well entrenched on the heights above. When a forward platoon was pushed back in a counter-attack, Corporal Vittori volunteered once again, and rushed in with two others to give time for the beleaguered platoon to regroup. Later, a volunteer was needed to defend a machine gun position in the line of Marines…Naturally, Joseph Vittori stepped forward. Fighting grew fierce, and casualties mounted. Marines fell on either side, and soon, he was alone. Alone in a gap in the Marine lines 100 yards wide. Vittori could have fallen back. Again, he didn’t have to be there, but that wasn’t his way. With almost maniacal ferocity, he fought a one-man battle. For 3 hours, he leapt from one position to another, firing at least a thousand rounds. Wave after wave surged toward him. His eyes must have grown wide as enemy soldiers crested to within feet of his position, and that’s when it happened…

Viet Nam. The name stirs emotion even today. Many in the Central Virginia region were there, so I tread carefully so as to not bring up a flood of unpleasant memories.

As part of a recon team occupying a defensive position, Private 1st Class Robert Jenkins, found himself fending off an attack from a wave of North Vietnamese regular army soldiers. AK-47 automatic weapons fire ripped through the morning air. Mortar round detonations slowly marched closer to the American position, as the enemy felt out the range. Reacting swiftly, Jenkins returned fire from a 2-man emplacement. The enemy nudged closer, and suddenly, a Vietnamese grenade flew through the opening in the emplacement and rattled on the ground. Private Jenkins’ quick thinking resulted in an extraordinary outcome…

SSgt Kimberley Voelz, an explosive ordinance disposal expert, is part of the list of over 2.5 million women who have, in some way, served in our nation’s military since the Revolution. Voelz was sent to Iraq a little over ten years ago. Her job was a tough one, rushing into combat areas in search of explosive devices, dealing with the many roadside bombs, as well as mines and homemade booby traps. She was a cheerful person, part tom-boy, and part domestic. She felt equally comfortable covered in dirt, or baking up a chocolate cake with peanut butter icing. In December of 2003, she was bending over an explosive device, trying to diffuse it…

 

And now, the rest of the story…

  • Captain Davis of the Acton Minuteman marched bravely toward the Old North Bridge, when the British opened fire. A musket ball tore through his heart, and, as he had suspected, he became one of the 1st to fall in the Revolution. But, the shot which killed him was heard round the world. The eventual American victory he helped achieve spread democracy and freedom across the globe.
  • Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake was carried below to the ship’s surgeon. As he left the deck, he cried “Don’t give up the ship!”, which became the rallying cry of the US Navy then, and forever after. He died 4 days later, repeating over & over “Don’t give up the ship”. A flag bearing the famous slogan was ordered made by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, victorious against the British later in the War of 1812. I used to walk past it almost every day as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, from which I continually drew inspiration.
  • As Civil War Major Clifton Prentiss of the 6th Maryland lay wounded upon his blanket, he was notified that a captured confederate soldier, also wounded, wished to see him. It was, in fact, his brother, William Prentiss, who had chosen to pick up arms for the South. By an amazing alignment of coincidences, the 6th Maryland Union regiment had attacked the very portion of the lines defended by his brother’s southern Maryland unit. At first, Clifton refused to see his brother, saying “I want to see no man who fired on my country’s flag.” The Colonel over the regiment pleaded with Clifton to see his brother, and ordered the confederate to be laid beside him. At 1st, Clifton glared at him. His brother smiled in return. Then hands went out, clasped, and tears flowed down their cheeks. They were reconciled, as the nation would be only a week later. In due time, they were both sent to hospital in Washington, DC., where they were attended by a male volunteer nurse by the name of Walt Whitman. Both soldiers died, and now lay forever side-by-side as they did on the battlefield.
  • Bomber pilot “Stump” Carswell, Jr. faced the ultimate choice. To abandon his bombardier with no parachute, or to go down with the ship. After he ensured the others of his aircrew were floating in their chutes to safety, Carswell stayed with his co-pilot and bombardier. The 3 were killed in the subsequent crash. “Stump” Carswell was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
  • As the sun rose the morning after the battle for Hill 749, Marine Corporal Joseph Vittori was found with his automatic weapon nearby. Around this one brave man laid 200 of the enemy. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
  • Private 1st-Class Robert Jenkins reacted swiftly when the grenade rattled into their 2-man emplacement. Grabbing his comrade, he threw him down and covered him. When the grenade exploded, Jenkins absorbed the full brunt of the lethal blast. He, too, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
  • Staff Sgt Kimberley Voelz, her body shattered when the bomb she was attempting to diffuse detonated, was transported to the medical unit where she clung to life. Her husband Max, also a soldier, was stationed nearby and rushed to be with her. Kimberley later died in her husband’s arms. She was 27.
  • You may have noticed I saved WWI Sgt. Viggo for last. Despite effects from gas, the 33rd Division went on to take the heights, and were still in action when the war ended November 11th, the original Veteran’s Day. Viggo didn’t talk about his wartime experiences much, but a unit scrapbook contains pictures which show the horrors which he must have seen. Following the War, surviving soldiers reunited each year, accompanied by a small wooden case. Inside the case was a bottle of wine brought home from France, and two glasses. The idea was that the last two remaining veterans would open the wine, pour two glasses, and raise a final toast to their lost comrades. As the years passed, and the number of empty chairs grew, the last 6 surviving veterans couldn’t take it anymore. Waiting became too morose, too much like a death watch. SO, instead of mourning, they decided to celebrate! The wine was opened, additional glasses were obtained, and the toast was given to those veterans who had gone before. Viggo was among those who raised a glass to those lost. I know. I was there. You see, Sgt. Viggo’s full name was Sgt. Viggo Lars Nordvig, my grandfather. This is the helmet he wore in those trenches. The sacrifices of his less-fortunate comrades, which allowed him to live, is the same reason I live, and am able to speak before you today.

And, isn’t that really what this day is all about? We remember those who died that others may live on…to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those I have told you about today, and so many more, are like rungs of a ladder rising through history. We have risen to where we are today as a nation, and are able to climb higher, only through sacrifices such as these. The price of life and liberty is, indeed, high. Do you wish to celebrate Memorial Day? Then, pause and remember those who paid that price, but then go out & celebrate the life you’ve been freely given! God Bless…

 

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