MAUREEN BURNS: We remember …

By Maureen Burns • Last Updated 10:40 am on Monday, December 12, 2011

Maureen Burns

Today is my grandson, Louie’s, birthday. He is six. It is also the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I watched the news tonight. They were honoring 120 of the men who survived Pearl Harbor. It made me think of how that history is going fast. Those survivors are in their late eighties. How will this history stay alive? How will little Louie know what it is all about? It will stay alive because we will remember and we will pass it on. It is our familial and civic duty.

I was born after World War II ended and am one of the first baby boomers. We got this label because the men came home from war and got the women pregnant. I only know about our family in the wars because the stories have been kept alive. For that I am grateful.

As I grew up, I always heard about cousin, Bobby. He went down with the Arizona, I was told. Bobby Colegrove was a young good-looking sailor serving on the USS Arizona in Hawaii. He was my mom’s first cousin.

It was just before 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday in beautiful Hawaii. The USS Arizona battleship was the first one hit by a squadron of Japanese aircraft. The ship exploded into fires. Most of the crew were either killed by the explosions and fires or were trapped by the rapid sinking of the ship. In all, 1,177 of the crew died on that ship. Of course, cousin, Bobby was one of them. The total number of Americans that died during the Pearl Harbor attack was 2400. 2399 were just names to me, but one, just one, is part of my family story. I must pass that on to my children and grandchildren.

Both Bobby’s dad, Bill, and his brother were career military and retired with high military ranks. Uncle Bill’s two brothers, one which was my Grandpa, were also in the military and served during World War I.

On my father’s side, he and his two brothers all served in the Navy during World War II. I often have thought of my Grandma worrying about her three sons fighting in other lands. There is a wonderful photo which ran front page in the Rochester, New York, newspaper. It showed all three sailors looking in the window of their home. They had been allowed to come home together to surprise their mother for Christmas. Happy holidays, indeed.

One of them, my Uncle Bill Empey, is the only one left. He was recently honored in Washington, D.C. as a survivor of World War II, among other honorees. An entire trip was done to honor these heroes in every way possible. When they got on the plane, they were each given three personal letters written by school children thanking them for their service. There were many stories told, many memories shared, many laughs and many tears. My uncle is on dialysis three days a week and is frail. My aunt went to the airport to meet him when they returned from Washington, D.C. She was sure he would be in a wheel chair, but he surprised her. As they came off the plane and into the airport, there were hundreds of people to greet them, all cheering. My dear, fragile and wonderful uncle walked all the way on his own, saluting and smiling to all. He was so proud to have served and to have been honored! This is part of a national project to honor all living World War II veterans. When that is completed, they will begin doing the same with Viet Nam Veterans.

At left, is Maureen’s grandfather Edward Colegrove, while in the Army at age 14 during World War II; at right is Maureen’s father Walter Empey, who was in the Nacy during World War II. — Courtesy photos

Way back in 1883, another uncle, Arthur Guy Empey, was born. He served in World War I with the US Cavalry. I have always heard about his bestselling book, “Over the Top: by an American soldier who went”. It is sold on Amazon today and has a 5 star rating. It is touted as “the first book about real war life that offers a unique description of trench warfare during World War I”. I have found copies for my children to help them realize that history touches each of us through our relatives.  We just need to remember it and pass it on.

Think about your families and what stories you have to share about them and their military history. What do you need to pass on so that it will never be forgotten? What do you need to pass on so that it will honor the service and the lives that were given? In our church there is a hymn I love, “We Remember”. We must.

Our family stories continue on my husband’s side and also with good friends. They continue through other wars. Our son was named after a good friend and a marine, Dan Jaskewiecz, who was killed in Vietnam. Our son has been told Dan’s story of service. He’s also been to The Wall in Washington, D.C., and felt Dan’s name etched in the memorial. We have kept Dan’s story alive in our family history.

Today at Pearl Harbor, an 88 year old survivor spoke. “Freedom isn’t free, never has been — looks like it never will be.” He sums it up. It is a story that goes on and on through generations. Let us never forget those generations from our own families who fought and served. By honoring and remembering them, we honor ourselves and our families today. Take time to pass the memories and stories and photos on. It is the least we can do.

Maureen Burns, a Greenville resident, is a professional speaker and author.

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