There are many images that come to my mind on Memorial Day. I remember first seeing the sight of thousands of grave markers that dotted the green hills of Arlington National Cemetery and how emotionally overwhelming it felt standing amongst them.
But this image stays with me the most on Memorial Day. It was taken in December 1942 / January 1943 and depicts three dead American soldiers lying on a beach during the Battle of Buna-Gona in New Guinea. Printed in LIFE Magazine, it was the first photograph of dead soldiers that the American public was allowed to see since the start of American involvement in World War II two years earlier.
Accompanying the image was an editorial from the magazine, giving a rationale to why the photograph was published. It was a piece that beautifully captured the grief of the moment, but also the reverence and resolve of the nation that bore these soldiers. I’ve included a few especially poignant excerpts below, but you can read the entire article here.
“Here lie three Americans. What shall we say of them?…Shall we say that this is a fine thing, and that they should give their lives for their country?…Why print this picture, anyway, or three American boys dead upon an alien shore?
The reason is that words are never enough. The eye sees. The mind knows. The heart feels. But the words do not exist to see, or know, or feel what it is like, what actually happens. The words are never right.
And so here it is. This is the reality that lies behind the names that come to rest at last on monuments in the leafy squares of busy American towns.
No, the camera doesn’t show America, not any part of America, not even her mighty hills and rivers, not even the great gray cities or the freight trains tramping through the night loaded with the paraphernalia of war…
And yet here on the beach is America, three parts of a hundred and thirty million parts, three fragments of that life we call American life: three units of freedom.
America is the symbol of freedom…It is the symbol of freedom all over the earth, wherever men dream of freedom or desire it…And all over the world, now, there are living fragments of this symbol, and all over the world they are being shot down, like these fragments.
And it is not an easy thing to understand why they are there, and why, if freedom is to live, they must be willing to die. But this is because freedom is something more than a set of rules, or a set of principles. Freedom is a free man. It is a package. But it is God’s package.
So when these living units of freedom are extinguished we cannot bring them back to life. All we can do is give meaning to their death.
And this is to say that when freedom falls, as it has here on the beach in Buna, it is our task to cause it to rise again: not in living units, which we cannot make and to which we cannot give life, but in the mighty symbol, America, the beacon for all men, which is ours to have, to hold, and to increase.”LIFE Magazine – September 20, 1943
This is exactly what Memorial Day is about. Those three men fought and died on a remote beach in the Pacific so that millions more would live in freedom and liberty – not just in America, but all around the world.
We can never repay them for their sacrifice. What we can do is honor them by living our lives with a sense of reverence, enjoying the blessings of liberty they purchased for us. We must remember them and the thousands more who have fallen on battlefields across the globe for our country and our ideals – not just today, but every day.
It is they who have preserved our liberty through the over two hundred years that this country has existed, and why we must never, ever take that liberty for granted or willingly give it up for unfulfillable promises from would-be tyrants. Freedom is not the default setting in this world. It was bought with the blood of heroes like those three men lying on a New Guinea beach, and is therefore a most precious thing.
May God give rest to our fallen heroes, give comfort to their families, and bless our great nation.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”John 15:13 (NIV)