Reflecting on the veterans in our family
As part of the tradition I hope will become a regular event throughout my children’s lives, we once again visited the cemeteries of our ancestors who fought in wars and who are buried here in Whitley County. Each year, the American Legion places flags near the entrance of the cemeteries and families are encouraged to place the flags on their loved ones’ graves.
Following yesterday’s American Legion Memorial Day Parade in downtown Columbia City, we set out about our mission: placing flags on the graves of three Civil War soldiers. Only two of the three are our ancestors and last year we “adopted” a Civil War soldier named Elza Roberts and now will place a flag on his grave as well. I think in the future we need to adopt one more because there was some “disagreement” among the two children about who should have the honor of placing the third flag. After rationalizing that last year Jamee got to place the extra flag, he allowed his sister to have the honor this year.
We will have to place a virtual flag for our closest relative and most recent to die in a war – my great uncle Pfc. Emmett Richard Zartman (shown in the photo at right). His natural skill at riflery and marksmanship put him in a dangerous position and he was selected for the 82nd Airborne Division’s Company G 325th Glider Infantry Regiment. Yesterday, in the afternoon, I listened to a recording of a veteran talking about his experience with the glider regiment and it made me quite emotional, knowing just a little more than I did before about what someone in my own family experienced so many years ago.
The veteran recounted that the night before Normandy they were called together for a briefing and told, basically, that their individual lives were expendable – but that the mission played an integral role in making sure the US staked its position there. Hearing him speak, my eyes welled up with tears. He said they were told their main responsibility, regardless of what happened to their equipment or to their lives, was to get the gliders and paratroopers into the designated area at Normandy so that they would be there slightly before the soldiers arrived on the beaches of Normandy.
I can’t begin to imagine how terrifying it was to ride in a glider swooping down into enemy territory and then having to fight as soon as you’ve landed. This is interesting because those involved in the glider regiment’s men were both airmen, flying dangerous one-way missions into enemy territory, and then also infantrymen for their ground combat role once they’d landed. I read quite a bit about the glider infantry yesterday and it bothers me enough knowing that the mortality rate for the regiment was already estimated at 70-80% -- but the government felt it was an important enough mission, and regardless of success with similar missions in the past, decided to go forward.
After listening to the veteran’s recording about the glider infantry yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of my great uncle’s face. Dark hair, sharply arched eyebrows and he looked a lot like my brother does today. He fought for his country and though more than 70 years have passed, he is still missed. His life wasn’t merely expendable. He is still remembered even though my grandfather, now in his eighties, is one of the few living people who knew him.
Earlier this year, my grandparents entrusted most of the family photographs to me and in looking through some of them, I’ve found quite a few of Emmett. Quite a few are of him proudly dressed in uniform or before he’d graduated from South Side High School. It’s the “seeing the before” and “knowing the after” that makes these photos hard to look at. These photographs show his personality and hit home, even more, how much of a tragedy it was that he died fighting for his country. When he died on July 3, 1944, he left behind a young wife to carry on without him, parents and a brother who became an only child. A lot of dreams died with Emmett. Were he alive today, with a family of his own, cousins to us, I wonder if life would have been different?
Though much of what we do on Memorial Day involves remembering the dead, it also stands as a reminder, that families are still experiencing the loss of their sons and daughters in war. Memorial Day and everyday should be a day for remembering our veterans, living and dead, for what they’ve given us – freedom and their lives.