The Democratic Holiday
Chiefly observed as summer’s kickoff, a weekend of auto racing, shopping, American flags, and grilling out – Memorial Day was originally dedicated to solemn remembrance of the nation’s war dead. That’s still the holiday’s nominal purpose. It honors all kinds – well-to-do and hardscrabble, bright and dim, genteel and loutish. The only requirement, but a stern one, is dying in defense of the homeland.
The discovery of the sunken wreckage of World War II casualty USS Juneau two months ago, far below the blue swells of the Coral Sea, offers poignant testimony to the rich democracy of Memorial Day.
Best known of the light cruiser’s crew were the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa. A little rough, sometimes rowdy, they were seldom in serious trouble back home, but seldom up to much good, either. None graduated from high school, only one advancing past ninth grade. Father Piontkowski at St. Mary’s saw less of them than the Tic Toc Tap on Sycamore Street, near the town’s big meatpacking plant where all five at one time or another held low-level jobs.
For those lacking skills and schooling, jobs were scarce in the 1930s. The two oldest Sullivans, George and Frank, served four-year hitches in the Navy. The middle brother, Joe (known as “Red”), worked at Schultz’s Sunoco for a time, learned how to change a spark plug, developed a passion for motorcycles, joined the Black Hawks motorcycle club, hung out at the Tic Toc, bought a Harley, and roared about town and country. His Black Hawk nickname was “Crash.” His brothers, too, became Black Hawks.
Then came Pearl Harbor. All five promptly enlisted in the Navy, George and Frank for a second time. “I have four brothers and 2 buddies from my Motorcycle club,” George petitioned the Navy Department. “Otherwise, anyone of our brothers which there are five of us and our 2 buddies would like to stick together.” Honoring this request, the Navy assigned the five brothers to newly commissioned Juneau.
More typical of the ship’s crew, perhaps, was 18-year-old William Meeker of Harrison, N.J. Just out of high school, Meeker was working at the local A&P when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He enlisted the next day. Soon he began writing to a neighbor back home, a girl he scarcely knew – Winnie.
Meeker enjoyed Navy life. “Well,” he wrote Winnie from somewhere at sea in July 1942, “the fella next to me is writing to his girl back in Kearny [adjoining Harrison]. In fact quite a few fellas are writing home to their sweethearts. We’re all in the mess hall. Some are reading books for pleasure and some studying seamanship. Others just sitting and talking ... One fella playing solitaire and some of the other fellas just sitting daydreaming ... An evening on board. Kinda pleasant don’t you think?”
While the Sullivans swapped motorcycle yarns on the mess decks, the sentimental Meeker worried about his mom and dad. He had a request for Winnie: Would she visit his parents? “I pray for them,” he added. Those feelings were reciprocated. When after four months the mail finally caught up with Juneau, he’d received 23 letters from his mother.
Winnie had written, too, enclosing her photo, as requested. All Meeker’s longings began to center on the girl down the street, the one he hardly knew. He fancied them almost married, dreamed of a life together, of relaxing with “a pair of soft slippers, a nice big soft chair, and you,” adding: “I wonder if it will ever come true.”
In early November, Juneau weighed anchor in New Caledonia, in the South Pacific, and set course for Guadalcanal. A few days later, past midnight, a dozen outgunned American ships, including Juneau, intercepted a Japanese armada approaching the island to bombard its critical airfield and the beleaguered U.S. Marines garrisoned there. With two dozen ships intermingled in the darkness, maneuvering blindly and exchanging salvos at close range – “a barroom brawl with the lights out,” one survivor described it – four American ships were sunk; a fifth was scuttled in the morning. Hundreds died, including two admirals.
Badly damaged, Juneau survived the night only to be fatally torpedoed next morning, sinking in minutes. The earthy Sullivans, the romantic Meeker, and all but a handful of their 700 shipmates would perish – Annapolis grads and roughnecks; captain and humblest boot.
Before the cruiser had sailed for the Pacific, Meeker had managed briefly to visit home – and Winnie.
“If I were a little more impulsive I would have kissed you believe me I wanted to,” he lamented afterwards. The missed opportunity haunted him. Three months later, “I still can’t figure out why I didn’t obey my impulse to kiss you that day I was at your home,’” he wrote. “There won’t be any hesitation the next time.”
The next time. How many young Americans in uniform have carried that wistful prospect to a grave far from home?
For the Winnies they relinquished, for the never-realized homecomings and unlived summer days – all honor to them on this dawn-of-summer weekend, and as poet Thomas Gray put it, “the passing tribute of a sigh.”