I see in the news that protesters, justifiably unhappy with racial bias in our country, are expressing their concerns by disrespecting our American flag. This display of anger and frustration directed at the flag and our national anthem is misdirected. Many have fought and died to preserve the freedom that enables discourse and displays against the bigotry and bias that still permeates our society.
As I watched the demonstrations, I thought back to a day at the 38th Parallel when the American flag played an important role for my platoon of Marines after we had fought, won, and then lost battles against the Chinese army. In 1951, I was a corpsman with the First Marine Division in the midst of the Korean War.
Icy pellets fell from the almost-black clouds. Our company was assembled at the bottom of the crater-filled hill. The once picturesque hillside was now barren of foliage except for its blackened earth, burnt tree trunks, and grey gullies. We tried to look up, but the wind-blown sleet made that impossible. We knew the Chinese were entrenched at the top. All we could see through the mist and sleet was the gold star on a red field of the Chinese flag hovering over the hilltop.
Our lieutenant and our captain gave us the signal to gather around them. The 210 Marines of Dog Company formed a semi-circle. Our lieutenant was of medium height, 220 pounds of muscle with massively broad shoulders and a Marine buzz cut of light-blonde hair. He was a man of few words, and spoke calmly: “I know conditions are tough, but we’ve got to have this hill. Before this hellish weather, our corsairs bombarded the hilltop and softened up the Chinks. We move out at first light. Second platoon will lead.”
We Gave Our Lives to Raise That Flag
Sammy and I were the two corpsman with the second platoon. We were ready. The captain was right: the going was tough. Because of the sleet and the mist, the Chinese couldn’t zero in on us. Our fire teams leap-frogged up the slick slope. When we got close to the top, their machine gunners opened up on us. We hit them with bazookas, Browning Automatic Rifles, and, when close enough, flamethrowers. Casualties were heavy on both sides. We forced them off the hilltop and down the north slope.
On the top we tore down their flag and hoisted the American flag. We dug in for the night. We held that miserable hill for eight days. On the ninth day, the Chinese hit us with an intense massive attack of artillery and mortars. They followed the shelling with wave after wave of screaming, cymbal-clanging soldiers climbing up the north slope, firing their burp guns and tossing grenades in an unending almost suicidal number of attackers. We were badly outnumbered. No matter how many we killed, they relentlessly continued the assault.
We couldn’t hold on. The order came to leave the hilltop and move down the south slope. We skidded, slid, crept, and sidled our way down the hill with the Chinese in pursuit. It was a sad retreat. The battle was over. The Chinese were in control.
My platoon counted our losses. We treated the wounded. Our stretcher-bearers scoured the hillside for the fallen Marines and brought them back. We performed the heart-wrenching job of loading bodies on the trucks on the service road for the start of their long journey home.
We were exhausted. We sat next to the road and looked up to the top of the hill. There were about 35 of us, the survivors of the second platoon. We were beaten. We had been destroyed. Ten bodies of the men of the second platoon, including our lieutenant, had been loaded on the trucks.
We sat in silence, Marines with long, sad faces. There was nothing to say. Out of the desolation of the battle, depression. Clustered together, we could not lift each other. The scarred hill was silent. Too many hills, too much carnage. We wondered, How much more can we bear?
Then We Saw the Flag
Collectively, we looked up. We saw an astonishing and surprising sight: Our flag, the American flag, hanging limp on a broken pole. It was still there where we had installed it. Through field glasses, we could see it more clearly. It was torn, the edges tattered from the bombardment. As we looked up, a burst of wind unfurled the wounded battered flag.
Our group spontaneously cheered as it waved proudly in the wind. The sight sent a sliver of hope through our tired, broken bodies. The vision of the flag hanging on and majestically flapping in the wind was a sign to us that those who were wounded or died did not sacrifice their lives for no purpose. Those Marines were our buddies. They were gone forever. The freedom they fought for continues because of them.
About a month later, when we retook the hill we found the remnants of that flag twisted and crumpled in a gulley on the hilltop. We brought it back to the battalion base and kept it with us to buoy our courage as the war continued.
I implore the protesters to find another way to express their concerns. Do not disrespect our flag or our anthem. Veterans who served in the armed forces, particularly those whose lives were destroyed or damaged, deserve respect from all Americans. Denigrating the flag or our anthem disrespects those who carried the flag into battle for us all.