With Memorial Day approaching I thought I'd share a story I wrote a year ago after attending the funeral of a young military man killed in action, the only difference between this story and the many like it on the news today, is that SSgt Earl Yoh was killed in World War II, on September 1st, 1944.
I traveled to Van Wert, Ohio for a funeral Saturday, May 9th, 2009. It was for a deceased serviceman killed in action at the young age of 20. I didn't know the man, nor did I know any of his family or friends, I was surrounded by mourners there, but I was all alone.
But that is not uncommon for me.
As a member of the Base Honor Guard at the 122nd Fighter Wing, and a member of the Color Guard at American Legion Post #420, I've taken part in the Final Military Honors for hundreds of deceased servicemen and servicewomen.
The military funerals are all the same, yet they are all different. So much so, that I can remember at least one small detail from almost every service I've attended.
The biggest was the burial of Lloyd Ball. We had the honor of traveling with the Ball family to Arlington and were invited to participate in that burial ceremony at our Nations most hallowed grounds. Along the way we had a chance to hear the seldom spoken details of Mr. Ball’s D-Day experiences, and beyond.
The smallest funeral was a ceremony performed by Honor Guard member James Salway II and myself on a cold winter day in Elkhart - where the only other attendees were the funeral director and a cemetery worker. That WWII Army Air Corps veteran received the same solemn burial as Mr. Ball, the only difference was the number of people there to see him off.
But the funeral of Staff Sergeant Earl E. Yoh was one of the most poignant.
I arrived early enough that I was surprised to see so many mourners already assembled. There was an honor guard of members of the Patriot Guard, the Wetzel Motorcycle Club and another veterans motorcycle group called "Chained Eagles".
Once inside the funeral home I was greeted by SSgt Yoh's Casualty Assistance Officer. If a military member is Killed In Action, a member of their same branch of service is assigned to escort the remains home - the fact that SSgt Yoh was killed almost 65 years ago didn't change that fact.
The escort told me all that he knew about SSgt Yoh, and the mission that took his life. He also spoke about the uniqueness of this particular assignment, making sure that every detail of the identification, return home, and burial, all took place with no problems.
Earl E Yoh was born on July 23rd 1924, near Scott, Ohio. He was the fourth of 9 sons and he had 5 sisters. They led a meager - but happy - and ever so typical life of a large farming family in the Midwest. This was in the years leading up to the Great Depression.
The preacher at SSgt Yoh's funeral - The Reverend Paul Miller - was, ironically enough, a childhood friend of Yoh's. Reverend Miller spoke of the simpler times, and the eventual realization for both of them, that there was more to the world than the very small Ohio community where they lived.
WWII was sure to bring that same understanding to millions.
Earl Yoh and Paul Miller had traveled together to the enlistment center after receiving their draft notices. Yoh went into the Army Air Corp, Miller into the Army. However; they both ended up in New Guinea.
After Yoh started tail-gunning on bomber missions and Millers assignments took him away from the island, they were not to see each other again.
At least not until today.
On that fateful day nearly 65 years ago, SSgt Yoh was the tail-gunner on a B-24 Liberator, affectionately named "Babes-in-Arms". He was just one of an 11 member crew.
They received heavy anti-aircraft fire from Japanese ground forces while flying over an occupied island, receiving damage to the left wing. This caused them to turn back towards their base. Eventually a fire from the damage caused the loss of the wing and the aircraft spiraled toward the Pacific.
Three of the crew-members managed to parachute out of the doomed bomber, only to be captured and executed by the Japanese.
The remaining eight crewmen crashed into the Pacific Ocean near the Island of Palau, where they would stay for the next 64 years.
Submerged in 70 feet of water.
In January 2004, a volunteer group named "The Bent Prop Project" located the wreckage of "Babes-In-Arms" using U.S. military documents, an eye-witness account by an elderly islander, persistence and a little luck.
Due to the fact that there is only a brief period each year when the weather allows for diving and recovery efforts, it took another 3 years to remove the remains of Yoh and the other 7 members of his crew.
It took another year or so to identify them.
Testing performed by the U.S. Armed Forces Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) eventually identified Yoh through his DNA, comparing it with samples taken from his two surviving brothers.
So today mourners gather to celebrate Yoh's life, and remember his sacrifice.
Reverend Miller talked about Yoh's allotment which he sent back to help support his family, and went on to add, for those young enough not to know, that was the norm at the time.
He recited the 23rd Psalm, and then introduced an old Blue-Grass song that the family wanted played there entitled "Come Home".
Miller then read the original condolence letter that President Truman sent to the Yoh family after Earl was killed.
Finally Miller told the assembly that Yoh's parents had placed a grave marker next to theirs, at the family plot North of Van Wert, near Havilland Ohio, and added "It was as if they knew, that one day he would make it home, and they wanted to have a place for him to return to."
The funeral procession headed out of Van Wert, led by the large motorcycle honor guard. Many Van Wert residents, old and young alike, most with American flags waving in the breeze, saluted a fallen hero.
Throughout the several mile trip every single oncoming vehicle stopped and respectfully waited on the road-side, while the procession passed.
Once at the gravesite, the procession was greeted by a U.S. Army Honor Guard, there to pay final tribute to SSgt Yoh. There were also many members of the local veteran's community wearing Legion and VFW uniforms.
Reverend Miller spoke some final words, and thanked all that had participated.
Three volleys were fired, Taps was played and, against the prevailing winds, the Honor Guard removed the Flag from the casket and struggled to fold it into a perfect triangle, and presented to Yoh’s brothers.
The morning's sun had been replaced by overcast skies and high winds, and I was reminded of the many storms Yoh's remains had weathered over these past 65 years submerged, as well as the storms his family here at home had lived through, never until now, knowing exactly what had happened to him.
Thinking of Yoh's selfless devotion to our way of life, and his dedication to protect it, I thought back to an inscription on a Confederate soldier monument at Arlington:
Not for fame or reward
I returned home several hours later and found that the movie I ordered had arrived in the mail. It is Called “Taking Chance” the personal account of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Strobl and his experiences escorting the remains of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps from Iraq to his home to be buried.
Phelps was also Killed In Action.
65 years after Yoh.
And three years after Lance Corporal Michael L. Ford, the Marine with whom I shared his last fifteen minutes on earth, in Iraq.
I watched the movie, and it was heart-wrenching.
The last line of the movie hit home for me. Because it applies equally to Chance Phelps, Mike Ford, and Earl Yoh.
Lieutenant Colonel Strobl said, “I never even knew him…….and I already miss him.”
I'm sure the funeral was difficult for the few remaining family and friends who actually knew Earl Yoh, and even for those of us, who were simply there to honor his sacrifice.
Pondering the meaning of the whole thing, I thought of General Patton's famous quote: "We should not dwell on sorrow that these slain in battle have died, but rather be thankful that they have lived."
I am thankful for SSgt Yoh's sacrifice, and I am glad that I had the chance to honor him.
May he, and all the others who have paid the ultimate price to defend our freedom, finally rest in peace.
And Welcome Home.