By John C. Church Jr.
After seeing the film 42, I was reminded of the quote that adorns Jackie Robinson's gravestone: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."
This Memorial Day I'll be thinking of those who had an impact. That includes friends with whom I served, but also some others.
When I met Cpl. Thomas Turner, a World War II Marine, he was wearing his Presidential Gold Medal. Turner, a Montford Point Marine, volunteered for service after President Franklin D. Roosevelt barred the military from refusing employment on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. The order meant that African Americans could be recruited and enlisted, and, in 1942, thousands of Thomas Turners volunteered and received training at segregated Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C. Since 1965, these Marines have held an annual reunion in Philadelphia. Even though they are fewer in number, they remain an impressive group of heroes.
I'll also think of the Golden 13. In 1944, these men became the first African Americans to complete officer training for the U.S. Navy, which, at the time of their service, may have been the most tradition-bound and segregated branch of the U.S. armed forces. Only one of the 13 made the Navy a career. After the war, the others went on to a number of civilian careers, including education, business, social work, and the law. Later, they were frequent guests of honor at gatherings of the Navy's growing number of minority commissioned officers.
I'll also think of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American pilots in the U.S. military, serving during World War II. They made up the 332d Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps. During the war, African Americans were still subject to the Jim Crow laws, and the military itself remained racially segregated. The airmen were subjected to harsh discrimination, both within and outside the Army. The Red Tails, as they were nicknamed for the paint on their planes' tails, flew with courage and distinction, instilling fear in the enemy.
I will also be thinking about the Go For Broke Brigade. Following Pearl Harbor, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were uprooted from their West Coast homes and placed in internment camps. Japanese Americans weren't allowed to serve in the armed forces even if they had been serving when the war started or if they were honorably discharged veterans. However, a manpower shortage in 1943 reversed that, and recruiters sought volunteers in the camps for a new unit - the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 442d fought in eight major campaigns and earned thousands of individual decorations, including the Medal of Honor, scores of Distinguished Service Crosses, hundreds of Silver Stars, nearly 10,000 Purple Hearts, and seven Presidential Unit Citations, the nation's top award for combat units.
Amid Memorial Day parades, sales, and barbecues, if you see Cpl. Turner at Joe's in Wayne or any other service member - past or present - wish him well. But think of others too. Remember, among other things, First Lt. Jackie Robinson refused to sit in the back of an Army bus. He believed it was unjust. He was right. The military, on its best day, is a true meritocracy. Skin color, sex, or gender should not matter. What really matters, above all else, is being a good teammate and living a just life that positively impacts others.