John N. Baldwin

VETERANS DAY ADDRESS: NOVEMBER 11, 2006

11am in El Dorado/Wichita, Kansas
“Celebration of Freedom Week”

by John N. Baldwin, MD
former Major, US Army 1967-1969

Thank you, Sam Langhofer for your most generous introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, veterans, active duty servicemen, distinguished guests, fellow Americans and fellow Kansans! I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is for me to be with you today. Thank you for asking me to come. I would not have missed this for anything.

I addressed you as “Fellow Kansans” for good reason. It is my proud and everlasting blessing to have had all four of my grandparents born in the Sunflower state, both of my parents born and raised here, and our daughter fortunate to live in Overland Park where she and Jeff have added three future Kansas Hall of Fame football players for you to watch for in the years to come.

While I was in surgical practice in Monterey, California, it was my honor to meet and care for General Jimmy Doolittle, who as a 52 year-old Lt. Colonel led a brave band of Army fliers off of the pitching deck of the USS Hornet to the famous raid on Japan, immortalized in the book and movie, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”. The year was 1942, and the United States was reeling from Pearl Harbor and a string of bloody defeats in the Pacific. This was our brave first strike and Jimmy was awarded the Medal of Honor. Upon his 80th birthday, the entire 8,000 men of the US 7th Division stood at Fort Ord to hear him speak. I was there. He rose, strode majestically to the podium, cocked his head, and said, “Thank you for coming. God bless you all.” And then he sat down! What a speech! Even shorter than Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!

I cannot, however, sit down just yet, as I have some thoughts to share with you. After all, this for me is a 4,000 mile round trip through the perils of baggage inspection and a near strip-search to get here not a simple ten-mile drive like General Doolittle had!

Let’s review some history. Memorial Day that is the holiday back in May. It is not to celebrate those of us who came home alive: that is what we do today, on Veterans’ Day. Memorial Day began very simply, during the Civil War, when Southern women brought flowers to the graves of their fallen sons. It became official in 1868, and was originally called Decoration Day. The South ended up losing 500 thousand men, and the North almost 400 thousand, and it took an entire generation for that bitterness to pass, when, after World War I, and another 400 thousand Americans lay dead, both North and South came together in Arlington National Cemetery. As we gather here today, over 1 million Americans have died in the service of their country beginning with the Civil War: lost in the flower of their youth, lost forever to their nation, great talent, creativity, and intelligence. Such is the price to be paid.

Our ceremony today is called Veterans’ Day, and it is not just chance that it is held at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, because that, back in 1918, was the exact moment when the “guns went silent”. November 11, 1918 the time was 5:45AM in France when the Armistice was signed and all hostilities would cease promptly at 11AM in the morning. The word spread slowly, by runners, to the French, British, and Americans along 700 miles of filthy trenches, directly across 500 yards of stinking no-man’s land from the equally-bloody trenches of the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians. By this time, this war had lasted 1,560 days and had claimed 9 million military lives, 6 million civilian lives, had caused 21 million grievously wounded men and women, left 1 million French children orphans, and had been fought on and devastated 5 continents and 21 nations. The mood of the survivors on both sides was one of incredible relief and songs broke out all along the lines. So when Colonel Cassius Dowell of the United States’ 26th Division ordered his men to go “over the top” for a final assault at 10:30 AM, his men were stunned. Across the barbed wire, Corporal Herbert Sulzbach of the German army looked with “disbelief as a brown mass emerged from the American lines” and moved toward his Maxim machine gun. The time was 10:36AM, and waves of fire swept over the advancing Americans and in ten minutes, they were no more. Private Henry Gunther from Baltimore, Maryland was the last American to die at 10:59AM one minute before the guns fell silent, and haggard, tired, dirty men emerged along that 700 mile-long frontier and walked toward each other to exchange gifts and embraces.

Nothing like that story better illustrates the utter futility of war, or the sadness of the combat field. World War 1 was completely unnecessary and could have been stopped right up to the 1st day on August 6, 1914. Gavrilo Princip, a nineteen year-old high school dropout, son of a Muslim peasant, shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, at point blank range. They were visiting Sarajevo in the Austrian province of yes, it was Bosnia.

Long-standing alliances between nations to support each other in time of war came into play, and when Austria went, Germany went with her to invade France, and then Britain had to join and finally the USA. How ironic that the German Kaiser was 1st cousin to the King of England! And, how interesting, as in so many wars, those men who began it were not blind to the horrors about to happen, but were just undeterred by them, as the price one had to pay for an objective, noble or not. And, as is so often the case, at the end, with 15 million dead and Europe devastated, the leaders all were still standing, untouched. And, France, whose nation we saved, has now forgotten who we are.

I said there are noble and less than noble reasons for war, and they include gaining territory, greed, envy, humiliation, a sense of inferiority, to gain freedom and having been attacked, and often occupied, so that there is need to attack in return. But there is one thread to all of this: men and now, women are compelled by draft or asked to volunteer to serve their country.

And they go. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American men lined up for nearly a mile at recruitment stations in New York City, Chicago, and Boston. Some who were turned down committed suicide in their despair. Later, women by the thousands joined the Waves, the WACs, the SPARS and the nurse corps, and flew airplanes to Europe and manned the armament factories here at home. Of the 16 million men who fought World War II, over half were volunteers. That “Greatest Generation” of mostly teen-aged boys, like your own Bob Dole, are now your grandfathers, and we are losing them at the rate of 1,000 a day as they join their long-lost battlefield buddies who were cut down in the flower of their youth, without ever having had a lifetime of barbeques, ballgames at Arrowhead, Monday night football, a wedding, children in their home or a quiet Sunday morning in church. And once again, having saved France, they have forgotten who we are.

For you Korean veterans, who fought the short but deadly “Forgotten War” which took 58,000 Allied lives, we say thanks, as I hope does the free democracy of South Korea which would not exist to send us her KIAs and Hyundais had it not been for your blood and sacrifice.

My generation which served in Vietnam was no different. Nearly 3 million men and women were there, drafted as I was or as was the case with the nurses, volunteers. The first Americans to die in Vietnam lost their lives on July 8, 1959, and the following presidents watched this undeclared “conflict”, as they called it: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Gerald Ford. 58,000 were killed in this war that Congress never had the courage to “declare”, over 160,000 were seriously wounded forever, and over 5,000 lost arms or legs or both. 11,000 of those killed were just kids under 20 years old. But 90% of Vietnam veterans are proud they served, and as in most wars, they will tell you “it was the greatest adventure of my life.” So, this war began in 1959 and when you go to the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC and look at the names on the black marble, you will see that it lasted until 1975 – 17 long bloody years. And just as Private Henry Gunther was the last to die in World War I, there is a last name on that Wall, and when you visit, you should look for him, and honor his sacrifice, and wonder about what “luck” is or isn’t.

And when I got home to San Francisco, still in my fatigues with the blood of my last operation staining my sleeves and pants, I was twice spit upon at the airport. This time it wasn’t France that never said thanks, it was my own country. Let us pledge not to do that, ever again.

Today, as we gather here, another war is raging far away, with incredibly smart, intelligent American boys and girls, all of whom are volunteers, facing a new and dangerous enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. We honor them today, even in their absence, and salute them for their unselfish dedication they volunteered. They are true patriots.

Why have I gone into this history of our nation and its conflicts? Because there is one going now and there are more to come. Did you know that in the last 60 years America has been involved in no less than 10 wars? Did you know that in all recorded history the world has been truly “at peace” for only about 8% of that time?

Who has stepped up every single time? Your sons and daughters, your fathers and now even your mothers. I have gone into this history lesson because it makes the sacrifice of those who died, those who served and those of you who waited at home, dreading the telegram, the phone call, the uniformed soldier getting out of the car to come to your front door, with the news you never wanted to hear it makes that sacrifice even greater. You see, we are here today because we have a great debt to those who served, who died and who in Lincoln’s immortal words, “Gave their last full measure of devotion.” We are here to honor those who answered the call and did not run. We are here to honor the parents, the children, and the sweethearts of those men and women.

We also, in grateful appreciation, should pledge to honor their sacrifices in some way in our own daily lives: How about tell the truth, be honest, do not steal, do your best in all your endeavors, honor your children, your father and mother, regard all life as precious and above all know that your freedoms have been purchased at a tremendous price by kids in all wars who were cut down in their youth or like many veterans who survived, changed forever.

One only needs to read the paper to discover how easy it is to make the big mistake: a president spies on his enemies and resigns, another violates the privacy of the Oval Office, a minister lies to his family and 12 million followers and leaves disgraced, a ball player uses a corked bat, another develops muscles, breaks home run records and says he never used a drug, an Enron executive bankrupts an entire company through fraud, thousands lose jobs and pensions and thousands more lose millions of dollars, and the list goes on and on and tomorrow there will be another one.

Why would I mention that? Because, back in 1968, a young man I operated on Thanksgiving morning, named Bruce Clark, changed my life and made me endeavor to try to do things right. You see, the soldier next to this 21 year-old high school athlete from Cumberland, Rhode Island, had dropped a hand grenade, and Bruce picked it up to throw it but it went off. After surgery, when he entered the recovery room at the 24th Evac hospital at 5 AM, he now had one arm, one leg, a belly in which we had to fix multiple intestinal holes, and he had no eyes and was forever blind. Does this remind you of the passage from Matthew, “Greater love hath no man than he would lay his life down for another?” That is what your American soldier is really like. That is what a hero is.

In late December, I flew surgical escort with him and 200 other wounded on a C 141 Starlifter, to the US Army hospital in Japan, but lost track of him. In 1986, my wife, once 1st Lt Jean Mitchell, Army Nurse Corps and my operating room partner in Nam saw his name on the Wall in Washington. He had died! There it was: Panel 34W, line 47. Bruce A. Clark. Only last year did I find out he had expired in Walter Reed Army Hospital and thanks to the internet, have found his sister and last week embraced her at a meeting in Providence, Rhode Island.

Bruce Clark would have been 59 this November 1st. I bring him to you because the only way to look at life’s terrible moments and even years, is to believe that good can come from evil and peace from devastating conflict. Bruce Clark enters my mind every single day and motivates me to make the effort to live a serving and unselfish life, worthy of his sacrifice. Of course, none of us can achieve it all the time, but the intentions must first be there in order to accomplish anything noble.

Let me make it even easier. In Great Britain, in historic Westminster Abbey, lie the remains of “The Gallant Warrior” their country’s soldier, like ours, unknown; “A soldier known only to God”. On that white marble are the words of poet W. H. Auden:

To save your world, you asked this man to die,
Would this man, could he see you now, ask ‘Why’?

So, if you really want to honor those who have given so much, honor them with your conduct, your morals and your service so that if they could see you, instead of asking “Why”, they might say, “Well done, thank you.”

“Now,” as Lincoln said, “we are engaged in a war, testing whether this nation or any nation can long endure.” Yes, we are again, today, engaged in a new and deadly war, which may last well into your children’s middle years. I refer not to Iraq, but to the war against Radical Islam. We cannot even guess as to the outcome. It is NOT a given that once again, the US will prevail. Regardless of your political position, of who the president is, or anything else, this is real. Our oceans and even our skies and borders are no longer protective. You, all of us, may be asked to serve in some way, someday, or worse, you and your families might become victims of attacks of great violence in our own country. Let us hope and pray that is not the case. But denial will not save us.

What is our nation doing now? I cannot see into the future, but let me repeat an email I received last year. A mother wrote President George Washington to ask, “Why did my son have to die at Yorktown?” and he answered, “To gain our Freedom” and another mother wrote President Lincoln to ask, “Why did my son have to die at Gettysburg?” and he answered, “To Save the Union” and two thousand years ago, a mother asked in prayer, “Why did my son have to die on the Cross?”, and the answer was, “That we might have Eternal Life.” We cannot understand some things; we just have to do our best to make good arise from bad. It can be done.

Currently, the great debate is no different than that which went before all of America’s wars: in 1775, barely half of Americans wanted to break away from England; at the outset of the Civil War, obviously half the nation wanted Union and half wanted to leave; and before Pearl Harbor, no Americans wanted any part of Europe’s World War II. It was Franklin Roosevelt who said, “It takes twenty-five years or longer to judge a war.”

This time is no different. We cannot see the future, but we face a determined enemy, the name of which is radical Islam, which translated means “to submit” or “to bring into submission”. It is YOU and I that must be brought into submission. Ultimately, this is the new 2,000 year-old battle of religions, which pits Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and peace-loving Muslims against radical Islam, the numbers of which are unknown, but their recruitment pool has grown over the past twenty years to 1.5 billion Muslims world-wide, with several million right here in the USA. The goal of those who have said they wish to kill us is not to take our homes, RVs, TVs, boats and property, so much as it is to change our way of life and take away our religious faith. Someday, they may have atomic weapons, but for now, they have suicide bombers, which an authority no less than General Colin Powell stated were “more numerous, more deadly, more terrifying and infinitely cheaper than an atomic bomb, and there is no hesitation to use them.”

Do you remember last August when the two Fox journalists were released from captivity in Iraq after they renounced Christianity with knives at their throats, having sworn allegiance to Islam? How would I react? I do not know but I remember well, a better man than I, Simon Peter, who, to save his life, three times denied he knew Jesus that night in the Garden. Did you know that in the keynote speech of the International Islamic Conference held in England, back in 1990, the leading mullah said prophetically, “If we win London for Islam, it will not be difficult to win the entire Western world?” Trust me, this has just begun, and it matters little where you live or who your president is, as attacks have occurred in Bali, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Japan, Indonesia, Russia, Australia, Great Britain and in 1992 and again on 9/11/2001, the United States of America, just to touch upon the most notorious of the many, most of which we have already forgotten.

I bring these thoughts to you, during this Memorial Day address, because we can no longer remain in denial from our top elected officials on down. We are at a critical point in history: “Crunch time.” It could be May of 1939 when the Paris nightclubs hummed with laughter and the clink of glasses, but six weeks later, Hitler stood under the Arc de Triumphe, shaking his swagger stick. Or it could be 1942, after Pearl Harbor, with the dark and bloody defeats in the Pacific coming one after another, until finally, in 1944, we managed to send brave men to the beaches of Normandy. Or it could be 1974, when we abandoned Vietnam after years of fruitless struggle for a cause we still do not understand. Or it could be 1959 when the first two American soldiers died in Vietnam, with 16 more years to come.

Or it could be something entirely different, and unimaginably worse.

No matter the historic parallels I believe we, and once again a younger generation, will be called to task. I believe in the valor and goodness of the American spirit, which surfaced in phone calls from doomed 9/11 planes on their way into buildings and fields “Tell my children I love them”, and, “I don’t know if we’ll make it out. I love you and I love the kids,” and, after saying the Lord’s Prayer with a Verizon operator, Todd Beamer on United Flight 93, uttered the valiant, “OK, Let’s Roll!”

We are here today to thank those living men and women who answered the call. I am here today to tell you denial of reality is only seen in human beings and ostriches all other animals from mice to mountain lions run, dig, spit, climb a tree, or fight. We need to wake up and realize the danger, because it is real.

It was Plato, a thousand years ago who so simply said, “Only the dead have seen the last of war.”

And so, as we honor the veterans and servicemen and women today, please understand that there will be another generation asked to serve, and another and another, but God-willing, one hundred years from now, in a still-free Kansas in the greatest nation on earth, a speaker like myself will stand in the hard-won spotlight of freedom and as we do today, give thanks to those who made it possible.

Thank you, El Dorado, Kansas, from the bottom of my heart for inviting me to share with you my honest thoughts and ideas, and again, God Bless America!

  • World War I data and vignettes from: “Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour” by Joseph Persico, Random House, 2004
  • War Casualty Figures from Encarta, Microsoft, 2006
  • Bruce Clark Story: The Complete Version may be found in “What Do You Stand For? Stories about Principles that Matter” by Jim Lichtman, Scribbler’s Ink Publishing, 2004