Honoring Heroes on Memorial Day: 5 True Stories of America’s Fallen
Sometimes numbers lose their impact.
The firehose-like flow of information we live with daily has left many of us unable to process what some numbers represent.
- Roughly 99,570,000 Americans attend church or synagogue regularly.1
- Red Bull energy drinks, in 2022, pulled in $6,850,000,000 in sales. A jittery public applauds their success.2
- The average American looks at their cell phone about 144 times per day.3
- The National Debt is more than 31,000,000,000,000 and is climbing by the second. (There’s an online scrolling “debt clock” that is ominous and ticks away before our eyes)4
It’s a lot, and what do we do with those figures?
There is one significant number, however, that we must never forget:
It’s the number of men and women who have given their lives in service of the United States of America.5
New estimates crank that number up closer to 1.5 million. Civil War figures were unreliable due to poor record-keeping on both sides.
These individuals are from various branches: the US Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard. In our current cultural climate, where people seem to have no concept of this sort of sacrifice, its importance is lost on those who don’t care about liberty but place a high value on preferred pronouns.
More than a million lives.
They went to their deaths believing that what they were doing was for their nation, their loved ones, and their children. Our wars were fought by Americans of many ethnic backgrounds – slave and free, men and women. Without their selfless courage – there would be no United States to enjoy – live freely in, immigrate to – or even complain about.
The value of these fallen heroes is inestimable.
Each was born and grew up with hopes and dreams – talents and shortcomings. Each had their own story, which was cut short for love of country and service to their neighbor.
Here are five heroes who served Americans during different eras, wars, and circumstances. They are the tiniest fraction of the many stories we’ll never know. Each is worth remembering, though – with gratitude to their families and God for these soldiers’ sense of duty, honor, and destiny.
1. The South Carolina Twelve
As the British took positions in the South, US forces marched to South Carolina in the brutal late-summer heat, where British General Cornwallis had secured Charleston and surrounding areas. Far from home, Continental Regulars from Maryland and Delaware followed General Gates into one of the bloodiest losses in the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Camden. As the inexperienced Virginia militiamen fled before the British might – the Regulars stood their ground and fought for their new nation – for the hope of liberty and future generations. About 900 brave Americans died during that failed campaign – including twelve who lay just beneath a thin layer of soil in the musty heat of a South Carolina forest. Their bodies would not be returned to their loved ones. They lay lost and forgotten by subsequent generations until this year.
The South Carolina twelve discovered recently are unknown soldiers who gave themselves for our nation about 243 years ago. They were finally given burial befitting some of our earliest American heroes in Camden, along with a memorial and a belated thanks from a grateful nation. 6
2. A Courageous Civil War Captain
During the Civil War, the costliest in our history when valued by lives lost – it’s estimated that as many as 750,000 of our citizens died righting a wrong that had plagued our nation for far too long: slavery.
A Confederate ship, Planter, harboring off the coast of South Carolina, was the site of a daring act of heroism by former slave Robert Smalls. He served as a pilot with an African American crew – led by white officers. In a fateful error, the officers left Smalls and the crew unsupervised, leaving the ship to spend the night in town.
Smalls quickly steamed the ship upriver to pick up several others, including his own family, and then slipped past Confederate forces, reaching a Union Navy ship where they surrendered the Planter, gaining freedom for the 16 souls aboard. He urged President Lincoln to allow former slaves to serve in the Union Army. Smalls became the pilot of the Union’s USS Crusader and later captained the Planter. After the war, he held office in South Carolina before serving as a Republican in the US House of Representatives.7
America is the one nation that considered slavery an abomination worthy of this immense sacrifice to end it once and for all. So brother fought brother, and cities burned all for a noble cause. America would never be the same.
Robert Smalls’ heroism paved the way for African Americans in the military, and his courage and service are etched in our nation’s history.
3. A Reluctant Hero of World War I
Alvin York was born in poverty in Tennessee, the third born among eleven children. He received little schooling and was forced to work at anything he could to help provide for his family after his father’s early death in 1911. Though a skilled outdoorsman and hunter, Alvin was not good with money. Everything changed drastically for the young man a few years after his father’s passing when he found faith in Christ.
His church didn’t condone military service, so when he received a draft notice York took every step to avoid service because of those convictions. His pastor even tried to intervene, but Alvin was denied an exception and eventually found himself serving in France. Though he struggled with the morality of war, he ultimately decided that serving well could honor God and his nation.
Sergeant Alvin York became a celebrated American hero when he captured 132 German soldiers – and took leadership of the remaining seven men in his unit when the sergeants in charge fell in a counterattack. York’s life was celebrated by Americans and Hollywood when Gary Cooper played the lead in the blockbuster film Sergeant York.
Despite acclaim and attention, York remained humble throughout his life, opening an agricultural school near his hometown of Pall Mall, Tennessee. An American original, York honored God and courageously served his country.8
Resource Note: If you’d like to help your children learn more about this American legend, Adventures in Odyssey has a four-part audio drama, “Sergeant York,” especially suited to ages 8-12. Given the subject of war, however, it’s always a good idea for parents to review content before sharing.9
4. Hero of Hue City
At only 15, John L. Canley snuck into the Marines using his brother’s paperwork.
“We didn’t know that, John,” President Trump quipped at the White House Ceremony where he awarded 80-year-old Canley the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2018. He was the first African American Marine to receive the award.
As a young Marine, Canley was a gunnery sergeant. During the Battle of Hue City in 1968, US Forces sought to regain control of the strategic city after the Tet Offensive had begun. Canley risked his life again and again for his comrades. His company commander was severely wounded early on, and Canley took command. A natural, decisive, and wise leader, Canley led his company of about 150 men in treacherous house-to-house combat. Together they destroyed enemy positions, and Canley courageously carried wounded men through enemy gunfire to safety. Twice during the days of fighting, he scaled a hospital wall to rescue wounded Marines in view of the enemy.10
Retired Sergeant Major John L. Canley died a year ago this May after a long battle with cancer. His undaunted courage, selfless sacrifice, and devotion to the nation he loved are part of his storied legacy. Last June, a 90,000-ton expeditionary sea-base, the USS John L. Canley, was christened in his honor.11
5. Heroic Marine Gives Her Life at Kabul Airport
“They need me, sir.”
Those were the last words of Sergeant Johanny Rosario Pichardo, who lost her life with 12 of her fellow soldiers when a suicide bomber detonated himself during the disastrous evacuation of the Kabul Airport on August 26, 2021. An additional 169 civilians were also killed in the blast.
Pichardo’s words preceded her helping several women who were being trampled in the crowd of those attempting to escape from the unfolding disaster in that country.
During the poorly planned American exit from Afghanistan, the young marine helped screen women and children so they could be granted passage out. It’s estimated that she and those who served alongside her saved as many as 124,000 lives, giving them hope beyond those dark days. 12
Sergeant Pichardo’s life impacted many. She was awarded a college degree posthumously from Columbia College in her home state of Massachusetts.
Her death is lumped into the “The War on Terror” category in Statista’s recording of America’s war dead. This prolonged campaign spans from 2001 to the present, and more than 7,000 brave men and women have given their lives over the last 22 years in this endeavor.
Sadly, many youths in America don’t have a keen understanding of this war that has continued its slow and destructive drip since before many of them were born. That’s why, as moms, we must take responsibility to tell these stories to the next generation.
Heroes Are All Around Us
Writing about these few lives touched me deeply. There is an almost endless number of life stories – personal and profound. We mainly shared those listed among battlefield casualties, but there are more. Roughly 1.3 million serve in our military right now. Imagine that number multiplied by those who served during our nation’s 247 years. Thus, our military dead easily surpasses multi-millions.
My father, a Colonel in the US Army, lived into his 80s; however, he lost his life to complications of his exposure to agent orange in the Vietnam War. Remember – the million plus mentioned at the beginning of this blog – doesn’t touch on those who returned home alive but died heroes. Many succumbed even years later to various injuries or exposures. Ask families mourning those who have developed various forms of cancer from toxic substances. Estimates reveal up to 4 million of those deployed in the last few decades may have been exposed to burn pits and other wartime toxins.13 All are worthy of honor and remembrance.
Teach your children about the true meaning of Memorial Day.
Take them to a cemetery on that special day to talk about these – or perhaps a member of your family who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep America free. This previous blog has ideas to commemorate Memorial Day as a family.
In 2023, many schools tout American failures – missing the virtues that far outweigh our past mistakes. For that reason, we must ensure that stories – and there are millions like these – live in the hearts of our young patriots. As America’s moms, we must pass this legacy of honor to our kids.