Memorial Day

Memorial Day is when you stop for a minute and acknowledge the soldiers and sailors who died while serving our nation. It’s not uncommon for local veterans to decorate the graves of vets in cemeteries across the country. And in small towns, there’s often a vet who keeps a bundle of small flags in a closet for 364 days every year, and then on Memorial Day pulls them out of storage and spends the early morning putting the flags on the graves of vets.

From sometime in the early 1950s until 2002, my father was the vet who was responsible for putting out the flags at the cemetery of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Misenheimer, North Carolina. For more than 50 years, the man didn’t miss a Memorial Day doing this small but important honor. He did it until his health failed him and he simply couldn’t do it any longer.

These photos of Memorial Day observances are from one of my favorite websites, the Library of Congress American Memory Project at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html.
The photo at the top of this entry shows black cavalrymen at a Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C. in 1942. The photo is by Roydan Dixon.

The photo above by Fenno Jacobs shows a parade in Hartford, Connecticut, also in 1942.
1942 was a bad year for the United States. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had happened barely six months earlier, and the outcome of the war in the Pacific was still very much in doubt. So Memorial Day of 1942 undoubtedly had a special poignancy.

Regardless of how you feel about the legitimacy of the present war in Iraq, it would be appropriate to pause for a moment and acknowledge the more than 4,000 American service personnel who have died in combat there.


Lieutenant McDaniel's fatal mistake

On June 8, 1944, a local wartime tragedy distracted the folks back home in Stanly County, North Carolina from the huge news that the Allies had invaded France two days earlier. Marine Lieutenant Charles M. McDaniel, 21, was killed when he crashed his twin-engine Navy bomber into Badin Lake, which is formed by one of the dams on the Yadkin River.

McDaniel’s family and his young bride in the lakeside village of Palmerville reportedly heard the crash, knew it was McDaniel’s plane, and were devastated. McDaniel’s co-pilot, Navy Ensign John P. Withrow of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, also died in the crash.

Charlie McDaniel probably was a lot like the guys I grew up with a generation later in the Stanly County hills. I’m guessing he was a fun-loving country boy who couldn’t pass up an opportunity to impress his high school sweetheart, who also happened to be his wife.

November 1943 was a big month for McDaniel. On the 10th he finished his flight training and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Three days later, he got married.

He was assigned to fly new warplanes from the factories where they’d been built to military airfields. In early June 1944, he and Ensign Withrow were ordered to move a Navy PBJ-1 bomber from a factory in Columbus, Ohio to the Marine Corps air base at Cherry Point, North Carolina.

McDaniel got permission from his Marine Corps superiors to land the bomber at an airfield in Charlotte – about 45 miles from Palmerville. The details of why he was allowed the stopover aren’t clear. It may have been mechanical problems, or it could have been weather that made flying too dangerous. Whatever the reason, he rode a bus from Charlotte to Albemarle and from there caught a ride to nearby Palmerville to spend the night with his wife. The following morning he had to catch the bus to return to the Charlotte airfield where he’d left the bomber.

He left home around 8:20 a.m. on Thursday, June 8, 1944. On that day, the front pages of newspapers around the world were crammed with headlines and stories about the Allies getting a foothold at Normandy and pushing the Germans back into France.

Around 12:40 p.m. that afternoon, the staff at the Stanly News and Press, the local newspaper in Albemarle, heard McDaniel’s low-flying airplane as it roared over their building. Someone muttered that they’d soon have to get a new roof if that kept up.

A few minutes later, McDaniel’s family watched his big blue bomber descend and skim along only a few feet above the surface of Badin Lake. Moments later, Jean Perry, an elderly woman from the town of Badin who was fishing at the lake, saw the PBJ-1 as it thundered past. She later told the News and Press that the plane banked slightly to the right. The tip of the right wing dipped into the water, and the plane crashed instantly into the lake.

McDaniel’s family heard the impact and knew instantly what had happened.

Navy salvors found the plane on the bottom of the lake about 10 days later, but they didn’t find any corpses. They salvaged some of the equipment but left the plane where they’d found it about 150 feet below the lake’s surface. Sixty-four years later, what’s left of McDaniel’s bomber is still on the muddy, craggy bottom of Badin Lake.

McDaniel’s fatal crash was an odd wartime tragedy, but the Marine Corps was not the least bit sentimental about the young pilot’s death. The Marine officer who investigated and filed a report on the crash made several terse notations about McDaniel’s behavior. The investigator noted that the lieutenant disobeyed his orders, was 15 miles off his authorized flight route, and crashed because he was “flathatting,” which is a scornful term that military pilots use to describe showing off.

The painting at the beginning of this post, which was done by Stanly County artist Roger Thomas, shows McDaniel’s PBJ-1 moments before it crashed into Badin Lake.