Memorial Day 2020
Tom Nawrocki, USMC Veteran
This feeling comes around every Memorial Day. It’s akin to having a lump in the throat. I’m thinking of my second cousin, Bobby Nawrocki—the only Nawrocki among the 58,276 names on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. We grew up around each other on the southwest side of Chicago, and we became Marines—me in 1965 and Bobby in 1966. But, before our enlistments, I’m recalling us together at a family party just after the 4th of July at my Aunt Wanda’s house. There is a black and white photograph of all the cousins on the front sidewalk. Because I’m wearing my Little League uniform with “Dodgers” scrolled across the chest, I know that I was twelve years old and Bobby standing next to me is eleven. (It’s 1959.) There are 10 of us cousins there and someone told all of us to bunch together and wave at the camera. I distinctly remember that moment because I put my upraised arm directly in front Bobby’s face as a joke and my elbow brushed his nose. The moment after the camera clicked, Bobby hit me in the ribs and yelled “jerk” in my ear. Then we were both laughing and wrestling. One of the Moms said, “Boys will be boys.” That was 1959.
The last time I saw Bob was the autumn of 1967. As luck would have it, we both happened to be home on leave. Bob was going into advanced Marine Infantry Training as a radioman and expecting orders to Vietnam after that. I had been stationed at New River Marine Corps Air Facility adjacent to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and hoping for orders to Vietnam. I had already volunteered to go twice, but nothing happened. We were hanging out in the basement of my father’s house, and I had smuggled a six pack of Budweiser to share. Neither of us were 21. Bob was ragging me because he was going to get to Vietnam before me. Nothing I could do about that, but Bob was enjoying his getting ahead of me. Anyway, by the end of the visit we agreed that we would meet somewhere in Vietnam when my orders finally came through, and I would buy the beer. As he was walking to his car, the last thing I said to him was, “Don’t be a jerk and cut corners over there--and don’t volunteer. Got it?” He was laughing as he strolled away, lifted his arm and gave me the finger.
Vietnam, Quang Tri Province, January 24, 1968. Bob has been in country exactly one month. It’s the beginning of what would become the Tet Offensive. At dawn a resupply convoy of trucks is gearing up to bring ammunition to a firebase that was nearly overrun the night before. This an extremely dangerous mission because the Viet Cong (most certainly) will be setting up ambushes and mining the road. The company commander needs a radioman for the lead truck. He volunteers. Several hours later the word comes back that the lead truck hit a land mine, rolled over and exploded. In all likelihood, Bob never knew what hit him.
Mt. Greenwood neighborhood, Chicago, Illinois. January 26. It’s mid-morning on a bitterly cold day. This moment is frozen in my mind like a photograph, because Bob’s father (Fuzzy: it’s a family nickname for Felix) told it to me after some years of not wanting to talk about it. But this is not a moment anyone would ever photograph. The doorbell has rung, which is unusual for this time of day. Fuzzy begins to open the front door. The storm door glass is frosted over because of the below zero temperatures. Through the icy, frosted glaze, he can see the Marine Corps dress blues. Slightly behind and to the left is someone dressed in black with a black fedora hat and earmuffs. It’s the parish priest and that can only mean one thing. Bob’s not wounded; he’s gone. Bob’s mother, Stella, in the kitchen is calling out, “Who is it?” as the storm door begins to open with a surge of frozen air. In the next moment, she will be crying “No.”
Many years later I’m visiting Fuzzy for what will be the last time. He’s 94 and confined to sitting up in bed, but he’s comfortable and in good spirits. We’ve been talking about the family and he’s been telling a few of his old stories. Bob’s name has come up a few times with fun stories. But then there’s a moment when he can see I’m remembering the story he once told me about that particular frozen morning in 1968. There’s a pause between us. “Tom,” he says, “Even after all these years, that was the worst moment of my life.”
So that’s what Memorial Day feels like to me and my family. However, there’s also another emotion I feel. It’s more akin to something in the pit of my stomach. It’s a prideful feeling of having served as a United States Marine. Bob felt that too: I have a color photograph of him in his Marine Corps dress blue uniform standing close to the front door of his parents’ house. It’s also what I feel whenever I visit Robert Nawrocki, Panel 35 East, Line 25 on the Wall. But with that pride is also a staunch determination that those who choose war, should truly understand and acknowledge the price that families like mine will pay at our front doors.
Henry Chan Lam
US Army 1943
My grandfather was born in 1919. Paying a guide all the money they had, his mother, himself, and two others traveled over the mountains in mainland China under the cover of darkness to flee from the Japanese occupation. At one point, they had no more money and had to talk their way to Hong Kong and stowaway to get to the United States. He came to the US just 6 months before the arrival of the Japanese in Hong Kong.
In 1941, he took a job doing kitchen chores for 16.5 hours a day, 6.5 days a week, room and board included, for $50/month. He saved every penny. He enrolled in three separate English language courses aimed at the foreign-born so that he could become a waiter.
In June 1943 he was drafted into the US Army and served in a variety of capacities, including a medic. After his discharge from the army, his uncle offered him a manager job at a restaurant. My grandfather refused, because he believed he still had much to learn behind the scenes.
In 1946, he purchased his first restaurant (after convincing a bank to lend $10,000 to a relatively inexperienced 26-year old). From there, his business flourished as he kept a keen eye on costs and making sure that his customers were happy. His restaurants were the first to have color menus and pictures of the food. And in the 50s, restaurants were not typically air-conditioned, but his restaurants were. He had a goal to operate 12 restaurants. He got to 7 and stopped. My grandfather’s restaurants were fine-dining Chinese and American cuisine. The New York Tea Garden, his most successful restaurant, served 1,800-2000 meals a day and on a good Saturday, by 4:00 they typically had 400 reservations and had to stop taking more. He developed a clientele of regulars, about 3,000 or so with regular charge accounts. Family dishes were priced around $8.00 with deluxe dinners at $13.75 (remember this is the 50’s and 60’s!) The seating capacity was 360 upstairs and about 150 downstairs.
My grandfather retired at 50 and sold all his restaurants. From there, the restaurants were never the same. The food may have been good, but the charismatic man with a strong accent and loud laugh and zest for life was no longer there every day. His regulars came for him; to see his joy for the business, life, and food. There was no division, it was his life. After retiring, my grandfather kept busy by participating extensively in community projects, groups, clubs, and charities. He was a local celebrity of sorts, where everyone knew his name. He gave to everyone with no expectation of anything to be given in return. His office in his home has literally stacks of newspaper articles about him, his restaurants, his contributions to the community. His life was an amazing one where he took nothing for granted and made a comfortable life out of hard work and dedication.
Sadly, my grandfather passed on May 2, 2015. Nearly 50 years out of the public eye, his funeral procession to the burial site crossed 3-4 towns and at each corner a police officer was placed. This was a 30 minute or so drive from the funeral home to the burial site. My mother asked the funeral home if this was normal and was told that once the police chief heard that my grandfather passed, he arranged for all unoccupied units to stand guard at the intersections. We learned that my grandfather started and financially supported a group that took care of fallen policemen/women and firefighters that died in the line of duty. And up until the day he passed, he continued to financially support this group.
My grandfather lived the American Dream. He came here with nothing, literally with no money to his name, fleeing the Japanese occupation – worked long hours and days from the bottom up and built his own mini empire of fine dining Chinese restaurants, where he could very comfortably retire at 50. Because he worked hard, sacrificed, and had faith, I’m able to be here today. I am here today because he played the cards he was dealt and never pitied himself, If I can be half as amazing as my grandfather, I would consider myself extremely blessed.
His legacy lives on in me and by extension, my son and my family. I am so fortunate he was able to meet my son a week before he passed. I deeply believe he was waiting for that moment before he decided to leave this lifetime. It is an understatement to say he was an amazing man. He lived the American Dream and loved this country for all the opportunities it gave him. Rest in peace, Grandpa. We love you.
Granddaughter, Christen Ng
Lt. Col. Paul "Tabs" Voss
US Airforce Project Liberty/Freedom's Sentinel
In the Aviation Community, it is understood that of all the pilots and crewmembers that you serve with, that while aircraft mishaps are uncommon, when it is a fundamental part of your life and work, you will eventually lose some people.
This year, my comrade from the war, Paul Voss, was killed in an unexpected crash while performing aerial reconnaissance in Afghanistan, on his 7th deployment. He was a Mustang, an enlisted man that went Officer, meaning that he had a keen understanding of what enlisted life was like, and its challenges, which made him a great advocate for us Junior Enlisted Aviators as we navigated the world of aviation, intel, and officer politics and protocol.
Paul is not the first comrade I've lost in the aviation community, but this one hits hard for a number of reasons. He was a great Airman and patriot. The sky is lonelier without him.
-Crewmate, Brent Webb
Memorial Day 2020 Reflection
When I was growing up Memorial Day was something to look forward to. It meant a three-day weekend, a break from school, and then later, when I was a grown-up, a shorter work week and time to catch up, be with family, maybe have a picnic.
I didn’t make a connection between this holiday and the people in my family. I knew that my Dad served in World War II in the China Burma India campaign as a radio control tower man. His dad, my Grandfather, served in World War I in the American Expeditionary Force. Once I saw a plaque on the wall in my Grampa’s apartment. It listed the names of eight places, Verdun, Mort Homme, the Somme --battlefields and nearby field hospitals. The horses he is pictured with might have pulled the ambulances to carry wounded and dead soldiers. Neither my Dad nor my Grampa talked much about their war-time experiences and I don’t remember my family going to any special remembrance gatherings, solemn services at cemeteries with flags, wreaths on Memorial Day. These were things I saw on TV for a few moments during newscasts.
Between my growing up years and now I’ve come to understand the importance and deep meaning of Memorial Day. Over these many years I’ve realized that even though I am not technically from a military family where the men make a career of service and the family lives on base, generations of my family have served in the military, different branches, different wars, although not all combat-related assignments, essential nonetheless.
My husband who survived his three tours in Viet Nam knows many of the men whose names are now marked on the black granite wall in Washington D.C. Names of men who gave the last full measure at Dak To, Cu Chi, Lang Vei, Khe Sahn.
Our son, Matt, did not survive his Iraq war experience, a PTSD fatality, carrying what is sometimes called the invisible wounds of war. Matt was thrilled and proud to enlist, to earn his Jump Wings and his CIB (Combat Infantryman’s Badge), to be a part of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, like his dad before him. He bragged about becoming “all he was meant to be…” like the Army slogan in his letters home from the early weeks in Basic Training. His letters from Iraq were often dark and he talked about how he had changed.
It took my son’s death for me to truly understand the enormous weight of military service, its toll, not only on the service member, but their family as well. Over the past few years I have had the privilege of service as a board member for the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM). Over 2500 works of art by veterans are in the collection and NVAM offers programs for the community, for students, for families, for service members and veterans. NVAM’s dedication to veteran artists, and their creative expression is inspiring. The current Covid-19 constraints will no doubt prevent many traditional Memorial gatherings and events. NVAM provides and opportunity for people to reflect, to engage and to express appreciation.
Memorial Day is now a very personal day, a day of remembrance, a day of reflection a day that is set aside to pay tribute in ways that bring comfort but also –at least this is my hope- a day that calls everyone in this country to recognize and appreciate what it is we ask of those who serve—so that all of us can live in freedom in this great country.
My invitation to you, is to think about the veterans and service members in your circle of friends and family….and consider making NVAM a part of your Memorial Day reflection this year.
Gold Star Mother
NVAM Board Member
Porter Earl Calloway
Army of the United States (drafted in December of ‘67, died March 12 of ‘68) Vietnam War, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry,
B Company, Weapons Platoon
It was March of ‘68 and Porter Earl Calloway was on his next to last month in country. He was, as we used to say “short”. I remember him joking, as he often did then that he was so short “he could play handball on the curb” or that he was so short “he would love to talk with you but he didn’t have time”. And we would all laugh and express our jealousy.
On March 11 Porter and two other members of the weapons platoon were left on Hill 407 as all of the line platoons were engaging the enemy below. As things went from bad to worse the three evacuated the hill and were subsequently captured.
I returned to our company from an R&R several days later to this disturbing news and for the past fifty years have held on to the hope that all three survived. It was only recently that I learned that Porter was shot and died the day after he his capture. His remains have still never been found and the Vietnamese government continues to deny any knowledge of him.
-Brothers in Arms, Maurice Costello