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Posts Tagged ‘History’

by John I. Pray, Jr., President & CEO, Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.)

Memorial Day is a special day for America as we honor those who have died while serving our great nation. It is especially important for me, on a very personal level, because of my father. John I. Pray, my father, joined the Army in 1938 after completing the ROTC program and graduating from Ripon College in Wisconsin. After completing many months of training, he married the love of his life, my mother, LaVerne G. Wilson in June 1940, and the Army immediately sent the newlyweds to their first posting in the Philippines, arriving in September 1940. With tensions mounting in the Pacific and war looming on the horizon, the Army returned many family members, including my mother, back to safety of the “states” in February 1941.

John I. Pray, Sr, pictured here during training in the Philippines just prior to the start of World War 2.

War broke out on December 7, 1941 and after many months of intense fighting, the U.S. forces in the Philippines surrendered on April 9, 1942. Approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops, who were already suffering from lack of food and disease, were captured and forced to make a 65-mile march to prison camps. This infamous journey became known as the Bataan Death March – my father was among those soldiers. Thousands perished along the way and an estimated 20,000 soldiers, who survived the march, died in the prison camps from disease, malnutrition, and brutal treatment. My father survived – for three and a half years – and was ultimately repatriated in September 1945.

When I asked my father what sustained him through the many challenges he faced as a prisoner of war, he unhesitatingly told me faith…faith in his family, his country, and his comrades.

My father continued to serve his nation until he retired in 1969.

Each Memorial Day, my father would honor those he served with that did not make it home. He would remember them – their dedication and their lasting contributions to protecting our way of life. Not surprisingly, Memorial Day became and has remained a reverent occasion for our family as we look to remember the very profound contributions of many generations of service men and women and the family members who serve alongside them.

Looking back, I clearly see how my parents’ service and sacrifice inspired me to serve and guided every one of my major career decisions. I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve in a variety of capacities – as a member of the U.S. Air Force and as a member of the Bush Administration at the White House and more recently, as a member of the Operation Homefront family where I have the incredible opportunity to continue to serve those that serve.

So as we spend an extended Memorial Day weekend with our families, I would ask that you take a moment during The National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. (your local time) and remember that more than 1.3 million military members have died while serving our great nation. It is an opportunity to honor those who gave up all their tomorrows for our todays.

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By Catherine McCarthy

Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

-Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, 1883

On October 28, 1886, President Grover Cleveland unveiled what would become the quintessential symbol of freedom recognized around the world: the Statue of Liberty.  Seventeen years later, Emma Lazarus’s poem would be inscribed in a plaque at the base of the statue, becoming America’s invitation to the oppressed and downtrodden of the world to come and start anew.

As quoted in the New York Times, statue historian Barry Moreno explains “It was,” he recalled, “built to pay tribute to the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy, and democracy throughout the world. It honored the end of slavery, honored the end of all sorts of tyranny and also friendship between France and America.”Only later, “letters were written home, word of mouth, taught people that you would see this wonderful goddess in New York Harbor when you arrived in America to welcome you.”[1]

My grandfather, Petr, was one of the huddled masses, gazing upon this symbol of hope as he arrived at Ellis Island after being liberated by Allied troops from a German “re-education camp” during World War I. As a young teen in the Ukraine, he and his friend had been captured by Austro-Hungarian troops when they wandered away from their village, curious to see the battle raging not far from their homes.  They were sent to a camp where young men like them were trained to be returned and act as spies for the Central Powers.  But before their plans could be put in action, Allied troops advanced on the camp and liberated my grandfather and the others who had been stolen from their homes.

As the Allied troops interviewed the boys to find where they were from, they were surprised to hear my grandfather say, “Rhode Island”.  My grandfather had been born on American soil, just prior to his parents returning to the Ukraine, and he misinterpreted their question as where he was born. Because the war still raged in the Ukraine, and because he was an American citizen, my grandfather was put on a ship to America.

He arrived on American soil virtually penniless, and because he was a citizen, he was not eligible for the assistance that was provided to new immigrants.  He immediately sought work, and became a window washer on skyscrapers.  I can still remember visiting him and my grandmother and playing with the red wax pencils he used to mark the windows that they washed.  But what I remember the most was my grandfather’s fierce belief in the privilege of living in America.  To not live in fear.  To have the opportunity to dream of endless possibilities, and to have the chance to see them realized.  He knew what it meant to not have hope.  When he said we lived in the “greatest country in the world”, he meant it, heart and soul.

Over the years, I have heard many stories from those who fled from the horrors of World War II, the purges of Stalin, the Holocaust.  Some stories I wish I could erase from my memory, so disturbing in their description on how we can dehumanize our fellow man.  But each and every one of those tales reinforces that no matter what our current troubles in America, we don’t have to fear the knock in the night, that guns will be placed in the hands of our 8 year sons with instructions to kill people different from them, or that we’ll have to hear the wailing of infants dying of starvation.

As we celebrate our troops returning from Iraq this holiday season, we must remember that there are always those still “yearning to breathe free”.  In Afghanistan, the Sudan, Somalia, North Korea.   That our enduring belief that men deserve to live free threatens those who seek to control and degrade others, and that our brave men and women of the United States Military stand watch every day around the world to send the message that we are not afraid, and that we stand ready to welcome and support those who desire to live free.

Happy 125th Birthday to the Statue of Liberty.  May you always be a source of hope for our sisters and brothers who suffer and dream of a better world.


[1] Oct. 28, 1886 | Statue of Liberty Is Unveiled, New York Times Learning Network, October 28, 2011.

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