We buried my 90-year-old father-in-law, Ted Kosiavelon, last week at Arlington National Cemetery. That’s what he wanted. He earned the privilege by serving in both the Solomon Islands and in the Philippines during World War II. Like millions of other young men of his generation, he fought for his country against the forces of evil. In Ted’s case, it was against the Japanese whose unprovoked attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor brought the United States, and Ted, into the struggle.
A talented swimmer, Ted was selected by the navy for The Naval Training School (Salvage), which after the war became the Diving and Salvage School in Bayonne, New Jersey, made famous in the film “Men of Honor” with Cuba Gooding and Robert De Niro. After his training, he spent most of the war in Manila Bay where the dry dock he worked from was repeatedly attacked by Japanese planes where he was wounded. That’s how I remember Ted: a man of honor. He was a humble man, but very proud of his military service.
Fifteen million Americans served their country in World War II which author Studs Terkel called “The Good War.” No war is good, especially one in which 400,000 Americans died along with millions of others around the world, but Terkel called it that because there was almost no moral ambiguity. There was little doubt that Americans were the good guys, while German Nazis and Japanese warlords were evil. Ted and millions of others put their lives on the line and most survived to tell about it. Ted spent the rest of his life serving his family just as steadily and reliably as he served his country. He was a humble hero.
Men like Ted and my own father were taken into disciplined training just as they entered manhood five or six years out of knickers. They didn’t have to spend a decade or more “finding themselves” the way so many from my own generation did. The world found them and they clearly understood what they had to do. They had to keep fighting until their enemies surrendered. Theirs was a dangerous and difficult task. Victory was anything but assured, especially in the early years of the war when we were losing almost every battle, but at least they didn’t have doubts about whether their jobs were important, or meaningful, or whether or not they were doing the right thing. As I mentioned above: moral ambiguity wasn’t a problem as they discharged the duty that defined them for the rest of their lives.
Each branch of our military does burials differently at Arlington National Cemetery and I was impressed with the way the Navy handled Ted’s. Although more than a dozen veterans are buried there every day, there was no indication of any complacency in the honor guard. They were thoroughly professional and treated Ted with all the dignity and honor he deserved.
Ted’s body was driven down in a hearse by a Massachusetts funeral home. When we arrived at the grave, eight uniformed sailors and an officer stood waiting to be pallbearers. Within sight, but off at a distance were seven riflemen with another officer ready to perform a 21-gun salute amidst the perfectly ordered rows of white, marble headstones on the gently-rolling hills. At a similar distance in another direction a lone bugler stood ready to play taps. All their performances were flawless.
Just before flying down there, a friend told me that students from Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine would be helping out 20,000 other Americans the following weekend with the “Wreaths Across America” project. This was begun twenty years ago by Merrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine downeast who found himself with a surplus of Christmas wreaths and was moved to place them on the headstones in Arlington.
All those rows of identical white headstones, mark graves of other men and women who fought for the United States of America and I felt their presence as they welcomed another one of their own for eternal rest among them.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Tom McLaughlin is a (now retired) history teacher and a regular weekly columnist for newspapers in Maine and New Hampshire. He writes about political and social issues, history, family, education and Radical Islam.