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'Do not ever forget': War heroes lead the way for Memorial Day honors

By C.J. LIN AND JOE GROMELSKI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 25, 2015

WASHINGTON — What does Medal of Honor recipient Jack H. Jacobs think about on Memorial Day?

The same thing he does every day: “The sacrifice of young people so that we can be free,” the retired Army colonel said. “It is our mission to make sure that we don’t squander their sacrifice, but most of all, that we do not ever forget.”

Jacobs, who earned the nation's highest military award for actions that helped save the lives of a U.S. adviser and 13 allied soldiers during the Vietnam War, joined several other Medal of Honor recipients from that war at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on Monday to honor those who have fallen in the line of duty.

The war heroes also unveiled postage stamps dedicated to those who received the Medal of Honor for the Vietnam War. The stamp sheet includes photos of 48 of the more than 50 living recipients and lists the names of the 258 recipients who fought in the war. Of those, more than 60 percent were awarded the medal posthumously.

“We are all in debt to these people,” Jacobs said during a keynote speech at the Wall. “They are all, in our minds, forever young. And even though they died when they were young, they made a larger contribution to our liberty, greater than all of the captains of industry, all of the bureaucrats and certainly, all the politicians.”

Retired Air Force Col. Leo K. Thorsness received the medal for taking on enemy MiG-17 fighter planes over Vietnam, despite being outnumbered in his F-105, in order to protect downed U.S. crew members. He said he hopes that the stamps will serve as a small reminder of sacrifices made during wartime.

“When people use that stamp … I hope they realize that people gave a lot for our freedom,” said Thorsness, whose photo appears on the stamp sheet. “Two-thirds of the people who received the Medal of Honor died ... so we’re the lucky ones.”

Thorsness said that while it’s OK that Memorial Day has come to be a holiday associated with a good time and grilling out with family, he wants people to take a moment to remember that it’s about those who gave all.

“It’s so easy to forget Memorial Day is about memories of the freedom of our country,” Thorsness said. “I think it’s good to take it seriously. Have a nice outdoor meal, but I just hope people take part of it to think about the serious stuff.”

World War II Memorial ceremony

At the National World War II Memorial, several members of the "Greatest Generation" placed wreaths at the Freedom Wall, with its 4,048 stars each representing 100 fallen servicemembers.

Among the veterans taking part in the ceremony was Iwo Jima veteran Ollie Babbitts of Arizona, who served in a water purification unit during the 1945 battle.

"We were right next to a third division unit," Babbitt recalled. "They went in with 300 and came out with 30. That's the kind of war that it was ... 90 percent were killed.

“War is war, regardless of where it is, who you're fighting. It is survival. Only the survivors can appreciate what this day is for: Commemorating all of the ones that have fallen."

Babbitt said that each of the lives lost in World War II represented "a life that (could have been) memory-filled, but wasn't to be."

Another participant was singer Nancy Sinatra, who said her oldest memory is of huddling with her mother during a World War II blackout in New Jersey. "My dad (Frank Sinatra) was on the road. It was black, dark in the room. I was scared."

Sinatra said she finds World War II films "riveting" in what they tell about "that whole era, and all of these wonderful people who served, the ones who gave their lives. There was a dedication there that you don't see much any more."

The keynote speaker at the event was Norway's assistant defense minister, Oystein Bo, who noted the sacrifice made by American troops in helping free his country from Nazi rule and the cooperation between the two nations in recent conflicts. He also drew a laugh by pointing out that there are now more Norwegian-Americans in the U.S. than there are Norwegians in Norway.

lin.cj@stripes.com
Twitter: @cjlinSS

gromelski.joe@stripes.com
 

Jan C. Scruggs, founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and several Medal of Honor recipients unveil the Limited Edition Medal of Honor: Vietnam War Forever Stamps at the annual Memorial Day Observance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, May 25, 2015.
RICK VASQUEZ/STARS AND STRIPES

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