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Remembering, We Forget

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The daring raid that brought one Osama bin Laden to justice was not the first such counter-strike against a ruthless enemy.

They buried William M. Bower, 93, Colonel, United States Army Air Corps, at Arlington just before Memorial Day this year. He was the last surviving pilot of another American raid that caught the aggressor's attention, and the world's.

The date was April 18, 1942, when the forces of freedom were in retreat all around the globe. After the surprise attack that wiped out the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the road to conquest was open. One island outpost after another fell as the Pacific turned into a Japanese lake. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, as the Japanese dubbed their expanding empire, was growing greater all the time.

Then, out of the wild blue yonder, American B-25s appeared above Tokyo itself, dropping their bombs in sight and sound of the emperor's palace. The sleeping giant had awakened. And was striking back.

The president and commander-in-chief was always at his most chipper in the darkest hour. At the lowest ebb of American fortunes, Franklin Roosevelt ordered a raid on the Japanese home islands.

A lieutenant colonel by the name of Jimmy Doolittle was picked to plan and execute the audacious counter-attack. Talk about a mission impossible: The 16 lightly armed medium bombers, manned by 80 volunteers, were to be ferried across the Pacific on the USS Hornet.

To reach their take-off point, they would have to evade the Japanese naval patrols that could have detected and sunk the aircraft carrier at any point on its route. Even if the American bombers managed to get past the Zeros swarming around their objective, uncertain weather might obscure their targets. And once they'd made it to their targets, they wouldn't carry enough fuel to make it back. The crews would have to head for Manchuria, ditch their aircraft, and bail out, hoping they'd fall into friendly hands.

Somehow it succeeded. One day the Japanese looked up and there the Americans improbably were -- for 30 seconds over Tokyo. Not a single American aircraft was lost en route to its target. Back in Washington, President Roosevelt explained that the bombers had been launched "from our new secret base at Shangri-La."

Enraged, the Japanese would kill hundreds of thousands of Chinese in reprisal for the assistance given the American flyers. It was the first defeat, if only a symbolic one, that the invincible empire had suffered in the long war it had begun. Many more would follow before the war would conclude in formal ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur presiding.

Colonel Bower, having bailed out of his bomber, landed on a mountaintop that long, cold night and waited for the dawn. He wrapped his silk parachute around him till Chinese troops found him. He would live to join the rest of his crew, make it home, and live to a ripe, fully earned old age. He would attend many a reunion of the Doolittle Raiders. When they played Taps at his burial this month, it sounded almost triumphant. Like a homecoming. He had joined good company.

Let no one think on this Memorial Day that war is all derring-do. It is also defeat and fear and pain and humiliation and death. It is the Bataan Death March and the fate of American prisoners lined up in a field at Malmedy, their hands bound behind them, and machine-gunned. The Germans had no time to take prisoners in the Battle of the Bulge, which was going to be their last great counteroffensive, the one that would turn the tide and save the thousand-year Reich. It didn't.

Today we remember not just heroes but the cannoneers who didn't have time to learn their guns before they died in the mud, the troops whom disease took before the enemy could, the nurses blown apart while administering to the wounded and dying, the young conscripts -- ill-trained, ill-clothed and ill-prepared -- sacrificed in America's forgotten war in Korea. No, let no one think on this Memorial Day that war is all derring-do. It is disaster and chaos and death multiplied.

You who read this in freedom, and I who write it in the safety and comfort of a clean, well-lighted office, can do so only because, in a thousand places at a thousand times, grimy, terrified, unsure young soldiers in the fullness of life were willing to give theirs.

That is the price of our forgetful freedom.

There is nothing we can do for the dead now, but there is much we can do for the living. We can ask where our wounded and convalescent are, and how they are faring. We can see that they, and their families, are cared for. And when they are stacked in hospitals like so much cordwood, put out of our sight like something indecent, we can demand to know what is being done for those who have given so much.

For we do not live in some abstract realm -- like the past or in politicians' speeches or in Memorial Day editorials -- but in the here and very now. In waiting rooms. In hospital wards. In veterans' homes. On military posts. But even on this Memorial Day, even while remembering, we forget.

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