By Bob Holeman
A good story is worth retelling. I think this is a good story and yes, I confess that it’s a rewrite of one I’ve done before. But in today’s society when disrespect of our flag is condoned and children are being told that our flag stands for hatred, racism, bigotry and more, I’m saying they’re wrong.
It happens every week across our country. A club president calls their civic meeting to order and often following a prayer (in the South, anyway), one member is asked to lead the club in repeating the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Certainly,” comes the response. “I pledge allegiance, to the flag…” and on we drone in a monotone until we conclude with “for liberty and justice for all.”
So it was with the Rotary Club of Winnfield which sailed through the recitation formality until 2009 when then-president Jim Pinkerton called on another past president J.W. Kennedy, to lead the Pledge.
In his quiet but confidently graveled voice, he invited the members, “Won’t you please join me in pledging allegiance to the flag of our Country?”
It was a simple invitation but one underscored with a powerfully patriotic message: “I’m going to pledge my allegiance to the flag of my great country. Will you please come along with me?”
This invitation would have carried some weight just because of Kennedy’s longtime service to the community, first as a photographer with his own studio but more likely remembered for his 43 years as the State Farm Insurance agent in Winnfield.
But the inward rally cry to join in his invitation came from knowing that Kennedy was a World War II veteran, a member of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion that took part June 19, 1944, in the second wave landing on Utah Beach in Normandy, France.
With the approach of the 11th hour of November 11, 2011, I had taken the opportunity to interview any local World War II veteran willing to talk with me. I had the privilege of meeting with 32 of them. Others knew their story but were unwilling to relive that terrible time of their lives. It was a time when my respect for all veterans grew, regardless if their service was wartime or peacetime.
But James W. Kennedy Jr., Tec 5, was not among that group I interviewed. He had died a year before I began this mission. But he was one of those rare warriors who recorded his memories of June 1944 and the times that followed, sharing that story with his family.
Kennedy did not reach the Utah Beach that day nearly 77 years ago. LST-523 (Landing Ship Tank) was transporting some 200 American enlisted men and officers from Portsmith, England, to Normandy, France, when it struck a submerged German mine just offshore. The explosion ripped the ship in two, killing half of the men aboard.
Kennedy suffered serious head injuries and was transported back to the hospital in England for treatment. As he was recuperating he heard the words, “Your war is over, young man. You’re going home.” But he’d have no part of that. He defied orders and sneaked out of the hospital. He made his way the best he could back to rejoin his unit, where the Purple Heart recipient fought in other campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge, through the war’s end.
Veterans like Kennedy witnessed the death and determination required before the American flag could be raised on combative shores in the quest for freedom. So it may be no surprise to see their chests swell a little bit more than the rest of us when they salute the flag of their country. They understand the blood and sacrifice that’s backed up the freedom it stands for.
Most of those marvelous men and women I interviewed back in 2011 have since passed away. They were part of what has become known as “The Greatest Generation.” They gave more for our country than we can repay.
Kennedy asked us only, “Won’t you please join me in pledging allegiance to the flag of our country.” Our club continues to respect that invitation as we consider the words we recite and the men and women who gave so much that our flag could still be standing. We try not to take for granted the freedoms they fought to preserve.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”
One more point on our Pledge. Some years back, another past president Mickey Simmons reminded us that there is no comma separating “one nation” from “under God.” Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge in June 1954, a decade after D-Day. There should be no pause…no hiccup…in our affirmation that the United States is, in fact, one Nation under God.
Our country may have its faults but I don’t see crowds of Americans lining up at the border to go somewhere else. A lot of national healing could be achieved if instead of focusing on the perceived shortcomings of the other fellow, we could refocus on the God who our forefathers looked to for direction. Then we could be “One Nation Under God.”