Fort Report: Memorial Day

May 25, 2018
Fort Report

In January 1944, after fighting their way from North Africa into Sicily, the Allies launched an enormous amphibious landing to maneuver around and divide heavily-fortified German lines in Italy.  Although the Allied landing at Anzio itself was not a battle, the courageous soldiers who secured a beachhead there soon confronted a fierce and vicious counterattack.  After enduring weeks of hellish bombardment, they finally broke through the Axis positions, and continued their campaign. 

After the war, the military cemetery of Anzio was established.  Approximately 7,860 of our troops who died from North Africa through the Italian Peninsula are buried in this place of rest.  One of my duties in Congress on the House Appropriations Committee is overseeing the American Battlefield Monuments Commission.  It has responsibility for special military cemeteries, including extraordinary places like Arlington, Omaha Beach—and Anzio. 

Upon a visit there, I walked the quiet green lanes between rows of dignified, orderly white crosses.  My guide was a young foreign service officer. Since we are both graduates of Georgetown University, we paused by one grave to learn about a priest named Father Martin O’Gara.  He was member of the Jesuit religious order who taught at Georgetown’s Department of Theology.  Fr. O’Gara left the university in 1943 to serve as a military chaplain in the Air Transit Command during the war.  Upon finishing his service, the military transport plane designated to return him home caught on fire.  Father O’Gara, who was near the front of the line to escape, saw several others struggling with their parachutes.  Instead of jumping, he stopped and began helping others with their loops and harnesses. He gave his own parachute to someone in need. 

Many were saved.  Selfless to the end, Father O’Gara went down with the plane as it crashed into the sea.  His flight home became his final flight. 

In honor of his heroic sacrifice, a building was named for him on Georgetown’s campus, but, as time passed and new space was needed, the university demolished this active memorial around the time I was in school.  In the years following, Father O’Gara’s name was all but forgotten.  As we stood by his grave in Anzio, the foreign service officer—one of the few who remembered—suggested to me that his story ought to be widely retold. 

It was with gratitude that I returned several weeks ago to a ceremony at Georgetown in honor of Father O’Gara.  The university has now created a new memorial for him: a beautiful terrace on campus near Dahlgren Chapel.  Georgetown is known for its foreign policy circles and other elite academic pursuits.  While many persons were gathered at the ceremony, and some offered remarks, I thought it appropriate, and I think Father O’Gara would appreciate, that perhaps the most moving speech was given by the young woman in charge of Georgetown’s Student Veterans Association.  

In a time of deep philosophical division and social fracture across our nation, the stories of those who have fallen still have the potential to provide unifying resonance.  It is in this spirit that the American Battlefield Monuments Commission was born: to create and preserve places of quiet dignity to honor our dead.  Now, in memorials and cemeteries around the world, using advanced research and technology, the life of each person who died in war is being meticulously archived and retold, adding a whole new chapter to our shared remembrance of the fallen and their reflection of our highest ideals.

These stories help our families and communities reflect on the sacrifices of their loved ones, and contribute to the evolving significance of Memorial Day.  Monday’s holiday is not just about the totality of suffering, visiting a cemetery, or even our ceremonies.  It is about the unique lives of those who have served: their individual contributions to our security, our liberty, and our well-being – reminding us of who we are, and what we ought to be.