#1045 – Dick Bernard: On "Warriors" and "American Heroes". Remembering First Sergeant Strong

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First Sergeant Strong001
If one follows national politics at all, one staple is obvious: the cult of American superiority as played out by its military “warriors” and “heroes”. It has most recently erupted in the Republican political debate, largely brandished by candidates and members of the political echo chamber who never served in the military, and conveyed to a public who have also, by and large, never served, and have a John Wayne movie (or, for the youngers, Transformers) view of the fantasy of invincibility of American military prowess.
For those who’ve been there, war is hell, something to be avoided…like the religious concept of Hell: Hell is a place you think you know about, but don’t want to go there to visit.
A few days ago, in this space, I published a photo of North Dakota farm boy and Marine Francis Long. Private Long was killed on Saipan on July 2, 1944, 13 days after the battle began; 7 days before it ended.
Late Sunday afternoon, I turned on public television, and it happened they were rebroadcasting part four of Ken Burns powerful series on WWII. This segment featured the horrors of Normandy, and of Saipan….
Francis Long gave me context for Ken Burns re-creation in images of the Saipan campaign, and about the reality of war…for all sides. About 50,000 dead during the battle of Saipan alone. Saipan was hell for U.S. GI’s and the enemy Japanese combatants; no less, it was hell for the Japanese who lived on Saipan, a great many of whom, civilians for whom Saipan was home, committed suicide by jumping off a cliff rather than surrender to the Americans.
War is hell.
But this post is about another soldier I knew: First Sergeant Fred Marcus Strong.
I was 22 when I met him in Company C, 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry, 5th Infantry Division (Mech) at Ft. Carson Colorado in 1962. For more than a year I was his Company Clerk; and he was top enlisted man in Company C. There were perhaps 150 of us in the Company. I got to know Sergeant Strong pretty well, though he seemed really old at the time (he apparently was 39), and he was my superior. Our desks were adjacent to each other, and our office was “Grand Central Station” for the company; as it was when we were on maneuvers, which was often.
He and I related well, in a quiet sort of working way. Sometimes we conversed about home, and he told me about growing up in the Tennessee/Virgina border area.
Our Division was training, it turned out, for Vietnam.
Time passes, but I never forgot Sergeant Strong. He had a powerful and positive impact on me. He was a gentle man. I made some failed attempts to find out if he was still alive. Search technology had not reached today’s sophistication.
This Memorial Day a friend forwarded a powerful tribute to GIs sponsored by a grocery chain out of Bristol Tennessee. You can view it here, the link is in the first line.
Sergeant Strong came back to my life. I knew from long ago conversations that he was from the general vicinity of this place, and I decided, once again, to look him up.
Sure enough, he had a mailing address, near Fort Carson, so I wrote him a long catch-up letter, not knowing if I’d ever hear back.
Presently came an e-mail, from his daughter: “My Mother wanted me to contact you when she got your letter to let you know that my Dad passed on June 9th 2014. Mother was so happy to get your letter and it made her feel very good to know someone cared enough about Dad to write after all these years…She is so lonely without him. We all miss him.”
A little later, about July 10 came an envelope with a brief note, and Sergeant Strongs obituary, which leads this post, and speaks for itself. Look deeply at the picture: that is the Sergeant Strong I remember.
I was struck by this memory card, stark in its simplicity. This was as perfect a summary of service as I’ve ever seen. The customary biographical sketch is not on this card. But it doesn’t need to be.
Anything more would have been a distraction from the essence of a life of service by Sergeant Strong which most likely included World War II and Korea:
Military Honors. “Army”
The memory card and note from his daughter has joined the goblet made by my Uncle Frank on the USS Arizona before he went down with the ship December 7, 1941.
Thank you, First Sergeant Strong.
POSTNOTE: In my followup letter I included a couple of memories of 1962-63, which you can read here: Ft. Carson 1962-63001
Some years ago, I happened to meet the mail clerk for Company C, just a kid like myself, and we were reminiscing. He recalled, back then, that he really wanted to become a helicopter pilot, but Sergeant Strong quietly counseled him out of that idea.
Doubtless, First Sergeant Strong knew war, and not from the abstract.
We were training for Vietnam. He knew that. He knew the coming reality. We didn’t understand what was ahead.

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