Memorial Day 2013: “Go Tell The Spartans…”


At the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a Spartan king and 300 of his personal bodyguards sacrificed their lives to delay the advance of a massive Persian army and to cover the retreat of more than 3,000 of their non-Spartan allies.  As reported by the historian Herodotus, that heroic effort led to an epitaph at the battle site which translates as:

“Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we are buried, obedient to their orders.”

That heroism, sense of duty and sacrifice first recorded so long ago helped save Greece, the threshold of democracy, from conquest.  And it is typical of so many soldiers who have given their lives for their countries, many of them young Americans like the soldier whose story was first told in a letter to the editor of the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate for Memorial Day 2000 by Park Ridge resident Joseph C. “Jay” Hirst – himself a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star recipient as a Ranger in Vietnam.  That story is reprinted here with Jay’s permission:

*           *           *

It seems that about every other year, I am compelled to submit a letter regarding Memorial Day and what it means to this Vietnam veteran.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a young man named Ken Wedman, who served his country all too well so long ago. With your indulgence, let me tell you of another, John Wasilow, who also deserves our thanks and remembrance every Memorial Day.

John was from South Carolina. Couldn’t understand most of what he had to say, and John had problems finding a niche in the squad.

Tried him out as a radio operator, his accent doomed that effort. Tried him as a rifleman, but he couldn’t shoot straight. Figured what he couldn’t hit with a rifle, he could with a grenade launcher. Made John a grenadier.

John humped that launcher, his ruck and about 50 grenades all over II Corps without ever a complaint. “Ironman” became his nickname.

On a late November night, at the beginning of the monsoons, in Binh Dinh province, Ironman saved my life.

Moving along a narrow bank near the Bong Son River (just below silhouette framing), the NVA opened up on my squad. While we caught a lucky break that the slope of the bank provided cover from the small-arms fire, it was going to be only a matter of minutes before the grenades or, worse yet, mortars came in.

My RTO was calling for air support when suddenly, from my right, grenades are flying out at an incredible rate.


With the resulting slacking of NVA fire, we moved rapidly to the wood line 200 feet away. I looked back to see Wasilow running to, and setting up, a new position toward our rear. Didn’t think much more about it at the time.

We held at the woods, with two missing men, and called in air support. A gunship that responded put the NVA forces at more than 60, and a Mike Strike Force Company from across the river caught them. The KIA count was 16 NVA.

But, John was dead.

His initial rate of fire from a weapon less than desirable in a close-range firefight had lifted the NVA fire enough to allow the squad an escape from certain disaster with the additional loss of only one wounded “booner” (infantryman). Wasilow had been hit at least four times, yet his bandoleer was empty.  He died after firing his last grenade.

John could have laid wounded and may have survived.  He didn’t have to get up wounded and put himself at peril again as the squad sought safety, but he did.

Ironman was aptly named.

We did all the paperwork to nominate Wasilow for the DSC. To this date, I don’t know if it happened.

Like I said, John didn’t have to do what he did. But he did, and I am alive today because of it.

Memorial Day is his day, Kenny’s day, and the day of all the veterans like these two. I remember them almost every day. Because of them, I have a son, the love of a wife, and a life. You can begin, I hope, to see and understand my gratitude.

The least we Americans can do is give them their day, their deserved honor, and our heartfelt thanks. God knows I do.

*           *           *

To truly “celebrate” Memorial Day, one stop every American should make before firing up the grill or cracking open the cooler is at a cemetery.  Any cemetery will do – just look for the little American flags, planted each Memorial Day by various veterans’ organizations out of their own sense of honor and duty, which mark the graves of veterans.

Take a moment to note the service of each of those veterans whose graves you come across.

Take a little more time and, with a little luck and a quick calculation, you’ll probably find at least one grave of an American soldier actually killed in action.  When you do, remember Abraham Lincoln’s stirring invocation – at Gettysburg in 1863 – of  “these honored dead” who “gave the last full measure of devotion” so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

And then offer a heartfelt “thanks” for their ultimate sacrifice.

Robert J. Trizna

Editor and publisher

To read or post a comment, click on title.

7 comments so far

Thank you for the article and your comments. I felt the same about the PBS Memorial special Sun PM and the VFW service at MIA Park in Edison Park on Monday AM. I wish the candy throwing joke up Cumberland Ave Mon AM had not happened. To copy another source Mon AM….We know too little of those we send

A great post, PW, and thanks to Mr. Hirst for a touching story from one who clearly knows from whence he speaks. It’s too easy to lose sight of the importance of this day amid the beginning-of-summer festivities.

Lovely post. Thank you. In addition to visiting the graves of fallen soldiers, we can help the living ones by insisting our elected officials go beyond cheap talk and hand on heart and fully fund the mental and physical medical care, vocational rehab, family emergency funding such as food stamps, and the other veterans and current soldiers’ benefits for which our fellow citizen-soldiers have so dearly paid. And parents at parades, if you’re not going to nix the candy, at least tell the little ones to stick their flags in the tree lawns, don’t drop them in the gutter. I picked up half a dozen today and happily, gave most away to those who have a clue.
Land of the free because of the brave. Yeah.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Memorial Day is a day of remembrance of those soldiers who have given their lives for this country. While we share your sentiments about what this country owes its verterans and current soldiers, that’s a discussion for a different day (like Veterans Day).

Candy Throwing joke?

I guess I was thinking about the seriously disabled vets; not dead, but not having much of life, either. But thanks again for the post. Nice one.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You’re welcome. Memorial Day is for remembering the dead. Period.

The plight of “seriously disabled vets” – while worthy of attention – is not the purpose of Memorial Day, good intentions notwithstanding.


I realize that the technical purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those who died serving our country.

Having said that, I cannot help believe that those who perished at war would give us some liberties to discuss veterans issues. Especially considering we never really discuss or do anything about these terrible problems.

Right now there are veterans waiting to hear back from the veterans admin (many have been waiting for well over a year). This year there are veterans who will die having never heard back from the VA.

If Memorial Day generates some hard discussions and thoughts about how we treat veterans then I am all for it. I do not presume to speak for veterans, but I have to believe that these selfless men and women would gladly trade a holiday in their memory for us taking care of their comrades who are still with us.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you need a particular “day” for that kind of discussion, it should be Veterans Day. Memorial Day honors the dead, not the living; and the living vets we know feel exactly that way.

The fact that we are arguing about when to bring up the subject at all is a step in the right direction!

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