Tribal bonds run deep, sometimes deeper than we realize, and the core unit of any tribe is a family. Tribes, however, have their own way of forming, and the bonds can be as strong as covalent bonds that bind one chemical to another, or atomic bonds that keep electrons in orbits to contain protons and neutrons. It is always difficult when a tribe sends one of its own off into the ages, but such is the nature of temporal human existence. While intra-tribal relations can at times be awkward and difficult, when a tribe loses one of its own difficulties are laid aside and the tribe, having lost a member, consoles itself with the immediate presence of its own members. Every tribe faces this. Every member of the tribe consoles itself with the cohesiveness of the pieces of the tribal puzzle.
We all belong to families, tribes, and clans, at least those of us who are fortunate enough to have the ties of blood, place, and shared experiences. There are many who have lost this along the way, who mournfully were members of a dwindling tribe who saw its demise and were its last remaining member. This is a forlornly lonesome place, far more lonesome than the tribe who comes together to bury one of its own. A funeral with no mourners is lonesome’s penultimate. The ultimate? The tribe that yesterday was made up of two.
James Alvin McElroy, Sr., was my mother’s elder brother. The family knew him by his family nickname, Son. He was Uncle Son to me. To many others he was known as Mr. Mac, like so many of those who have the “Mc” Scots-Irish surname. I can remember being encouraged to call him Uncle Mac, but it never took, being too late for this former child to call him anything other than Uncle Son. This, perhaps, was one of the first things that made me realize that I was similar to the old dog, being unable to learn a new trick.
Uncle Son’s military service in Korea was well known in the family, the tribe. He served in Korea, had his unit come under heavy fire and was wounded, his entire unit’s whereabouts and status being unknown for several days, it only being known that they had come under heavy fire behind enemy lines and had sustained many casualties. I can remember my grandmother telling me of her frantic worry about her son during this time, worrying about her child as only a mother can. It is a scene replayed over and over, that of mothers and their concern for the safety of their child. I suppose the most pointless thing one can tell a mother, particularly a mother whose son is serving in a combat unit in a foreign land during a hostile engagement, is not to worry…that is about like telling her not to breathe.
In the course of the history of this nation, of any nation, sometimes, many times, thousands of times, hundred’s of thousands of times, even millions of times, a mother’s worst fears are realized and her heavenly pleas denied as the news comes back of the death of the one so precious to her. Many mothers have faced this. I remember my grandmother telling me of how she felt during this time and of her nonstop prayers she and her prayer circle sent to heaven as the whereabouts and status of her son was unknown. I remember her telling me of her overwhelming joy that her son had been found, his unit returned to safety, and though seriously wounded, Uncle Son was alive and being cared for. Some of the mothers of the unit he was serving with did not get the same news. The news they received had no hope and promise to it, only a declaration that an appreciative nation regrets to inform her . . .
I knew that Uncle Son carried shrapnel in his body since 1952. I had heard about it. I had seen him on those rainy, cold, winter days walking with what seemed to be a slight rheumatic limp. I remember that occasionally he would go and have a piece of the shrapnel removed as it had worked its way towards the surface of his skin. Some of it was obstreperously slow to do so as fifty to sixty years later, there was still quite a bit of it that he toted with him, a constant reminder I suppose, of those hard and desperate times in a strange place, half-a-world away from the comfort and peace of home.
It has often been said that the word home is one of the most pleasant words to the human ear, no matter what language is used to say it; it cannot possibly be more pleasant than when whispered from the lips of a soldier in a distant land, honorably doing his duty, fighting for his life or the lives of his friends, or when whispered by one who lays wounded on a foreign battlefield, watching the remaining life ebb from some mother’s son he serves with as it seeps into frozen ground ten thousand miles away from it, unless it springs forth as the final word from the lips of the one whose life runs out the instant it passes his lips. I do not know this. I can only speculate about it. I can only wonder about it. I can’t be too far from wrong.
Uncle Son hardly talked about any of this, though he did occasionally talk harshly about the unauthorized metal occupying his body, and this likely only because of the immediate discomfort it produced. He never talked to me about the details of his service in Korea, other than it was pretty rough for a time, and then he got wounded. The exact nature of his service he never volunteered to describe to me. I suppose I should have asked him.
Korea is one of those wars we don’t think too much about. The forgotten conflict, I have heard it called. Those who served there, and in Viet Nam, are mostly not of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” like those who served in WWII, though many who served in WWII later went on to serve in both wars. We often hear, rightly so, of the great and valorous service of those who served in WWII. Those undeclared wars, conflicts, police actions, or peacekeeping operations seem to escape our attention. We often hear of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in great epic battles. We seldom hear about skirmishes and forward engagements, or even much about the house to house fighting our service men have endured in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I remember hearing and reading about the great battles of the civil war and visiting several of those battlefields: Vicksburg, Shiloh, Gettysburg . . . many thousands of Americans died in the epic battles. I remember being confronted with this thought while visiting the site of the battle of Port Hudson in Louisiana just North of Baton Rouge, a particularly fierce battle that gets lost in the shuffle of civil war battles, much like the battle of Champion Hill near Jackson, Mississippi, or Brice’s Crossroads near Okolona, Mississippi. Though Port Hudson was a major battle, it does not seem so to us today, and the fierceness of Champion Hill and Brice’s Crossroads are nearly lost to our common historical memory. The thing I was confronted with is that if you are the soldier being shot at, it is a major engagement no matter how minor the skirmish is to history. If you are the soldier who died by a lone sniper bullet, or while driving a supply truck in Afghanistan when you encountered an improvised explosive device, I’d say that the soldier thus killed, and the members of his tribe, would qualify that as a major engagement, and rightfully so.
“He was killed in a minor skirmish,” I have heard it said. Nowadays, this irks me like a sand spur under a saddle blanket irks the horse. It was not a minor skirmish to the one who was killed; it was a battle of epic proportions…it must be…it has to be…we cannot let it be anything less.
My Uncle Son was not killed in any skirmish, minor or major. He made it home safely from Korea, the answer to a mother’s prayer. The military engagement he was wounded in was a major one for several members of his unit and other units serving nearby. Navy Corpsman James A. McElroy was wounded there while rendering medical aide to the United States Marines he was charged with serving. He was wounded again later the same day taking hostile fire while retrieving a wounded Marine and bringing him to the relative safety of a foxhole rather than leaving him exposed to enemy fire. I suppose there were no atheists in Uncle Son’s foxhole. They say that few atheists inhabit foxholes.
I had heard stories of this, or bits and pieces of it along the way from first one tribal member, then another. I never bothered to investigate fully. It was a mistake. We should know the members of our tribe better. While I may not ever have known Uncle Son as well as I could have, and certainly not in the same manner as the Marines he served with, I should have known more than I did. I regret that. Yesterday, at his funeral, I learned that Uncle Son, eldest of my tribe, now lost to the ages, had been the recipient of The Silver Star. I knew of his service, but did not know the extent of his valor and service to those whose duty it was for him to serve. In the long run, if it can be said of us that we did our duty then we will have been spoken well of. To go beyond one’s duty is what we should all strive for. Duty at home and work is one thing. Duty in the face of a hostile enemy is quite another. Yet, duty is duty. Let us forever be found in its fulfillment.
Uncle Son died February 18, 2014. He was 84 years old. The number of Marines attending his funeral was touching, as was the flag ceremony performed at his graveside by sailors from Naval Air Station Meridian. The Navy lost one of its tribe, too. But the Marines, perhaps, had a loss that was much deeper and personal, because one Marine there was also an inhabitant of the same Korean foxhole as Uncle Son.
Tribal connections run deep. We lost one of our tribe and laid him to rest yesterday. Uncle Son’s co-inhabitant of a foxhole in what is now North Korea? I suspect his feeling of having lost a tribe member runs pretty deep, too. Just how deep I may never know, but I expect one day soon I will ask him. I expect I should ask him sooner than later, as there may be no later before, eventually, there is no one left who is a member of that tribe of foxhole brothers, which must be a bond every bit as deep, perhaps deeper, yet far more mysterious to me than the family tribal bonds we all have and sometimes neglect.
So long, Uncle Son.
McElroy, James A.
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Hospitalman James A. McElroy (NSN: 2535260), United States Naval Reserve, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy while serving with a Marine Infantry Company of the First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 11 September 1952. Serving as a Corpsman, Hospitalman McElroy displayed outstanding courage, initiative and devotion to duty during a patrol action deep in enemy territory. The patrol was cut off by a numerically superior enemy force. Although he had been painfully wounded early in the action, he expressed complete disregard for his personal comfort and safety and repeatedly exposed himself to the intense enemy fire in order to administer aid to his wounded comrades. When he saw a wounded machine gunner in an exposed area, he unhesitatingly ran to his aid. While amidst the hostile fire and caring for the wounded Marine, he was again wounded but realizing the extreme danger of his position he picked the man up and carried him through the blanketing enemy fire to the comparative safety of a shell hole. He continued to tend the wounds of the patrol until the unit reached the safety of friendly lines whereupon Hospitalman McElroy collapsed as a result of his own wounds. His gallant and courageous actions served as an inspiration to all who observed him and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. Commanding General, 1st Marine Division (Reinforced) FMF: Serial 5335 (February 12, 1953).
©2014 Mississippi Chris Sharp