‘For those who didn’t come home’
Local veterans take somber, respectful reflections on Memorial Day
Memorial Day observances have always been taken seriously by Ray Wagner, 73, a Craig resident and veteran of World War II and Korea.
In World War II, Wagner served with the 91st Infantry of the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, and took part in the invasion of Italy when the Allied Forces began offensives into Europe in 1944.
Wagner was recalled into service for the Korean War in 1950 until 1952, serving on a base in Greenland.
His father and grandfather also served in the 91st Infantry.
Wagner said his family has lost numerous members to war, some of the earliest being a grandfather that was killed in battle during the Civil War and another grandfather dying of his wounds from that conflict his leg was shot off.
Wagner’s father eventually died from wounds suffered during World War I, and four uncles and a brother complete the long list of Wagner’s relatives killed in battle or dying from wounds.
“We always observed Memorial Day seriously because my family’s been in just about every war we’ve had,” Wagner said. “Memorial Day is the biggest day of the year above all the rest for me. It’s a time of remembrance for my family.
“I think about this all the time why was I the one to come back? I’ve been wounded twice, bayoneted and gotten shrapnel in my leg. I don’t know how I made it back.”
The high esteem Wagner holds Memorial Day in wasn’t always shared, but after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, more of society is giving those lost in war, and their symbol, the American flag, more respect, he said. Wagner decorates the float for the Memorial Day parade and flies 30 flags on his own something he remembers being laughed at for not too long ago.
Wagner’s reverence he holds for the flag is based on extreme experiences. In the last battle Wagner fought in during World War II, he lost 32 men in less than five minutes.
“After the fighting was over, I had to try and identify the dead bodies,” Wagner said. “That was a hell of a job.”
Craig Police Lt. John Forgay also grew up with a family that honored veterans on Memorial Day, but the holiday gained even more significance after Forgay’s tour in Vietnam in 1969.
“We took time to observe the holiday, and did what most families did a cook out, flying the flag,” Forgay said. “It’s a significant day now because when Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day roll around, my initial thoughts are always with my friends and others that didn’t come back.
“To me that’s the real idea of Memorial Day stop, think, say a little prayer about being able to come back. And that’s sometimes difficult, especially since I had friends that didn’t come back.”
The experience of being a veteran of the Vietnam conflict was often an upsetting one for Forgay.
“The stories you hear are true people called us names that were not nice and we were spit upon by other young people people close to my own age,” he said. “That was hard to understand.
“I knew there were protests going on back home, but I didn’t agree with them. I was very upset that people, even on the flight from Vietnam to California, would say hateful things to those of us flying home in uniform.”
Forgay and six friends left college to enlist for service in Vietnam, and Forgay served as a U.S. Marine. He said the impulse to enlist was a patriotic one and as time passes and more is revealed about how politics influenced the war, there is now some anger.
“As the years have passed, I can’t help but feel a little bit of anger to find out so much politics was involved in the decisions,” Forgay said. “You find out things should have been handled differently instead of just losing 58,000 American lives. We could have done a better job of winning the war, which of course was never called a war. There were even times we couldn’t shoot back.”
Forgay still has a strong patriotic streak, and hopes his children follow that tradition. Having them go off to war, however, is an entirely different matter one Forgay doesn’t have a complete answer for.
“I still have a strong patriotic belief in me and I want my children to have that,” he said. “Despite all the faults, this is still a great country.
“I’m not sure I would want my children to go to war. I wouldn’t change anything about my past the time spent in the military was good for me, but I still don’t know if I would be comfortable if any of my children went into the military.”
When he was growing up, Ralph Lanier did not attach much importance to Memorial Day. That was before his four-year tour with the U.S. Navy from 1951 to 1955, which sent him into the Korean War.
“Before, I never thought about Memorial Day a whole lot I was just a dumb farm kid,” Lanier said. “Now, having fought for this country and its freedom, it means a whole lot to me. I still bristle up whenever a flag goes by. Most people don’t realize how important our flag is.
“I participate in all the VFW ceremonies to commemorate and recognize guys that have gone before.”
Lanier said he also thinks the importance of the flag and remembrance of the sacrifices of others has come into focus more strongly since Sept. 11.
“I think people are more respectful of the flag and the Armed Forces,” he said. “The younger people still need to be taught about the flag because most people don’t know about the etiquette. They don’t know what to do when it goes past you’re supposed to put your right hand over your heart or take your hat off, but I see the flag go by and people do nothing. They don’t know what to do.”
An important part of being a citizen should be knowing how to pay your respects, Lanier said.
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