Here We Mark the Price of Freedom

On Veterans Day, AHF Board of Directors chairman Jim Noles travelled to Pine Hill, Alabama, to speak at the town’s third annual Veterans Day celebration.  Pine Hill is a small town with a population of approximately 400 people, in Wilcox County, about two and a half hours south of Birmingham.  The following are Jim’s remarks.

I thank you all for the privilege of speaking at today’s event.  I am humbled that you would ask me to do this and I only hope that I do you, and the men and the families that we honor, justice.

When Chester McConnell asked me for a title for my talk, I realized that I could do no better than the words inscribed at our nation’s World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.  Those words are:  “Here we mark the price of freedom.”  

That is exactly what we do today.  By remembering our veterans, we pause to mark the price – in years from home, in sweat and toil, and sometimes in their own blood – they paid in the past for our freedom today.  Thanks to your group’s research, we know many of those veterans from Pine Hill by name.

They were men like Chester’s older brother Aviation Machinist’s Mate First Class George Raymond McConnell, one of the 644 sailors lost with a Japanese submarine sank the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay in the Gilbert Islands on November 24, 1943.

They were men like Gunner’s Mate Third Class Willie Autery, Jr., a nineteen year-old sailor on board the cruiser USS JuneauJuneau was sunk by the Japanese in the Solomon Islands on November 13, 1942.  623 American sailors, to include all five of the Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, perished in her sinking.  Only 10 men survived.  Willie was not one of them.

They were men like Platoon Sergeant Enoch “Hugie” Shoultz, United States Marines, killed in action on Iwo Jima on the tenth day of battle as he led a patrol trying to clear the island’s volcanic terrain of snipers.

They were men like Private First Class Allen G. “Van” Johnson, who served with the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division and who was killed in action in Tunisia on April 3, 1943.

They were men like Captain Marshall D. Godbold, who lost his life serving with the U.S. Army in Burma, half a world away, and who is buried in this very cemetery.

And there are many others that we remember today – if not by naming them, then at least by our presence.

But we Americans are not the only ones who remember our American veterans.  If I may, let me tell you about a town in the Czech Republic.  The town is called Slavicin.  It is about the size of Camden, and sits nestled in the foothills of the White Carpathian Mountains.  Like so many of you, its residents made a living farming and in the timber trade.

Sixty-seven years ago, on August 29, 1944, the United States unleashed an air raid against the Czech city of Moravska Ostrava, which lies to the north of Slavicin.  Moravska Ostrava’s oil refinery provided fuel for the Third Reich; its railway marshalling yard helped funnel German troops to the Eastern Front.

The American B-17 Flying Fortress crews that flew against Moravska Ostrava that day had hoped for what the men called a “milk run.”  But the mission against Moravska Ostrava was anything but a milk run.  Between 70 and 80 German fighters ambushed the seven bombers of the 20th Squadron.  That squadron, by the way, was led by a young pilot from Carbon Hill, Alabama, named Bill Tune.

In twenty minutes of brutal fighting, all seven Flying Fortresses fell victim to the enemy fighters.  Their flaming wrecks exploded in the air or crashed into the thick evergreen forests, farmers’ fields, and meadows around Slavicin and other Czech towns and villages.  By the end of the battle, 40 men of the 20th Squadron were dead, 26 – mostly wounded – were captured, and only 4 managed to make it back to Allied lines.

After the air battle, the Germans gathered the remains of those airmen from the crash sites around Slavicin.  In total, there were 28 bodies. 

Two days after the air battle, on August 31, 1944, the Germans dug a large rectangular pit in the cemetery at Slavicin’s St. Adalbert Catholic Church and, in that mass grave, buried the American fliers.  The Germans refused to allow the local Czechs – whose country, you might recall, had been ruled by Hitler as a Nazi “protectorate” since 1939 – to be present, although the local priest managed to convince the German garrison commander to allow him to perform a funeral service.  When the grave was filled, the Germans marked the site with a wooden plaque that simply read “28 American Fliers – Died August 29, 1944 – Buried August 31, 1944.” 

In the days after the service was concluded, local Czechs began bringing flowers to the mass grave.  The Germans quickly moved to stop the practice, sending a town crier around Slavicin who beat his drum and read the German order prohibiting any more flowers from being placed on the grave site.

So what does any of this have to do with Pine Hill, you may be asking yourselves.

I will tell you.  It has nothing to do with Pine Hill.  And it has everything to do with Pine Hill.

Let me continue.

A year later, after the war in Europe ended and the German occupation of Slavicin had ended, the townspeople gathered to have a proper funeral service for the American fliers.  Then, in 1946, the American military came to Slavicin and, in a dignified, ceremonious effort, exhumed the 28 bodies.  Some were reburied at the American military cemetery in St. Avold, France; others were returned home to be buried in cemeteries much like this one.

But even then, the people of Slavicin did not forget the young Americans who gave their life for a free Europe – and a free world – on August 29, 1944. 

On August 29, 1994, Slavicin hosted several of the surviving airmen and family members of the fallen in a ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the battle.  A formal stone monument, inscribed with the names of the deceased airmen, was dedicated and, that Sunday, a special mass was held.  The tradition of an annual special mass continues to their very day, I am told, and a similar memorial celebration was held in 2004.

When I researched and wrote the story of the 20th Bombardment Squadron, I learned of the Czech people’s long memories of this battle and the men who lost their lives in it.  I also learned of their tradition of honoring, not their war dead, but our war dead from that battle.  And I was humbled by that knowledge – and a little saddened, to be honest with you.  I am not sure that we Americans even go to those lengths to honor our own veterans.  For us, even Veterans Day itself is too often simply an excuse for a day off from school, to close the bank, or to have a sale at the mall.

But not here in Pine Hill.  Here, you have heartened me.  You have not ceded the memory of our fallen veterans to distant nations.  You have not forgotten them. 

Instead, you have kept the faith.  Here, you have taken the time to pause, to remember our veterans, and, in doing so, to say “thank you.”  And for that, I thank you.  God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.