I remember his stone in particular because it said he enlisted in 1941, and had been killed in action in the Po Valley in 1945. The history books say that, in a sweep of the Po River Valley starting in April, 1945, American and British armies trampled the last, broken German forces in Italy in three weeks of fighting that ended May 2, when WWII in Europe ended.
In other words, he almost made it. After surviving four years of history’s bloodiest war, Russell J. Modin died literally days from its end.
There was no storming the beaches of Normandy in his death, no Battle of the Bulge or sands of Iwo Jima. His unit had fought heroically at Anzio and captured Rome, but the end for Russell had come in a forgotten backwater of the war, far from the headlines and even farther from home.
It’s people like Russell, who don’t have the moniker of a famous battle to help carry their name through the ages, that I think of most on Memorial Day. This week, once again, I joined about 400 people and a couple dozen flag-flying Warrior Watch motorcycles at Union Cemetery for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10789 Memorial Day Program.
This year’s keynote address was given by Brentwood resident and Iraq veteran Lt. Col. Troy Liddi of the Marines. Liddi spoke of the importance of the sacrifice made by the 1.3 million war dead who not only believed America was worth protecting, but, like the dozens of veterans in the audience, had backed their belief with action.
“‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,’” Liddi quoted Theodore Roosevelt, “‘whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly … who does actually strive to do the deed … who spends himself in a worthy cause … So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.’”
Featuring performances by Liberty High School musicians and quartets, the ceremony included words from Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, and the reading of a prize-winning Voice of Democracy essay by Dozier-Libby High School sophomore Erin McDaid, who advised her peers to look to the past in order to prepare for the future.
The morning’s most thunderous moment came when a Coast Guard cargo plane roared by a few hundred feet overhead. Its most familiar moment came as the VFW’s Ladies’ Auxiliary placed the traditional wreath on the grave of Sgt. Charles McCurtain, a Vietnam casualty and the unit’s namesake. And perhaps its most subtle moment came as community icon Barbara Guise gently accepted a widow’s rose in honor of her WWII veteran husband Vince, who passed away in April.
But the most satisfying moment, for me, came as the music stands were taken down and the flags were rolled up. As I had countless times since first spotting Russell’s stone, I stayed after the ceremony to look for it again, and again I failed to find it. Being unable to remember its location was annoying at first, and over the years it grew to frustration, then exasperation.
But this year, I persevered, and finally found it. Ironically, it’s just a few yards from the cemetery office door. And it says “In Memoriam,” which might mean Russell never came home from the Po Valley at all.
Buried next to Russell’s marker is Raymond H. Modin (1923-1998). A small bunch of wilting flowers placed between the two stones told me someone had visited recently. There wasn’t any cleaning to do, so I just read the stone.
Perhaps the person who left those flowers will read this and contact me. I’d love to know more about Russell. I’ll bet his is a story much like those of his 1.3 million brothers and sisters: poignant, touching and individual.
Either way, now that I know where to go, I’ll be back. I’ll also keep searching for others whose lives, condensed to a few short words carved in stone, tell a piece of America’s story.
See you next year, Russell. Thanks again.
For more photos from this event, click here. You can e-mail Rick about this story at email@example.com.