On Jan. 20, 1945, Italy was gripped by bitter cold as turret gunner Sgt. Bill Bartlett, 24, urged his crippled plane back to its airfield which, coincidentally, was not far from where my father was based. Back in St. Albans, the two men had been good friends. Interestingly, Bartlett was a mortician whose business yet remains, now known as Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home.
Sgt. Bartlett’s B-24 Liberator was straining to stay aloft as its crew prayed for deliverance. In the final fatal moments, the pilot could no longer control the badly damaged aircraft. There were no survivors. At that instant, at home lived wives, children, mothers and fathers who, although yet unaware, had been dealt the blow that is not to be fully understood except by those who endure it.
During the next few weeks, my father heard the rumors about Bartlett. Then, in late February, he wrote to my mother, “I got a letter today from [a mutual friend at home] telling me that he was dead. He was young and had a nice family too. I’m sure glad to hear that Martha is taking it as well as she can and I thank goodness that little Jackie is too young to realize sorrow of that kind.”
He wrote again, three days later. “A buddy and I hitched to Bill’s base. It was cold because we hitched a ride in an open truck. I talked to one of Bill’s buddies and he was really broken up and could hardly talk to me. He is buried near here and I will go to the cemetery next week. You can tell his parents that I was there.”
Eighty-two years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had stood before the assembled thousands at Gettysburg. Among his remarks were these: “... from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion ...” Their story, like that of Bill Bartlett, is the story of duty, of valor, of pain and separation and grief and the fates of children, like Jackie Bartlett, who grow up knowing a father or mother as a picture on the piano.
Recently, although others have gone on the record to dispute these claims, numerous sources (far too many to be denied, including Fox News national security correspondent Jennifer Griffin) have alleged that President Donald Trump has repeatedly termed the Bill Bartletts of the world to have been “losers” and “suckers” for no other reason than serving their country. But if believing in the greater good made them losers, if their faith in something bigger than themselves made them suckers, if fidelity to duty and honor and trying with every ounce of the devotion of which Lincoln spoke makes them such, well, Mr. Trump and I are living on different planets.
When news media reported that, on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Mr. Trump skipped a visit to Belleau Wood cemetery in France because it was raining, I thought of my father’s 75-mile wintertime ride in an open truck to visit a friend of Bill Bartlett. And following reports this summer of Russian bounties on the heads of U.S. troops and Mr. Trump’s subsequent refusal to hold Russia accountable, I quietly gave thanks for our troops, living and dead.
It is astonishing that, somehow, the president has convinced himself that our troops are “losers” and “suckers.” It’s enough to make a skunk stand upwind.