I never met Robert Herbert Sanders, but I know a little bit about him. He was born in 1909 and graduated from West Point in 1934. His father-in-law also attended West Point and was, apparently, the first Irish-American to do so. He fought in the Spanish-American war and became a brigadier general.
After graduation, Robert married and had three children. The family was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the base was attacked on December 7, 1941. My guess is their son Robert, Jr., who was then only four months old, is the youngest survivor of that attack.
Eventually, Robert Sr. was sent overseas, and he found himself on the front lines in Europe in charge of what must have been a bunch of scared kids and that he performed with honor. I also know from his letters home that he missed his wife and children terribly. Then in the dark of night of February 24, 1945, he was walking through a trench on his way to check on a forward platoon when he stepped on a mine, and his brief life was over.
Memorial Day honors the sacrifices of people like Robert Sanders, as we should, but look more closely and you realize that when a single soldier is killed a lot of things die with him. Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders’s Â death shattered a young family. His widowâ€™s grief lasted long after she took the gold star down from her window. In fact, though she lived well into her 90s, she never recovered from it, and Iâ€™m sure that in countless ways his three children, now in their 60s and 70s, continue to be affected by their motherâ€™s continual sadness and the premature loss of their father.
In turn, while raising their own families, their lives and their choices must have been influenced by their grief and their fears and as a result their children are who they are partly because of what happened that night in February 1945.
I know itâ€™s true, because Robert Herbert Sanders was my wifeâ€™s grandfather, a man she obviously never knew. Who knows how her life would have been different had he survived the war? Â (I know my grandchildren will have it drummed into their heads that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were innocent and that a life without rooting for the Mets is a life not worth living).
I do know her father (who served in Vietnam) is about the best grandfather Iâ€™ve ever seen. Iâ€™m sure one reason for that is his growing up without a father. I also know that he doesnâ€™t like surprises and finds a certain amount of security in planning things out in advance. My wife is the same way. Doubtless any family that has experienced the knock on the door feels similarly.
In that sense, Robert H. Sandersâ€™ death more than 65 years ago continues to reverberate today. I suppose it will continue to do so until the memories of him and of those directly affected by him, just peter out over time like fading ripples in water that had been set in motion as powerful waves.
Robert H. Sanders was just one of some 292,000 American deaths on the battlefield in World War II. But to one family, he might as well have been all of them.
What follows are a few pages from a scrapbook of his life (the texts are clickable):
High school graduate, 1926:
West Point: 1934:
His last letter home, written less than two weeks before his death (later retyped):
The telegram recopied by his widow:
The West Point flag at half mast
His grave in Holland:
Being the father he never had (my wife in the rear):
Back in the years before people started sending white powder through the mail (and I’m not talking about coke addicts), Alger Hiss used to get regular hate mail, all of which he opened with great amusement. As a WASP who enjoyed his yiddishisms, he was especially fond of those letters that accused him of being an evil Jew.Â He even had a regular hate correspondent, some guy who used to write so often that he became almost like family. It reminded me of a great Kurt Vonnegut story set in Hyannisport during the Kennedy administration where the retired, arch-conservative Admiral who lived in the compound across the way from the Kennedys hated them so much, he erected a huge, illuminated portrait of Barry Goldwater atop his house. Then one night when he failed to light it (I can’t remember why), there was a knock on his door. It was JFK himself, asking the Admiral if he could turn it back on, since it was the only way he could find his way home along the dark road.
Much the same way, if Alger’s special hater had stopped writing him, we would have been equally disappointed. In fact, I could see Alger writing him a note, making sure he was ok.
Anyway, I wish I had saved his letters, they were that wonderful, but I did save a few others. Here is one of my favorites. Pay special attention to the note on the envelope. (Click on images to enlarge them, and if you want to see the program that inspired such an outpouring of love, click here.)
Sometimes, I’m sure that along with the historical memorabilia that seems to occupy every free inch of our house, there are also ghosts that haunt the place, just to taunt me. That can’t be, right?
Forty years ago today, four students at Kent State University â€” Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer and Â William Schroeder â€” were murdered by agents of the US government. It was maybe the signature event of my generation in terms of demonstrating how far the government would go to stifle dissent. None of the students were armed, and none presented even the Â remotest threat to the National Guardsmen on campus. Yet, no soldier was ever prosecuted for the crime.
A few days after the killings, protesters at my high school in East Meadow, New York, were set upon by right-wing students shouting anti-Semitic slogans. It was no Kent State, but it was an indication that the roots of Kent State were deeply embedded in our soil. When African-American Congressmen are spat upon by tea party members in Washington DC, we are reminded yet again that the poison continues to spread.
In 2007, I wrote a book called “Generation on Fire” in response to Kent State, but primarily as a tribute to the remarkable courage and rebellious spirit that sparked so many of the great changes that came out of the 1960s, Â The last chapter was devoted to the memory of Allison Krause, as told by her boyfriend, Barry Levine, and her mother Doris while I cried into my tape recorder. Here is a pdf of the chapter. Feel free to pass it around. I posted a few more pictures on the book’s Web site here.
It’s been forty years but I’m still very pissed off about Kent State and Richard Fucking Nixon and the cowards who fired those deadly bullets but who still get to drink their beers and sun their big bellies in their backyards while four kids who had been looking forward to long, happy lives, are instead in the ground, their families still devastated
We don’t know who you are, but you do. I hope that every moment of contentment you’ve had since that afternoon has been offset by misery and guilt.Â I wonder whether some time today you’ll pause to think with regret about the lives you destroyed. But I doubt it.Â After all, they shoot students, don’t they?