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This Memorial Day, He Understood the Price

May 24, 2013 // By Marcus Brotherton

Shifty Powers at the grave of his friend, Skip Muck. Photo courtesy Peter van der Wal.



Every move we make this Memorial Day is a costly move.

A hotdog barbecued in the backyard is a lavish expense. The price of watching a parade is exorbitant. Admission to the National Memorial Day Concert on the west lawn of the United States Capitol is incalculable.

On the last Monday of May we honor the men and women who pay for our freedom. The cost of their immeasurable sacrifices is foundational to every move we make.
How difficult it is to grasp that freedom is not free—and more so to live in light of that reality. Most of us experience war by hearing news or debating ideas. We read memoirs or watch war movies or talk to veterans. Still, it’s hard for us to grasp what those who fight for our freedom actually go through.
But narrow the focus. Perhaps then the cost becomes easier to appreciate. What has one person paid so we can live in freedom today?
Meet Shifty Powers. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was a soft-spoken 18-year-old from Virginia. After nearly two years of hard training, he parachuted into France on D-day and fought for a month in Normandy, eighty days in Holland, thirty-nine days in the harshly cold winter of Bastogne, and nearly thirty more in Haguenau, France, and Germany.
Total price of Shifty’s time in military service: three years of his youth.
One of Shifty’s good friends was a muscular Washingtonian named Bill Kiehn. One morning while holding the line in Haguenau, Bill came off duty. Exhausted, he went to take a nap in the basement of an empty house. A stray artillery shell flew in, struck the house, and exploded. By the time they dug Bill out, he was dead.
Bill Kiehn is a specific example of someone we remember on Memorial Day, and not the only friend of Shifty’s killed in action. The names ring out like a laundry list of lost potential—Skip Muck, Bill Dukeman, Thomas Meehan.
Total number of friends from Shifty’s company who died in the war: thirty-nine young men.
Shifty was stationed in Austria near war’s end. His name was picked out of a hat to go home early. He had never been wounded during the fighting, but on his way back to headquarters, the truck he rode in collided head-on with another army vehicle. Shifty broke one arm and his pelvis, and suffered other injuries. He came home from war in casts.
Total time Shifty spent in recovery: twelve months in hospital.
Even with victory, the young man who had gone to war was not the same man who came home. Shifty was plagued by nightmares, unseen fears. He got into fights. For a while, he drank too much. He was an ordinary man, but he had seen horrific extraordinary things. For decades he quietly processed the battles fought. Work, family, faith, and community helped.
Total time Shifty spent processing the war: the rest of his life.
When I examine Shifty Powers’ story, I see a man who paid greatly for freedom. He fought for his country when it immediately came under attack, and he also fought for the futures of all free peoples.
Decades beyond World War II, surely I am one who benefited. That I can vote in presidential elections and not bend my knee to Hirohito’s grandson is testament to the enduring work of the veterans of World War II. That I can write books for a living instead of sweating in a Third Reich factory is a product of Allied triumph.
Still, others paid more than Shifty, as he would be the first to tell you. Those who paid the ultimate price are those we specifically remember on Memorial Day.
What is my hope for this holiday? I hold one picture closely in mind. It’s a photograph of Shifty as an old man, returned to Europe to place flowers on the grave of his friend, Skip Muck, killed at Bastogne. The grief and honor are still fresh on Shifty’s face. This example is what I glean from a man like Shifty Powers, and hope to remember.
He understood the price.
Read more about the life of Darrell ‘Shifty’ Powers in SHIFTY’S WAR 

 Question: Why is Memorial Day significant for you? What do you hope that people know about this holiday?

  • Those men are entwined whether they came home or not. Their memories live on within those that came back. Looking at that picture of Shifty I see a humble man, as all of those men are.
    My hope is that no kid or anyone in the US should experience trauma of any kind , but, especially war. I have never fought in one, but, on 9-1-1-, I live close to the Pentagon and on that day I never felt more fear, fear of being shot at, or bombed.
    When that happened we did not know what to think, we did not know that Alkieda prefers landmarks and crowds. I had no gun back then, now I have several. I hope to use them for only target shooting. On 9-1-1, I would have given my soul for a gun to feel at least half safe.

    Here’s to all people who ever ever been in a war. You deserve the respect of all Americans on this day and everyday thereafter.

    Greg

  • Greg, well said. Thank you.

  • gary sedgwick

    Marcus: Many many thanks for your story for Memorial Day. I have read your book on Shorty twice and admire you for writing their stories. I will watch the tv show on Memorial Day from DC which has great music plus stories of men in or was in service. I still remember Charles Durning’s story and have read more on him during his WW II experiences. They were all heroes to me and I will stop to thank service members, current and past, when I see them on the streets. I read military history books each night to try and understand what the men and women experienced when fighting for our freedom. Voices of the Pacific is such a book. Thanks again for this story for Memorial Day and how greatful you must be to have spoken with Shifty for your book on his life.

  • One reason Memorial Day is important to me is that my father served in the military. He knows the pain of service and the sacrifice that must be given to protect the freedoms and liberties of the USA.

  • @Gary, thanks always for your thoughtful contributions.

    @ Joseph, great line …”pain of service…” thank you.

  • Anyone who does not comprehend what Memorial Day truly signifies needs to read Shifty’s War. It should be required reading for all high school students and a must read for anyone who does not feel awe, inspiration and heartfelt appreciation for our veterans all tinged with a layer of sadness.

  • Thank you Kaylee, well said.

  • Adrien

    My beloved late godfather was 12 on the 11th of September 1944 when the 1st Infantry Division liberated his small town in Belgium near Aachen and the German border. I was born in 1982 and as long as I can remember him he always lived like a man on a mission, following a calling he had when he got liberated and could regain his freedom thanks to the American people after years of suffering, depravation,starvation and the death of an uncle who helped the Belgian army fight against the German invasion in May 1940 as a civilian.I grew up rising the American and Belgian flags above the town with him. As a bartender he always had the fifty American States above his bar and used to insist to make me recognize them and recite their capital city. In his last years he used to bear the flags to any ceremony honoring the fallen heroes in front of monuments. Having taken part in an association that erected two monuments in our hometown to pay tribute to the liberators from 1944, he even took the bus and long walks to take photographs and list every monument in the area (and beyond) and gather witnesses of the WWII events around those spots. It says a lot about his life and it summarizes and emphasizes his whole existence. Other than that he was frugal. Through those aspects, he set a blueprint for manliness and I only realize how much now that he is gone. How I craved – and still do – for manly examples and I feel lucky to take lessons from his example.
    He was not an educated man. He got rid of school at twelve because the war had come in his way and he had spent more time working for his starving big family and hanging around with his fellows, following the traces of a crashed plane or trying to get chocolate and cigarettes from the Americans.
    So, being his godchild I have always spent time with Americans WWII veteran. I remember when Christmas Time had come he used to hang postcards from all his American contacts on a wire through his sitting room. Thanks to him I have always been interested in English and now I can speak and use this language in my everyday life.
    Paying a tribute to America and to the price paid for freedom which he had lost so bitterly in his childhood and which cost his old father a whole decade of youth (because of his enlistment in WWI), was all his life.
    Part of his legacy was to suggest me to adopt a grave at the American Cemetery of Henri-Chapelle around my twelfth birthday, fifty years after the liberation (during which he was also twelve). To me it was like a rite of passage that I underwent. Since then I regularly go to this grave to set flowers in front of it, mainly on Memorial Day and the day of his death. I randomly adopted the grave of a sergeant from North Carolina, (whose name won’t be disclosed here) 119th Infantry 30th Division. I recently decided to investigate what I thought my godfather’s legacy was and I decided to make some researches about this fallen soldier (whose legacy is still ringing through the years because of his ultimate sacrifice). So I searched the internet and I found out some elements in a genealogical tree online and in the national archives (NARA) about his path through the war . I am now able to get in touch with his family who had never gotten the chance to know where he was resting and elements of his last months and years in the Army.
    So to me it shows that even if you cannot redeem by yourself a sacrifice given for your own good especially such an ultimate price, it shows that trying to, even in a very humble way shows that it can pay and create some meaning for others. So such commitment, even so small shows the intricacy of such an entanglement of giving and reception where through the generations the one who gives his life is creating some giving back and meaning well beyond his living days. This is why I thank my godfather for having showed to me a way to highlight the real heroes and their families who paid the price of the ultimate sacrifice four our everyday freedom. Let’s we never forget them and never see them fall in oblivion.

  • Adrien, thanks so much for sharing. Great thoughts all around.

  • Tobias (GER)

    Because we should never forget to thank those who gave us the freedom we have those days. At least I will never forget!
    T

  • Larry

    I am named after my grandmother’s baby brother Lamar Zimmerman who was KIA with the 80th Infantry in January 1945. He was a great baseball player who was on track to play in the majors. He gave all. Monday I will sit by his grave and thank him. Sadly, if history is any indicator, I will be there virtually alone.

  • Carlton

    Marcus, You so eloquently placed into words the feelings of most of us children of the “Greates Generation”. We all feel a debt of gratitude to all who served and paid the price for this.

  • Scott M Sykes

    All one needs to do is hear the Taps play that final tune to say good bye to a comrade that left us far too soon. Even today I may not know all the names of the men who died so that this country may be free but I know that it was a selfless sacrifice that they gave. From that first call at Concord and to the ones that followed many a man and woman heeded the call to preserve this nation’s freedom. I can only give this small thankful token of appreciation that I had the chance to serve and protect this country as well. But they are the ones who truly deserve the credit for giving me the chance to be free.
    God Bless all of my brothers and sisters who gone and given that last full measure. Thank you for giving me that chance. Till we meet in that final manifest call on Heaven’s street.

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HI, I'M MARCUS BROTHERTON,

the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.