June 9, 2000
Another Memorial Day has come, and gone, quietly and in routine fashion. Even with no formal ceremony locally, it was easy to evoke thoughts of loved ones and friends who have been called home, many of them before their time. This holiday, sometimes known as Decoration Day, originally was to honor soldiers killed in the Civil War. Later, those who fell in any war were included. Today it is regarded as a time to memorialize family members and other loved ones in addition to those in the military. Any good encyclopedia will help you understand the reason for this solemn time of tribute.
My generation survived enormously difficult economic times in the 1930s and then was called upon to defend the U.S. against Hitler's Nazis and Japanese imperialists in World War II. Veterans of that troubled time are rapidly dying off, so each Memorial Day gives us a new opportunity to remember them. NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw provides a marvelous insight into the people of that time and their era with his best-selling book, "The Greatest Generation." Through profiles of the men and women who came into adult maturity during WWII and the Great Depression, he graphically sketches a period of U.S. history that may never be equaled in its testing of the American people and the way they reacted to enormous adversity.
Individual stories of heroism in Mr. Brokaw's book are astonishing, even though many of them are told in a matter of fact way that makes them seem ordinary. But the motivation for this column is not to promote the book. Those of us who served in military uniforms and came home in one piece after WWII, or Korea, or Vietnam, or Desert Storm, or any of the other engagements involving U.S. armed forces, are profoundly grateful to those who gave the full measure of devotion. We can only wonder why we were spared.
The combat experience of one young man from Perry who served in World War II is told in a moving feature story that appeared in last weekend's edition of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise newspaper. Bill Rigg was a classmate of mine at Perry high school when we graduated with the class of 1941, believed by many to be the greatest senior class yet produced at PHS. Bill and his mother, Maud Rigg, widow of F.C. Rigg, lived at 1023 Fir avenue. Bill was one of the regulars who lined up after school hours for an endless game of shinny (field hockey) while we were growing up. After graduation, he joined others from the class of '41 at Oklahoma A.&M. College, but when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, he attempted to join the Army Air Corps, forerunner to the Air Force, at the age of 18, but was not called to active duty until February 1943. He eventually became a B-24 bomber co-pilot. The entire crew survived six months of regular bombing runs over Germany and other strategic targets in Europe.
Bill made it home safely and was greeted by his wife, Jacqueline, who comes from Ponca City. He returned to school and earned a degree on the GI Bill of Rights. He took a job with Phillips Petroleum and raised a family in Bartlesville. The feature story tells much more about his close calls on a Liberator bomber during those perilous wartime months, but Bill does not talk about them easily. I've known him for more than 60 years, and although we only see each other at our occasional class reunions, he now occupies a special place on a pedestal among my Hall of Heroes, where all of his kind belongs.