I think I wrote my very first commemoration for Veterans Day about 25 years ago for my local newspaper. I told the story of Marine Capt. Herb Freuler and his actions during the Battle of Wake Island. He and Carl Davidson, his wingman, were in squadron VMF-211. Half of the squadron’s planes had rushed to Wake Island to give the Marines on the ground some air cover. The men of the squadron literally fought to the last aircraft.
Just three days before Christmas in December 1941, Freuler and his wingman attacked two full squadrons of Japanese Naval aircraft on their way to blast Wake. Two FULL squadrons.
Freuler and Davidson were facing 25 to 1 odds.
These were Japanese aircraft carrier pilots too, a cut well above the Japanese Army Air Force pilots who had started the attacks on Wake Island 12 days earlier and had found the handful of Wildcats from VMF-211 to be a tenacious and deadly foe.
The Japanese Imperial Navy HQ had split off two of the six aircraft carriers retiring from their December 7 attacks on Pearl Harbor to help with the attack on Wake. Think of that: 12 Marine fighter planes put up such resistance that Japan had to send two aircraft carriers with about 140 aircraft to deal with them. And deal with them they did until it was just Freuler and Davidson that could rise to give battle to them.
According to the Silver Star citation Captain Freuler later received, the two Marines repeatedly plunged into the formation of the two Japanese squadrons. They shoot down three planes and damaged several more. Freuler was wounded twice in the attack and his plane caught fire. Somehow, he still managed to get it back to Wake Island and make a belly landing. He was followed by Japanese Zeroes who circled above his plane until he was well clear of the Wildcat (perhaps in tribute to his bravery) before they rolled in and strafed it to pieces. Freuler and the men of VMF-211 scanned the skies until dark waiting for the return of Davidson. They waited in vain; Davidson was never seen again. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
He was barely 23 yrs old. His body was never recovered.
Captain Freuler’s ordeal was nowhere near over. He spent the rest of the war as a Japanese POW, trying to survive, which says something in itself about what he was made of.
This brief story of two Marines in combat in the first days of WWII may seem quite heroic, yet, most of you reading this piece will probably never have heard of them. The Second World War was of such enormity that we sometimes only remember the most publicized acts of heroism.
But WWII saw no shortage of extraordinary individual heroism.
I tell this story because Veterans Day actually commemorates the heroic sacrifices of U.S. soldiers in WWI, not WWII.
At the end of WWI, we just couldn’t imagine that another war like that would ever happen again. Never would we see such heroism on such a massive scale… ever again. So we commemorated that 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month that marked the armistice that went into effect between the Entente and Germany hoping that it was “The War To End All Wars.”
Nevertheless, just 20 years after WWI, the largest conflict in human history burned up half the world and took some 56 million lives.
To me, Freuler and Davidson represent all veterans on this day. They were Marines in peacetime who were called to war, suddenly and violently, and made great personal sacrifices in serving. Sacrifice is a part of all military service. You sign up with the understanding that you may be called to fight, and you may not be coming back. It doesn’t matter what occupational specialty you have or whether you just signed up for the college money or the job skills. The enemy doesn’t care about any of this.
So this is why we should remember Veterans on this day. On Memorial Day we remember those who gave their last full measure of devotion to this country. But on Veterans Day we remember those who when their country asked, “Who will give their very lives to defend us?” raised their hands and said, “Here am I, send me.”
This article was originally published in November 2020.