Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lest We Forget: An Album of Remembrance



Sacred groves of trees held a special significance in ancient cultures and religions. One such sacred grove exists at the Montrose veterans hospital facility named for Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president who guided the nation through World War II to victory. Here a random array of eleven stone columns topped by bronze busts stands in a bosky dell amidst maples, pines, dogwoods, redbuds, forsythias and rhododendrons. Glossy dark green myrtle carpets the ground. Benches proclaim this to be a place of reflection and peace.

Every country can boast of monuments to generals who fought epic battles and won--or lost--their nations' wars. A common thread of such memorials is that the subject is often astride a magnificent horse. Until comparatively recently, however, the individual contributions to victory of the common soldier, sailor or marine who did the fighting and dying were never memorialized in stone or metal.

The sculpture garden at Montrose, N.Y., displays no sculptures of generals or admirals posing in the comfort of retirement long after the smoke of battle has cleared, nor the stiff figures of statesmen or wily politicians that decorate the halls of public buildings. These are the faces of men and women experiening the apprehensions and uncertainties of war. These are the universal citizen soldiers, sailors and marines who have done the fighting and the dying in the many wars that dot our history. The busts in this gallery of heroes were all sculpted by Nils Andersen, a troubled World War II veteran of the bloody battle for the Japanese island of Okinawa, who was a patient at this facility.

Andersen's first sculpture was that of a World War II combat
Marine: Andersen himself. Battle-savvy, his helmet strap dangles
loosely--it was far better to lose your helmet than to have your
neck snapped from the concussion of an exploding shell.

His ears covered by a woolen scarf, a Revolutionary War
soldier braves the cold at the Continental Army's winter
quarters at Valley Forge.

A Civil War soldier thrusts his chin out in a determined
challenge to a distant Johnny Reb sniper.

This Spanish-American War trooper could be getting ready to
charge up San Juan Hill with Col. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.

An aviator from the First World War scans the skies for signs
of a returning squadron mate after a patrol over German lines.

The hunched shoulders and glazed eyes of this helmeted World
War I doughboy exhibit his exhaustion after weeks under
attack in the muddy trenches of the Western front.

This baby-faced seaman of World War II can only be from
Brooklyn and under his white canvas hat his curly hair surely is red.

The nurse captain in the soft hat from the Second World War
wears a look of concern--about what we can never know.

Wrapped in a blanket against the early-winter cold of the
retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in 1950, a hollow-eyed
Korean War Marine chomps on the stub of a cigar--and waits.

This African-American Vietnam War gunner is swathed
in cartridge-laden .50 caliber machine-gun belts.

An exultant trooper in the force that ejected Saddam Hussein's
army from Kuwait in the 1993 Gulf War. He also stands in for
those still fighting and dieing in America's longest war in Iraq.

I urge all who read these lines to visit this sacred grove at Montrose. Look into the eyes of these nameless figures. Forever frozen in time, their faces express the very real concerns of those who have known the randomness and cruelty of war. Then relax on one of the conveniently placed benches and contemplate the heavy price in human life our country has paid for its freedom. Close your eyes. Let the serenity of this hallowed ground wash over you. And listen. On the soft breezes that gently caress these solitary bronze figures you may hear distant voices quietly asking,

"Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But well or ill,
America, we died for you."

For an account of the creation of these evocative sculptures and the veteran who mde them, see the immediately following article titled "The Trouble I've Seen: The Nils Andersen Story."

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