Entry from March 9, 2010

Normally, if you have no other claim to fame than your military career, you have to have been of four-star rank or higher or to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor to get an obituary in The New York Times. But that is not invariably true. You can also be a Tuskegee airman or other hero of the civil rights struggle as it relates to the military. Thus, last week, The Times euologized Modesto Cartagena who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in Korea as a member of the 65th Infantry Regiment, an all- (or nearly all-) Puerto Rican outfit. Doubtless, once the Obama administration has finally succeeded in getting rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the first avowedly gay medal winners will also be written up by the Times when they come to die.

But I think that equating the two forms of heroism, or putting being heroic while ethnic above just being heroic does a disservice to other medal winners. In Mr Cartagena’s case, for instance, he personally seems to have broken down no racial barriers. As a Puerto Rican, which he could not help being in any case, his achievement was a collective one and summed up by the Times thus: “The Puerto Rican soldiers surmounted not only the Communist enemy but also prejudicial attitudes.” They were said by one general, who had been prejudiced against them, as “a rum and Coca-Cola outfit” but to have proven themselves “the best damn soldiers in that war.” The latter accolade, you’d think, would be enough for anybody. Mr Cartagena’s real achievement was of the heart and will, and it was that for which he was recognized by the United States government.

The Times’s bare-bones account reads that he was decorated for

“extraordinary heroism” in a single-handed assault that enabled his company to seize a hill near Yonchon, South Korea, on April 19, 1951. Sergeant Cartagena had charged ahead of his men, who were pinned down by a “well-entrenched and fanatically determined hostile force,” as his citation put it. His rifle was shot away from him and he was wounded by enemy grenades, but he dispatched five Communist emplacements by tossing grenades at them.

One wishes in vain to know more. And whatever he did also to have won, as he did, the silver and bronze stars, in both World War II and Korea, is left unrecorded by the Times obituarist, Richard Goldstein. Yet he does mention, almost as an aside at the end of the short article, that in 2002, at the age of 79, the late Mr Cartagena had told the The El Paso Times: “I’m just sorry that I’m too old to go to Afghanistan to fight. . . I’d do it all over again if I could.” There, at last, sounds the heroic note, though you’ve got to wonder if the Times even recognizes it when it hears it.

It reminded me of an obituary that had appeared the day before in The Times of London of the Battle of Britain hero Bob Doe, of whom it was said:

Strangely, perhaps, Doe regarded himself as a timorous individual with no gifts as a pilot. His superiors disagreed and his record, 15 combat victories (14 kills and two shared) speaks for itself. Reticent he might have been on the ground, but once in the air Doe was imbued with that desire to be at grips with the enemy that is the hallmark of the finest fighting troops.

The Times’s obit of Wing Commander Doe was twice as long as the New York Times’s of Sgt Cartagena, and the (London) Daily Telegraph’s was nearly three times as long. The latter wrote of Doe that he

was the joint-third most successful fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, credited with 14 victories and two shared. Yet Doe had struggled to become a pilot, barely passing the necessary exams to gain his wings. He lacked confidence, was poor at aerobatics and disliked flying upside down – not an auspicious beginning for a fighter pilot. On August 15 1940 — dubbed Adler Tag (Eagle Day) by Hermann Goering, the day he claimed he would destroy Fighter Command — the 20-year-old Doe was on standby with his Spitfire as part of No 234 Squadron at Middle Wallop, Hampshire, waiting for his first scramble. Years later he recalled: “I knew I was going to be killed. I was the worst pilot on the squadron.” When the scramble bell rang, Doe was filled with dread but he took off; the fear of being thought a coward was more powerful than the fear of death.

That’s the kind of detail you somehow can’t imagine being included by The New York Times, even if it could be bothered to devote the same space to its military obituaries. As is this, from The (London) Times’s “Lives Remembered” column consisting of brief addenda or corrigenda to its obituaries by friends and family of the deceased. This one was by John Carder:

The story of the much decorated Battle of Britain Fighter Ace Wing Commander Bob Doe (obituary, March 3) omits an act of chivalry that makes him unique among the Few. In August 1940 he damaged an Me109 and chased it across the Channel. When the German pilot ejected his cockpit canopy Bob knew he was finished and would soon crash into the sea many miles from the French coast. “I flew alongside him. It was the first time I had seen a German in the air. He had taken off his oxygen mask. I wished him ‘bonne chance’ and turned for home. I could not have shot him down in cold blood.” By good fortune, Hauptmann Pingle, the pilot, was picked up by the German Air Sea Rescue Service and many years later met Bob Doe after a screening of a television documentry [sic] on his experiences. I have to add that Pingle rejoined his squadron and shot down a further six British fighters before being shot down himself and becoming a prisoner of war. Is this why chivalry has died out?

That’s a historical detail I am very glad to know about. But it makes me sad to think of how many like it about American troops must be disappearing forever, lost to sketchy or non-existent obituaries in our newspaper of record.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts