Entry from May 28, 2010

Today’s New York Times has an obituary of John Finn, a Medal of Honor recipient from California who died yesterday at the age of 100. He was the last of the 15 service members who received Medals of Honor for their actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Mr Finn, a chief petty officer in charge of munitions at the time, got out of bed and made his way to Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station where the first wave of Japanese bombers were trying to destroy the base’s aircraft before they could get off the ground. In the words of the Times’s obituarist, Richard Goldstein,

When Chief Finn arrived at the hangars, many of the planes had already been hit. He recalled that he grabbed a .30-caliber machine gun on a makeshift tripod, carried it to an exposed area near a runway and began firing. For the next two and a half hours, he blazed away, although peppered by shrapnel as the Japanese planes strafed the runways with cannon fire. As he remembered it: “I got shot in the left arm and shot in the left foot, broke the bone. I had shrapnel blows in my chest and belly and right elbow and right thumb. Some were just scratches. My scalp got cut, and everybody thought I was dying: Oh, Christ, the old chief had the top of his head knocked off! I had 28, 29 holes in me that were bleeding. I was walking around on one heel. I was barefooted on that coral dust. My left arm didn’t work. It was just a big ball hanging down.”

You might think that an inspiring story, and you would be right. The New York Times has a policy of printing obituaries of Medal of Honor recipients. But rarely if ever does it run obits of other military men merely for heroic deeds, when their acts of heroism deserved to be remembered alongside of those of Chief Finn. That’s enough heroes, says The New York Times. Our readers are more interested in minor celebrities and retired politicians or bureaucrats.

The Washington Post does a little better. A couple of weeks ago, they ran an obituary of Col. Walker M. “Bud” Mahurin, one of the top American fighter aces of all time and the only one to have “kills” in both European and Pacific theatres and in Korea. Here’s a passage from the Post’s obit:

While serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, Col. Mahurin flew the P-47 Thunderbolt, a propeller-driven plane equipped with eight 50-caliber machine guns. He used them to devastating effect against the German Luftwaffe.

Who doesn’t know that the P-47 — like every other aircraft used by the American Army Air Force in WWII — was “a propeller-driven plane”? Or, for that matter, that the Luftwaffe was German. Under the circumstances it sounds quite daringly presumptive not to identify the Luftwaffe as the German air force. Later we are solemnly informed that “to qualify as an ace, a pilot must have five or more documented enemy kills.”

When I was a boy growing up everybody knew these things. Reading them would have struck us as like being told that the enemy, at the time, was Germany or that their ruling oligarchy went under the name of “Nazis.” I doubt that there were any of my schoolfriends who wouldn’t have spotted the Post’s howler in this article in misidentifying the “Mustang” fighter flown by Col Mahurin as the P-50 instead of the P-51.But I guess now people don’t know these things. The Post offers a bare recitation of the details of Col. Mahurin’s scorecard:

A spokesman for the American Fighter Aces Association said Col. Mahurin shot down 24.25 planes over the course of his career (pilots are awarded a fraction of a kill if multiple fighters engaged the enemy). He downed 20.75 in World War II and 3.5 in Korea before he was captured by the enemy and endured 16 months as a prisoner of war.

None of these victories is recounted, but the two occasions when he was shot down are, the second of which resulted in his being held prisoner of war in North Korea and “brainwashed” — to that the Post obit devotes 122 words or more than an eighth of the article. Suffering is interesting; heroism isn’t. Another eighth is devoted to an air crash he caused by hot-dogging early in his career, for which he was fined and reprimanded. Scandal! But at least the Post has an obituary. So does the (London) Daily Telegraph, which devotes even more space to this American hero than the Washington Post does, and includes accounts of some of his victories. The New York Times, however. devotes no space to him. Maybe that’s one reason to take it with a grain of salt when the Times editorializes that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which the House of Representatives has just voted to repeal without waiting for a Pentagon study of the matter, due to report in December, “is a culture war scar on military honor.” With all due respect, what does The New York Times know about military honor? About as much as Nancy Pelosi knows about troop morale and “unit cohesion.” when she says that repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “vital” to these things.

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