By Timothy Cox
Memorial Day has a special meaning to former U.S. Army Sgt. Bill Oberhaus.
Oberhaus was the keynote speaker during services held in Celina Monday. Oberhaus told several poignant war stories, none more stirring than one involving a friendly-fire incident in the jungles of Vietnam.
It was November 1968 and a young Army sergeant was posted at a Howitzer machine gun, looking down into a valley, Oberhaus said. Advance scouts had advised that enemy soldiers would be moving into the valley within the coming hours. It was this young American's job to wait for them, watching for hours with the gun poised to shoot.
Eventually, word came to fire. The 23-year-old soldier let loose with 26 shots from the high-caliber machine gun. A few seconds later, horror set it. There were no Vietcong in the valley, only fellow American soldiers.
By this point in the story, Oberhaus was welling up with tears and it was obvious to the crowd -- Oberhaus was that young soldier who accidentally gunned down 11 of his own men. "I was that soldier. That's why Memorial Day to me is so important," Oberhaus said, his voice cracking.
For more than 20 years, Oberhaus said he did not talk about his personal horrors of war. It was only two years ago, during lunch with business associates, that the story came pouring out.
"I was not at fault, but it was something I fought with inside me for many years," Oberhaus told a crowd of more than 200 in front of the Mercer County Courthouse.
Oberhaus also shared the story of a young prisoner-of-war whose will could not be broken by his captors. The young soldier had gathered up scraps of red and blue cloth and used a bamboo needle to stitch a makeshift American flag inside his shirt. At night, he and fellow soldiers would recite the Pledge of Allegiance as they gazed at the flag.
Their captors eventually found the contraband Old Glory, though, and savagely beat the soldier. But when he was brought back to his cell mates, his face bloody and swollen, he immediately began gathering new material for another flag, Oberhaus said.
He also recounted a story of servicemen guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns in Washington, D.C. A tropical storm was threatening the Chesapeake Bay area and many people were leaving. Even Congress had recessed to allow its members to flee inland away from the storm. The soldiers guarding the tomb also were told to evacuate, but they refused, Oberhaus said.
Watching over the tomb "is the highest honor that can be afforded a service person," Oberhaus said.
In services in Mendon, the Rev. Peter Calvert told a story of a young woman whose husband had just been deployed to Iraq. She was eating in a restaurant when she overheard a group of women deriding the war effort. The women called the conflict a "war for oil," dismissed President Bush as "an idiot" and even called American military men and women "baby-killers."
The woman had eventually heard enough and went over to the other table. She told the women, "My husband is halfway around the world defending your right to say those rotten things."
The group of women apologized and tried to buy the woman's lunch. It was too late, though. A group of American soldiers sitting nearby had heard the whole exchange and already had picked up the dinner tab. They thanked the woman for confronting the civilians, something they were prohibited from doing.