History Department Chair Jennifer Wallace delivered a tribute to Groton’s fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, sharing a detailed lesson about war in a chapel talk while humanizing many of the names inscribed on the surrounding Chapel walls.
She began by asking listeners to spot a dragon in the Chapel. As students looked around, she guided them to the stained-glass window honoring Hamilton Coolidge, the senior prefect in 1915.
“Ham” volunteered to serve the country two months before the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, then learned to fly and requested an assignment in 1918 despite undoubtedly knowing, said Ms. Wallace, “that a pilot’s life expectancy was three to six weeks.”
She described the success of Groton’s only World War I Flying Ace, who prevailed in nine air battles. “Dogfighting was so new,” she said, “that pilots developed battle tactics literally on the fly, each open-cockpit plane constantly turning and climbing to position itself behind the enemy to fire. The fact that Ham once shot down two fighter planes and a heavily defended observation balloon in a single hour is impressive.” Ham beat the odds and survived sixteen weeks as a fighter pilot, succumbing when an anti-aircraft shell tore off his right wing while he was escorting two unarmed planes. The war ended fifteen days later.
Pointing to the large stained-glass window in the back of the Chapel, which is dedicated to eighteen Grotonians who died in World War I, Ms. Wallace brought her talk back to the Memorial Day holiday: “Today we commemorate these eighteen young men,” she said, “along with many, many others.”
The chapel talk included a history lesson about Memorial Day—once known as Decoration Day—which began after the Civil War, and how Groton once commemorated the holiday. “Preparations would begin in late April with a daily regimen of thirty minutes of marching practice,” she said. “On Decoration Day, the boys would rise as normal at 6:45 and dress in white cotton pants, white shirt, blue blazer, and school tie.” After a Chapel service to honor fallen Grotonians, the boys would march into town, following the headmaster, who was on horseback, to the town’s Old Burying Ground, where they would lay flowers on the graves of the town’s fallen soldiers. The practice ended in the 1960s, when students against the Vietnam War opposed the “militaristic commemoration.”
But at that time, a confrontation was averted. Ms. Wallace related a story told by school archivist Doug Brown '57: “While students had planned to boycott the march, Ms. Wallace said, “when they walked out of Chapel it was pouring rain. The town hastily canceled the parade that year, which saved students and faculty from an expected confrontation. By the next year, the country and the school had changed enough that Groton students never again marched to the cemetery with the rest of the town.”
Chapel stones and windows commemorate many of the eighteen Grotonians lost in World War I, the twenty-three lost in World War II, and the two who fell in the Korean War. Only one Chapel stone commemorates a veteran of the Vietnam War: Wilton Stroud Pyle ’64, who was shot while on combat patrol, two months after starting his one-year tour of duty.
Today, more people spend Memorial Day at barbecues than cemeteries. “Despite the fact that our all-volunteer force is fighting the longest war in our history,” said Ms. Wallace, “America is more disconnected from war than ever.”
America, she said, is “in active combat in fourteen countries around the world. Afghanistan and Iraq, of course. Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, if you read the news. But what about Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, and Tunisia? . . . We have bases in forty countries and two territories. There are ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations in eighty countries.” Nearly 7,000 Americans have died in these conflicts, she added, not including military contractors from private firms.
Ms. Wallace argued that elected representatives don’t understand the importance of all the conflicts where Americans are risking their lives—but should. “Theodore Roosevelt—a friend of [school founder Endicott] Peabody’s—left his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to recruit and lead his own cavalry unit in the Spanish-American War. To be fair,” she explained, “Roosevelt helped start this war by playing up what we would now call ‘fake news,’ blaming the explosion of the USS Maine on Spanish mines in Havana Harbor. But at least Roosevelt took the same risks that he asked of others. His four sons—all Groton alums—would follow in his footsteps by fighting in World War I. One was killed and two were badly injured.”
In contrast, the architects of the 2003 Iraq War avoided the war of their generation. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, she said, had five deferments to avoid the Vietnam War.
“The Form of 2019 is sending two Grotonians to service academies, so it is worth asking who chooses the battles we fight next—and do these policymakers understand the perils of war
with a country like Iran, for example?” she continued.
Ms. Wallace then introduced Groton graduates who have touched on Iran’s tumultuous history, from when Kermit Roosevelt,Jr. ’34 led the CIA’s efforts to overthrow the prime minister of Iran to when Moorhead Kennedy Jr. ’48 was among the Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days.
Relations between the U.S. and Iran have worsened recently, Ms. Wallace explained, with deployment of a carrier strike group, strategic bomber task force, fighter jets, manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, and Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries to the Persian Gulf, thanks in part, she said, to hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, who avoided service in Vietnam. Two Democratic senators have announced plans to re-introduce the military draft “in the hope of making Americans think twice about Bolton’s plans,” she said.
Through history, current events, and the stories hidden within the names on the Chapel walls, Ms. Wallace made personal the stories of those fallen in war and left students with advice—and a warning. “Memorial Day may be an American holiday, but I hope that no matter your citizenship, you take a moment today to reflect on the names inscribed in stone and wood around campus because they are members of your Groton family. Is war still relevant to us at Groton? Are Grotonians still relevant to war?
“You should be debating these questions and these policies,” she concluded, “as if your lives depend on them.”