Every Memorial Day, I place a flag next to Colonel Guy Lothrop’s memorial. The Colonel was my Grandpa. He gave me the first book I ever read outside of school. It was James Mitchener’s Poland. It began my love affair with history books. We spent many summer days fishing, gardening and sitting around his Vermont home while he dissected the world that had drawn his family into three wars. His history lessons became even more personal, when our family moved to Germany for three years beginning in 1973.
His soaring intellect had given way to a broken, sobbing heart as he acknowledged that his strength had always been found in Grandma’s love for him. He shared with me the times when Grandma helped him endure the unspeakable pains of war.
Grandpa Lothrop was the middle son of James Norris Lothrop, a career Army Officer. He and his two brothers fought in World War 2.
The older brother, Robert Blake Lothrop, was a West Point Graduate, He was assigned as Assistant Engineering Officer to Corregidor Island in the Phillipines in 1941. Bob Lothrop was taken prisoner in May 1942 by the Japanese and survived the Bataan Death March. In the book Corregidor – Saga of a Fortress, a soldier recounts Captain Bob Lothrop as the only prisoner who had the discipline to shave and groom himself every morning for two years in a squalid jungle prison.
On October 24, 1944, while being transported on the Japanese “Hell Ship” Arisan Maru, Grandpa’s big brother Bob was shot by the Japanese and thrown into the Pacific Ocean.
Bob’s death hit Grandpa hard. He had followed his big brother to West Point and always saw his brother as a role model. At the time of Bob’s death, Grandpa was in France, Commanding Officer of the 45th Field Artillery Battalion. His Battalion landed on Utah Beach on July 4th 1944 and fought until meeting the Russians on May 3rd, 1945.
During this time he fought in the cold, brutal Battle of Bulge, liberated the Woebbelin concentration camp outside Berlin, and was forced to pillage farms occupied by German mothers and children of Hoort in order to feed the 250,000 German soldiers they had taken prisoner.
This last order was particularly hard because he had not seen his wife and two children in a few years. He cried hard as recounted the years (WW 2 and Korea) that he was away from the love of his life and how well she raised their two sons (my Dad and Uncle Doug).
After the tears faded, the stoic chin and serious countenance of Colonel Guy Lothrop reappeared. I will never forget his words.
“I was never a great soldier like my brothers. I was more interested in studying French. I missed my family and had lost two brothers in this horrific war. But when we laid down our arms on the Elbe River and saw Stalin’s Army on the other side – I felt sad. I accepted the sacrifice of war as the price for freedom. This is what the American flag symbolizes. But the war for freedom did not end at the Elbe. We needed to finish the job to the end of Danube. I came home feeling empty-handed”
The only means of stymying the flow of grieving tears over our week together was to redirect our conversation back to books and history. Grandpa served on General MacArthur’s staff during the Korean War. He travelled frequently between Tokyo and Taipei. But the conversation always returned to Europe, because history taught him that any war in Europe, sooner or later, always become an American war. These are wise words for Americans on every Memorial Day.
The Berlin Wall was still two months from collapsing and Grandpa never imagined an united Europe. I am certain that he would look upon the European Union as a great human endeavor, which should be nurtured and supported at all costs. He would remind us that the American Revolution at it’s 30th anniversary was still a precocious, flawed and weak institution.
Before Colonel Guy Lothrop died in 1994, he moved to Cincinnati to be near my Dad. As my post-Harvard “money chase” gained momentum, we never again found time to go fishing or spend hours drinking old-fashions as he poured his life experiences into my thirsty soul. But we found time alone when I visited my parents in Cincinnati. Grandpa never criticized anyone. His form of criticism was silence. He never once mentioned his father-in-law, a wealthy New York businessman and never had much interest in commerce. He valued culture, virtues and character.
So I was surprised when one of our last conversations ended like this:
Don, I am glad you did not enter the ROTC at Penn State. Now that Communism has been defeated, we live in new era. Wars will now be fought with ideas and virtues. With minds and money. Use what you have been given wisely.
This morning, like every Memorial Day, I throw a ladder in my Jeep and drive to the Gates of Heaven cemetery to place a small flag next to my grandparents memorial. I am always surprised, when out of blue, I feel my nose and upper lip start to quiver, and tears blur my vision as they drop down my face. I thank Grandpa for his sacrifice. I remember his brothers Bob and John. Thanks to his generation, I never had to fight in war. And then I speak to him:
Grandpa, you did not go home from the Elbe River empty-handed. I now make my home at the edge of the Danube, with my son whom I named after you, sharing the virtues of individual freedom you fought for with what little I have to offer: my mind, my money and my faith. Your life lives on in mine.
And then I repeat the words of one of his favorite Americans, General George C Marshall. “May the American flag always be, on one hand, the symbol of individual freedom and on the other, a symbol of overwhelming force.”