On a tranquil and sunny morning, with only the soft rustle of a warm May wind fluttering the hundreds of American flags at Mount Hope Cemetery, Ralph Cole asked those attending a Memorial Day ceremony to imagine other circumstances, ones that could scarcely be more different.
He asked the crowd of more than 200 people to think of a December day in Vietnam, more than half a century ago.
He asked them to remember John Noble Holcomb, the Baker County boy who grew up in Richland and died on Dec. 3, 1968, at age 22, after showing “indomitable will and courage after his unit was attacked from three sides.”
That description is part of the citation that accompanied the Medal of Honor bestowed, posthumously, on Holcomb. He is one of just 13 Oregonians, and the only Baker County resident, to receive the U.S. military’s highest decoration.
Holcomb carried several of his wounded fellow soldiers to a safer position, exposing himself to machine gun and artillery fire.
Even after he was himself wounded, Holcomb, the Medal of Honor citation goes on, “crawled through a grass fire and exploding mortar and rocket rounds to move the members of his squad, every one of whom had been wounded, to more secure positions.”
“We never want to forget that he had that love, the sacrifice he made for his friends,” Cole said of Holcomb.
Cole asked the audience to remember another terrible day and another selfless act of heroism, one that happened on June 23, 1944, in the skies over the Nazi-controlled Europe.
He talked about David Richard Kingsley, 25, who was a bombardier on a B-17 bomber that was part of a raid on the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.
After enemy fighters damaged the bomber and injured several crew members, the pilot ordered the crew to bail out.
The B-17’s tail gunner, among those wounded, had lost his parachute, Cole said.
Kingsley, from Portland, took off his own parachute and buckled it to the tail gunner.
Then, Cole said, Kingsley “rode that airplane” to the crash landing that killed him.
Cole talked of Robert D. Maxwell, the nation’s oldest Medal of Honor recipient, who died in May 2019 in Bend.
Maxwell survived despite throwing himself atop a German grenade in France on Sept. 7, 1944, to protect nearby soldiers.
That trio — Holcomb, Kingsley and Maxwell — and more than 1.3 million others who died while serving the United States “did their duty for God and for country,” Cole said.
“Memorial Day is not the day we honor the living, it’s the day that we honor the dead,” he said.
After Cole’s address, Jerry Hunter, local commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, read the names of seven Baker County veterans, each of whom had a flag planted in his memory.
The seven are Dennis L. Fuller, Lloyd R. Cook, George D. Braughton, Clifford D. Jacobson, Kenneth D. Schaer, Gene E. North and Michael Jacobson.
Doug Riggs, chairman of the Avenue of Flags committee, thanked all those who helped place the large flags along the avenue leading to the veterans section at Mount Hope, but also the hundreds of smaller flags set next to veterans’ graves.