On Oct. 8, 1942, New Hampshire native and U.S. Army Air Forces Capt. Harl Pease Jr., along with three other Americans, was beheaded by members of the Imperial Japanese Military. I start with that gruesome detail not to shock you, but to put in perspective the heavy burden that our men and women in the military, and by extension their families must bear in an effort to keep our country safe.
In a world that can sometimes look at death as a finality, it would be disheartening to believe this would be the final chapter of Pease’s life. However, as with all those who have sacrificed on behalf of this great nation, we hold a day aside to not only honor their sacrifice, but to remember their lives. Memorial Day is our day as a nation to come together as a family, bound by the blood shed on our behalf. Memorial Day is our day to embrace each of these fallen heroes as our sons and daughters, and to hold our heroes “on high.”
In many ways I was blessed to have grown up in a military family, and to have been raised in a community that is rich in military history and devoted to public service. To live in the shadow of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and having grown up at what was then known as Pease Air Force Base, made me a better person. As the seventh generation to have served in the military, I want to believe I understand what the Pease family, or for that matter, what any family went through when they received the devastating news that their loved one had perished in the service of their country. But that would be a lie.
The pain of losing a loved one is devastating, regardless of the circumstances. The loss of a loved one in service of their country touches more deeply because it is unexpected inevitability. The family of those who serve in the military, especially during times of combat, live in dread every moment that this will be the day the phone will ring or the chaplain will knock on their door. Even today, as we squabble amongst ourselves about the next presidential election, there are men and women serving in “harm’s way,” and sadly there will be more flag-draped coffins. The best and brightest that our country and state have to offer are unfortunately forgotten, the causality of more than just war, but our busy lives. Memorial Day is our opportunity to reflect not on their deaths, but the value of their lives.
Capt. Pease was born and raised in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Some would say Pease had a privileged life, but a closer look shows he was raised by a family dedicated to charity and patriotism. The Pease family had several successful businesses, but also devoted their time and efforts to their community, which would help to shape Pease’s sense of duty. He was like so many young New Hamshirites each of us know. He was an avid skier, lettered in three sports, active in Boy Scouts, and played trumpet in his school band. By all accounts, he was adored by his family and loved by his neighbors.
Pease attended the University of New Hampshire, joining the ROTC program and serving as the editor-in-chief for the UNH yearbook his senior year. Graduating with a business degree, many believed Pease was destined for a promising business career. But the winds of war were blowing around the world, and Pease chose a different path.
Pease volunteered for U.S. Army Air Corps, and would eventually earn his pilot wings. When war broke out, Pease was immediately called into service in the Pacific. Pease was in the Philippines during the initial Japanese bombing and eventual invasion. Pease would fly a number of harrowing B-17 missions throughout the Pacific. One such mission was to rescue Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family. Bullet- ridden, and with numerous mechanical issues, Pease landed his aircraft safely, much to the amazement of MacArthur. Pease’s plane was is such a poor state that they used cut-up C-ration cans to patch the bullet holes. MacArthur refused to board the plane, and he would eventually be evacuated by other means. Ponder that for a moment: One of our most decorated generals wouldn’t fly in the B-17, but this was just routine for our airmen during World War II.
During the days of Aug. 6-7, 1942, Pease’s unit was involved in several important missions in which his primary B-17 had been damaged. Realizing the critical need for as many bombers as possible, Pease and his crew worked tireless to put into service a plane that had been relegated to training status only. While flying a mission to Rabaul’s Vunakanau, Pease and his crew were attacked by an onslaught of Japanese fighters. Damaged, Pease and his crew completed their mission and attempted to return to their base. On the way back, Pease’s aircraft was set upon once again by numerous Japanese fighters, and would eventually crash.
Pease survived the crash and was held captive for a brief period. Sometime around Oct. 8, 1942, Pease, along with other POWs were forced to dig swallow graves, and then were executed by their Japanese captors. Pease’s body would not be recovered until 1946; his family would have to wait four agonizing years for his return.
For his heroic actions during Aug. 6-7, Capt. Pease was the recipient of the Medal of Honor, which was given to his father in November 1942.
The life and actions of Capt. Pease, and all of our fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen are what we need to remember on Memorial Day. We, those left behind, are the authors of each of our fallen hero’s final chapter. They have earned more than just remembering how they died. They have earned the respect of a life in service to their country.
God bless all Gold Star families, and please say a prayer for those who have died in the defense of our country, and those still standing watch.