The American public somehow seems to confuse the purposes of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Memorial Day is to honor those who gave their lives in wartime.
While we should honor our veterans at every opportunity, we sometimes fail to remember those who did not make it home.
As the son of a World War II veteran, I have a deep and abiding respect for those who have been properly called "The Greatest Generation." My heart skips a beat and a tear wells up in my eye when I see those who have worn the uniform of our nation stand in recognition of their service.
But let’s not forget that 418,500 Americans, including 1,700 civilians, were killed during World War II. I doubt there is a courthouse in Georgia without a monument to the men and women who were killed in this deadly worldwide conflict.
In Vietnam, more than 58,000 Americans died. We moved to Social Circle during the height of the Vietnam War. I remember about the time we started attending First Baptist Church there was a prayer request for Terry Savage, a young Army sergeant who was first listed as missing. I never knew Terry Savage, but I remember the sadness I felt when I learned he had died. I have touched the inscription of his name on the Vietnam Wall in Washington.
My brother-in-law, an Air Force colonel, was involved in the celebration of the Air Force’s 60th anniversary in 2007. He took me for a visit to the impressive Air Force Memorial overlooking the Pentagon.
It was during that visit that I saw the name of Capt. Hilliard Wilbanks, one of the Vietnam veterans from Habersham County who died in combat. Wilbanks’ story is the epitome of bravery and valor. There is no doubt why he was posthumously honored with the Medal of Honor.
Wilbanks was flying a Cessna 0-1E Bird Dog, a tiny plane that was used for reconnaissance missions. It was not a fighter, but Hilliard Wilbanks was.
On Feb. 24, 1967, just two months before he was to come home to his wife and four small children, Wilbanks was flying in the central highlands, about 100 miles north of Saigon. He spotted two hostile units concealed on two hilltops. A small group of South Vietnamese Rangers were on foot and had little or no cover. They were walking into a trap.
Wilbanks radioed the rangers and flew through the enemy line, dropping phosphorous marker rockets for the fighter jets that would follow. The Viet Cong peppered his plane with a barrage of mortars, automatic weapons and machine guns.
When he ran out of phosphorous rockets, he had only his M-16 automatic rifle. He began a series of runs at about 100 feet, firing his rifle out the window. He would reload on each pass. On his third pass, Wilbanks was badly wounded and crashed into the battle area. An Army Ranger came to his rescue and he was removed from the scene by chopper, but died en route to a hospital.
I didn’t know Capt. Hilliard Wilbanks, but he is an American hero. It is he and others who died in the line of duty who we remember on Memorial Day.
Harris Blackwood is a columnist for The Times. His column appears every week in Sunday Life.