Veterans: from Ardennes to Alaska's Site Summit

  • Published
  • By Air Force Col. Rob Evans
  • JBER/673d ABW commander
Imagine how cold it must have been ... working on the top of a mountain in Alaska, living in a wooden barracks shuddering under the gusts of high winds, blanketed in heavy snow.

For more than 20 years, the Soldiers of the 1-43 Air Defense Artillery Battalion stood their cold and lonely posts on the peaks of the Chugach Mountains.

In 1960, they fabricated a metal frame in the shape of a star and anchored it to the mountainside, just below the missile launch complex.

With over 300 light bulbs, it was clearly visible to the citizens of Anchorage, far below.
It was a constant reminder that they were safe, protected by those who understood that freedom is not free.

The Nike Hercules missiles at Site Summit were deactivated in 1979 and the remaining buildings are slowly losing their battle against the elements; prolonged by a group of veterans and friends who understand the significance of service on the last frontier.
But, the star remains, a reminder still that we are safe, defended by men and women who are willing to endure hardship, sacrifice the comforts of home and family, and risk their lives so that we can live in peace, protected by the freedoms and ideals that they fight to win and preserve.

They are our veterans, and this is their day.

I had planned to talk this morning about Alaska's veterans ... not the ones we read about in books, or those whose valor propels them into the spotlight ... but, the everyday veterans ... the ones you don't hear about ... performing difficult, dangerous, sometimes monotonous duties of vital importance to our Nation's security ... like the Soldiers that maintained the complex clamshell doors that protected the Nike's target-tracking radar against the elements ... a feature, by the way, that was unique to Site Summit.

I gathered stories of Soldiers, Airmen ... active, Guard and Reserve that had served, or are serving in Alaska.

It was humbling ... and made me proud to wear this uniform and serve alongside them.
That's was I had planned to talk about. But, an event this week has been on my mind, and took my reflections along a different path ... a story of two veterans. So, I hope you'll indulge me.

The legendary news anchorman, Tom Brokaw, coined the phrase "The Greatest Generation," to describe the men and women that came of age during the great depression, fought in World War II, and built post-war America.

In his words, "... the U.S. government turned to ordinary Americans and asked of them extraordinary service, sacrifice, and heroics.

Many Americans met those high expectations, and returned home to lead ordinary lives." I grew up right next door to one of them ... Jim Philbin; died last Saturday, in his sleep.
Tomorrow, he will be layed to rest with military honors. His son and I were friends ... when some high school buddies covered my parent's house with toilet paper ... and portions of our neighbors', Mr. Philbin helped clean it up.

When I saw him outside with his trash bag and broom handle, pulling down the white strands that decorated his trees, I thought he'd be angry.

He wasn't.

I didn't learn of his past until after I left home; he never spoke of it.

Jim Philbin was part of the greatest generation, a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

After the war, he graduated from University of California-Berkley and worked as an engineer on the first space program at Cape Canaveral.

Later, he earned a law degree and worked 30 years at the Franchise Tax Board.
That was the neighbor I knew. Like all veterans, Jim Philbin was far more than he appeared. As Tom Brokaw would say, he was an ordinary man that did extraordinary things.

Jim Philbin was a paratrooper; a proud member of the famed 82nd Airborne Division. He jumped into Holland on Sept. 17 1944, part of an airborne assault to seize key bridges and out-flank the German defenses.

They met heavy resistance and fierce struggle against the odds was immortalized in the book, and later film, "A Bridge Too Far."

Jim Philbin fought on ... into the bitter woods of the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge ... he made it into Germany.

A young German boy witnessed the arrival of the American troops ... and it profoundly impacted his life. I met him ... almost sixty years later.

He lost both of his parents in World War II, but he gained a new family.

As a young boy, he could not possibly understand the socio-political drivers that brought war again to Europe ... or robbed him of his parents ... but he was impressed by the American Soldiers that he saw in the streets of his village.

As he came of age, he immigrated to America, became a citizen and joined the United States Army. He served a full career ... earning the title of first sergeant.

I met Frank Swind in 2002. He was the Superintendent of the American Military Cemetery at Margraten, Holland, and I was preparing a speech for the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
Frank explained that a battlefield cemetery was established here on the 10th of November 1944 by the U.S. First Army, as they prepared for the final assault on Nazi Germany.
The cemetery is situated on rolling hills, surrounded by oaks and maples, along the Maastricht-Aachen Highway ... an old Roman road, once used by Napoleon's armies marching east towards Russia.

As he led me around the beautiful grounds, he described the landscaping ... the Japanese cherry trees and American Poplars ... and the vibrant rhododendrons that blossom just before Memorial Day each year.

He told me that the crosses here were unique, arranged in arcing rows, rather than the straight lines seen at the other American military cemeteries.

But, what impressed me most was his familiarity with the men memorialized there.
He knew their names, their stories ... He was their first sergeant, and proud of it. 8,308 of our fallen rest at Margraten.

The names of 1,723 of our missing are etched into granite walls flanking a reflecting pool.
Most gave their lives in the airborne and ground operations to liberate eastern Holland, ... during the advances into Germany over the Roer and across the Rhine ... and in the air operations over the battlefields.

On this very day, at this beautiful resting place, Dutch families are decorating graves and paying respect ... as they have been doing for generations.

While Frank and I walked among the headstones, a group of school children on a field trip were moving solemnly across the grounds ... their teacher was recounting the story of brave men who fought and died for their freedom.

They will not forget, and neither will we.

The men that are buried at Margraten, and those that fought alongside them ... like my neighbor, Jim Philbin, were ordinary people, doing extraordinary things.

They are Veterans, and we owe all of them a debt of gratitude we can never repay.
Their generation earned a place in history, but, they were not unique.

Many have answered their nation's call, joining a legacy of service and sacrifice. The words of the famous poem, "In Flanders Fields," are as apt today as they were when John McCrae wrote them during the first World War: To you ... from failing hands ... we throw the torch ... be it yours to hold high.

Today, here at JBER, paratroopers once again prepare for battle, ready to take the torch and hold it high.

Thousands more support our commitments across a dangerous world ... many are among us here today.

A tower stands guard over Margraten's Court of Honor.

On the west face is inscribed a charge from Pericles' oration, recorded by the ancient historian Thucydides. "Each ... for his own memorial ... earned praise that will never die. And with it, the grandest of all stone tombs. Not that in which his mortal bones are laid, but a home ... in the minds of men."

Our veterans - ordinary Americans who gave us extraordinary service, sacrifice, and heroics; memorialized ... in the minds of men.

Our veterans deserve nothing less ... today, and every day.