Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fourth of July Beirut Vet Remembered

West Fargo Pioneer Columnists

Remember America's heroes on July 5th too

Published Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Chet Decker is the sports editor for The Pioneer. He is a West Fargo graduate and was a journalist during his years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is currently employed as a Fargo Police Officer.
There’s only one thing I like during the Fourth of July holiday more than fireworks and barbeques. It’s during those annual fireworks displays that I remember true American heroes I had the honor to meet while serving two enlistments in the active duty U.S. Marine Corps as a combat journalist.

It’s because of these men that we continue to have a 4th of July to celebrate, and we should remember them the other 364 days of the year as well. Their stories are the foundation of our country and embody the very flag everyone is waving around this week.

Their hardships could be written about, talked about and spread all over the world a million times over, and it still wouldn’t be enough.

In 1999 I had my picture taken with Medal of Honor recipient, retired Marine Colonel Mitchell Paige. He manned a machine gun by himself after all his men were killed or wounded at Guadalcanal during World War II. When his gun was destroyed by Japanese shells, he moved from gun to gun firing alone until reinforcements arrived. Then he led a successful bayonet charge to prevent a break in American lines. He was bayoneted in the hand, had shrapnel in his back and burns all over his body from firing overheated machine guns. Mitchell Paige died in 2003. His full story of that night in 1942 can be found online at

Retired Master Sergeant Kenneth Whitehead was finally awarded a Bronze Star in 1999 for his life-saving actions in Vietnam in 1966. He was on watch, while many of his fellow Marines slept in tents nearby. Suddenly a grenade flew out of nowhere. Whitehead said he wasn’t even thinking when he picked up the live grenade and hurled it away from the tents. Just as he was realizing what he had done, he saw enemy soldiers advancing on him. That’s when he put his rifle into his shoulder and began killing those that wanted to kill him.

During an interview, Whitehead told me through tears about a battle earlier in the war when advancing enemy soldiers were so numerous that it seemed like a turkey shoot. He was shooting them with his pistol from just a few yards away as they attacked his tank. Whitehead drove the tank down an enemy trench line, crushing numerous enemy soldiers and burying several alive. Twelve U.S. Marines were killed in the battle. Whitehead said the war still goes on inside him – feelings of guilt for being a survivor and feelings of guilt for having killed scores of human beings.

And then there is the Marine who stands out most in my mind – former Corporal Paul Rivers, now a U.S. Marshall. I first met him during a ceremony in 1997 that marked the 14th anniversary of the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. Rivers was lying in his bunk gathering himself to get out of bed and into uniform for duty. He remembers a tremendous light and waking up pinned under concrete with a plumbing pipe melting onto his face. Rivers ended up in a Lebanese hospital next to dead and dying Marines. He remembers the screams. Of more than 100 servicemen on his floor in the barracks, he is one of two that lived.

Rivers cried when he told me his story, about how everyone in the room with him, including his best friends, perished. When he told me, “My brothers would have wanted me to carry on,” I cried with him.

Rivers carries the weight of being one of a handful of surviving Marines in that 1983 terrorist attack that killed 241 American servicemen. Surely many who were sleeping never even knew what hit them. You can be damn sure that he remembers those patriots that surely did not want to die for their country but did anyway.

That American flag that sometimes seems to only be waved during holidays like the 4th of July is ours. Many people didn’t need to earn the right to wave that flag, because brave men like Mitchell Paige, Kenneth Whitehead and Paul Rivers did that for them.

Those heroes managed to live while defending our country and flag. Countless people have died for that flag, and a majority of their stories will never be told.

In a certain way, the gracefulness and beauty of our flag blowing in the wind tells those stories.

Don’t forget them.

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