Since 1868, those who have lost their lives during wars have been honored and remembered on Memorial Day.

But many of those who survived combat can be silent about their experiences when they rejoin their families and friends. For example, I don’t think my father has uttered more than a handful of statements about his service during the Korean War.

My first personal encounter with a war veteran who was willing to speak openly about his experiences was with the late Harrison Lemont of Kittery, an Army Air Corps World War II radar operator during the battle for control of the Philippines.

In the late 1990s, I was his writing instructor in an adult education class. He was among my most memorable students because he would later go on to publish a book called “Never Alone.”

When so many war memoirs are weighted down with statistics, geography, casualty figures, ships sunk and campaign strategies, his book gives the reader a real sense of a front-line serviceman’s feelings, what daily lives were really like.

In this 94-page remembrance, Lemont talks about emotions, bombs, gunfire, heat, typhoons, what it was like to go with food and supplies for days, sleeping on the bare ground, encounters with natives and enemy forces, and being surrounded by “the constant, overwhelming stench of death.”

Readers learn that Lemont’s three years in the Army began when he was drafted in 1943. Though he grew up as a military brat moving around the country with his Navy career father, he was ill-prepared for some experiences.

One occurred while on unit maneuvers in a Louisiana field, when a man ran out on his porch and yelled, “Get out of here, you damn Yankees.”

Lemont harks back to a time when our country was more united, despite gas, meat, butter and coffee rationing. This was even before the United States was an established world power; before the GI bill existed.

Despite the traumas of war, he found positives, when he wrote about “finding a thrill seeing history up close and feeling part of something big.”

Around the same time I met Harrison Lemont, I was a feature correspondent for the now-defunct Portsmouth Press in New Hampshire, I had the opportunity to profile Harry W. Jones, Sr., the grandson of former slave, John Samuel Jones.

In his younger years, Harry Jones’ Sunday school teacher was Harriet Tubman, founder of the Underground Railroad, a path from the South to the North leading to freedom of countless slaves. Jones, now deceased, was also one of the few surviving members of a black military unit, the 369th Infantry Regiment, that served under Gen. John J. Pershing during World War I. This regiment was later depicted in the film, “Men of Bronze.”

I learned that Jones, who had just turned 90, had a substantial speaking part in “Lost Boundaries,” a film about New Hampshire’s Dr. Scott Carter, a light-complexioned African-American physician in the late 1940s, who, because of racial prejudice, was confronted with the issue of whether he and his family should “pass for white.”

When I first met Harry Jones, he showed me how to use an old-fashioned range-finder similar to a periscope that he captured from the Germans.

It is an optical instrument that allows one to see around or over obstacles while concealed in a trench or behind a wall. I sensed in that first encounter that he was the kind of man who would give a straight answer to a question without hesitation.

He and his family came to Portsmouth, N.H., at the end of the Great Depression, after living in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

At the suggestion of an American Legion friend, he wandered into the post office one day and looked at the job bulletin board. His friend had told him that he thought America was getting ready for another war and there might be some work to be had.

In his classic manner, Jones responded: “What are you talking about, we just got finished with a war?” then, of course, Jones was tired of war, but since he was already a tradesman specializing in refrigeration and air-conditioning, and he eventually landed a job at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.

Before Harrison Lemont died a few years back, he mailed me a copy of his book, inscribed, “To a special friend. May you find in this small slice of history something of what once was.”

Despite their painful memories, both of these war survivors, Harrison Lemont and Harry Jones, left me with the memory of men full of laughter, vigor and a determination to get the most out of the world around us.

 

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, “The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:

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