Names matter. And for a while, at least, on Thursday evening, “the MU” became the Memorial Union again.
More than 100 people listened as young veterans read aloud the names of UC Davis students and alumni who died while serving their country. A trumpeter sounded taps in their honor.
World War II combat veteran Francis Resta said in his keynote address that the upcoming Memorial Day holiday resonates with few Americans — “It’s just somebody else’s memories.”
That so few have any personal connection to war or experienced its horrors is still how most veterans would like it to be, however, he said.
“That is the reason we went to war.”
The campus dedicated the Memorial Union to its fallen 58 years ago. More names of the dead have been added since to the campus’ Golden Memory Book. Displayed inside the Griffin Lounge, the book is filled with photographs of smiling young men and sad, brief stories.
Stories like that of U.S. Army Air Corps Lt. Earl Hammer, shot down 14 days past his 22nd birthday behind enemy lines in Picardy, France, 95 years ago this week.
Later, a German pilot dropped a message saying that the American flyer who had fought so bravely had been buried with military honors.
The newest name: Army Maj. Mark Taylor, a 41-year-old surgeon killed in a rocket attack in Fallujah, Iraq, on March 20, 2004. Before being deployed, he hung a set of dog tags around his 6-year-old son Connor’s neck, telling him not to take them off until his daddy came home.
For Resta and the other soldiers of the Army’s 102nd Infantry Division, war meant six long months of wave after wave of bloody attacks on the Nazi army’s concrete bunkers during the Rhineland campaign, during the cold, muddy winter of 1944 to 1945.
“I don’t think American civilians can understand what it’s like in absolute destruction, month after month, or what it does to a person’s psyche,” the longtime Davis resident said. “The total desolation was another form of death surrounding the combat soldier — the towns, the land around (and) crops were being killed, along with their buddies and the enemy.”
Resta remembered seeing French children fighting for food and coal after the war was over.
“The American people were spared that agony by the sacrifices of young soldiers like those we are commemorating today. That was their gift to America,” said Resta, 88. He named friends of his own with nicknames like “Big Jim” and “Texas” and “Jumping Joe,” all of them killed in the war, all of them buried in the Netherlands.
“How can we assume that they will not be forgotten, so far away in both geography and time?” he asked. “We must choose not to forget.”
UCD has plans to create a new outside memorial as part of renovation plans for the union. Inside, a kiosk will be added with the names of those the campus calls its “Gold Star Aggies.”
Reading their names on Thursday were six of the more than 165 veterans enrolled at UCD, including 31-year-old Cameron Henton of Anchorage, Alaska, who left the Marines as a sergeant after serving three tours in Iraq. Just days away now from receiving his bachelor’s degree in political science, he is the president of a campus veterans club.
“There’s so many people who call it ‘the MU,’ or (who refer to) the Coffee House part of it,” Henton said. “There’s always been the Griffin Lounge and the Golden Book in there, but there was no understanding about what it was for a lot of people.
“Just going around, talking to veterans about it, they’re like, ‘It’s called Memorial Union, and I’ve told people about it, but no one knows.’ Even some veterans didn’t realize there was a book in there.”
As he listened to Resta talk about the men with whom he served, Henton thought of his own buddies.
“He used their nicknames,” Henton said. “Stuff like that, that’s how you recognize certain people. It kind of puts a smile on your face, but, at the same time, that’s a sobering feeling: that’s who that guy was, and he’s not with us anymore.”
— Reach Cory Golden at email@example.com or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden