An echo in time and marching through history

Have you ever heard of Ruby Bradley? 

As a surgical nurse in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in World War II, she was taken prisoner by the Japanese while working in the Philippines. In the internment camp in Manila, she provided medical attention and smuggled food to fellow prisoners. She assisted with more than 200 surgeries and delivered 13 babies. When the camp was liberated, she weighed 84 pounds. Ruby would stay in the military and retire with the rank of colonel, one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history.

Did you learn about the residents of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania? The Civil War battle that roared through their town left a casualty toll of about 50,000 men. When the armies left, area citizens nursed wounded soldiers in blue and gray alike. They sat with the dying and buried the dead.

Until this spring, I knew nothing of Ruby or the Gettysburg citizens. But then I was asked to help write war histories for a veterans memorial to be built in Shickley. Its granite slabs will include an overview of each war Americans fought in. 

I don’t have a background in history, so I read as much material as I could and called on history teachers for their expertise. Reading about the sacrifices of citizens for their country can make one feel a bit inadequate. What can I possibly do today that compares to the efforts of those citizens in Gettysburg? It makes an “I Voted Today” sticker look pretty wan. Wearing a mask and standing six feet from others isn’t exactly an act of heroism. I’ve never rationed anything (least of all, sugar); never marched in a protest or bought a war bond; never risked my life to help someone else find freedom or justice.

Do we make sacrifices on a bigger scale when faced with a common threat? Because it’s clear some Americans are called to carry much heavier burdens than others, based largely on birthdates and ZIP codes. Will 2020 be one of those years someone reads about in a history book and admires our tenacity and recovery? I hope so.

By reading a few hundred years of history in rapid order, I saw the American spirit rear up when we needed it, in many different forms, from individuals like Ruby, to: 

* The women who have made extraordinary contributions in every war, from caring for the wounded to going into battle disguised as men. They served as spies and couriers and learned to run farms single-handedly. They worked in munitions plants and the bottom of ships filling seams with hot lead. They delivered planes. They sat for hours in sewing circles to clothe soldiers. 

* The African American regiments who risked their lives for a country that had not offered them freedom or equality. The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment who fought valiantly at Fort Wagner near Charleston in 1863 were “swept down like chaff,” a newspaper chronicled, but still, they kept fighting. 

* The Red Cross, which mobilized some 8 million volunteers during World War I.

* The Navajo Code Talkers who transmitted more than 800 messages without error, a critical factor in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

It was hard to sleep at times this spring with all the images from history swirling about my head. My mind would jump from Harriet Tubman helping slaves escape the horrors of the time, to a Vietnam veteran pressing a hand reverently against a name on a wall.

I thought of the American soldiers who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust when they liberated extermination camps and then lived with those memories. I thought about the anguish POWs endured and the mind-numbing scene those young men looked upon from the Higgins boats as they neared the beaches on D-Day. As a mom of two teenage boys, I can’t bear to think about the mothers who watched their sons leave in uniform. 

There was something ironic about being immersed in history while 2020 is writing its own narrative. While I read of heroics and sacrifices from the 1700s on, COVID-19 ramped up, schools and businesses shut down, discord flared and protests began following the death of George Floyd. I was struck by the similarities and differences of the present and the past; the repetition of history through the centuries. There is both comfort and alarm in knowing our country has cycled through many other versions of crisis, revolution, protest, and sacrifice. 

Americans have been protesting, rioting, and overcoming barriers since our country’s beginnings. We boycotted goods, dumped tea in the Boston Harbor, and gave the British loyalists a lot of grief so we could become Americans. Crowds rioted in New York in opposition to the draft in 1863. There were hunger marches and protests during the Great Depression. Pandemics and illnesses terrified and mobilized Americans long before 2020. 

We aren’t always united. There has always been hate and love in our history, as there is in our present. 

What sacrifices and events will stand out from 2020? We can guess some.

But history will decide. 

Rebecca Svec grew up in Gage County and now enjoys life on a farm near Milligan. A former journalist in Hastings and Lincoln, Rebecca was Doane U.’s director of communications before joining Fortify Group of Shickley, Geneva, and North Platte. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.