It’s been 68 years since shrapnel wounded Ray Harper during a World War II battle on Guadalcanal. Just nine months from now, Kaitlyn Kennedy’s boyfriend, a Marine, heads for his second assignment in Afghanistan.
In the decades between, U.S. troops fought in Korea, Vietnam and in the 1990s, the Persian Gulf.
Millions of strong and healthy U.S. men and women, usually 18 to 27 years old, fought, died, were wounded or luckily came back from combat unharmed.
For 87-year-old Harper, a minister from Tustin, Memorial Day means memories of the 50 or more men in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, he served with in the Pacific. Each one either died or was wounded.
And 25-year-old Kennedy sees Memorial Day through multiple generations — from her boyfriend, Marine Cpl. Steven Graves-Wesolosy, to her grandfather, World War II veteran Julio Mendez.
The landmark Mendez v. Westminster school desegregation case further enriches Kennedy’s perspective. Her Mendez ancestors during World War II in Orange County were required to attend separate schools for Mexicans at the same time her grandfather was fighting to defend the U.S.
She said she worries that her generation doesn’t understand the sacrifices others made for them. “A lot of people my age don’t know what Memorial Day is,” she said. They think o9f it simply “as a day off.”
Kennedy, who is from Orange, is hoping to enroll in a nursing program and one day work for the U.S. Veterans Affairs. Graves-Wesolosy, based at Twentynine Palms, completed his first tour in Afghanistan last year and is scheduled to return early next year.
But Kennedy said she considers herself lucky. She can see him on weekends whereas the girlfriends and boyfriends of other military personnel often live far from U.S. bases where their loved ones are deployed.
And even when Graves-Wesolosy was in Afghanistan, Kennedy said, today’s cell phones meant they could talk to each other at least twice a week, a big difference from the experience of her late grandfather in the mid-1940s Army Air Corps based in Europe.
A Multi-Layered Legacy
Her grandfather wasn’t married yet, but back in Orange County, his uncle, Gonzalo Mendez, was. And Gonzalo Mendez’ children were required to attend segregated schools, because in much of Orange County, Latino students weren’t allowed to mix with “whites.”
In 1946, Gonzalo Mendez was the lead plaintiff in Mendez v. Westminster School District, a federal court case that challenged racial segregation in schools — specifically segregation of Latinos by school districts in Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Orange.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled it was unconstitutional to require Latino students to attend the separate “schools for Mexicans.”
Gov. Earl Warren signed legislation repealing sections of California law that allowed segregation. Warren was U.S. chief justice in 1954, when by a 9-0 ruling, the court abolished school segregation nationwide. The landmark ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, opened the door for the nation’s civil rights movement.
Kennedy points to her Irish surname, Mexican heritage and her family and boyfriend’s military service as the kind of blend that typifies modern Orange County and its need to honor those who died in war.
The Meaning of Memorial Day
Harper, who became a minister in the Disciples of Christ denomination following World War II, was like many Californians who were born elsewhere. A native of Chalmers, Ind., he went back there right after the war, graduated from college, married, had three sons and eventually moved to Los Angeles and, recently, Orange County. Elyse, his wife, died just six months before their 50th wedding anniversary.
But his Marine Corps war memories include milestone deployments, including the campaign to capture Okinawa and observing the official Japanese surrender ceremony in Peking.
To Harper, Memorial Day means honoring his friends and colleagues who died. The 1942-43 battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands was one of the turning points of World War II. Harper arrived after the main combat ended but still saw combat and was wounded by shrapnel the day “a mortar shell hit in the middle of us and killed my two best buddies next to me.”
By the time the war was over, he said, “everybody in our unit was either killed or wounded.”