Monday, May 28, 2012

One soldier's life, long forgotten

Every Memorial Day, I think of Merwin Brewer.

There probably aren't many people who think of Merwin Brewer on Memorial Day anymore, or on any other day, for that matter. He has been dead for nearly a century.

Merwin Brewer was an American soldier who died on the Western Front at the tail end of World War I. His official address was listed as Cleveland, Ohio, but he was born in my hometown of Wickliffe, Ohio. Our local American Legion post is partially named after him (Brewer-Tarasco).

The annual Memorial Day parade is a big deal here in Wickliffe. It's one of the better parades around, with two marching bands, lots of candy, and 45 minutes or so of entertainment for anyone willing to stand and watch the whole thing.

Every year, the American Legion has a group of local kids walk in the parade carrying signs with the names of Wickliffe natives who have died in war. And every year at the front of this group is a young person holding a sign emblazoned with Merwin Brewer's name.

The 30 seconds or so it takes for that sign to pass by us is the only time the Memorial Day parade turns truly somber for me. This is partly because, as I've mentioned before, I have a morbid fascination with the First World War and the way millions of young men were killed during it. No war is good, but this one was particularly tragic.

According to this web page, Merwin Brewer died on November 13, 1918, from earlier wounds sustained in combat. That was two days after the war in Europe had ended. No one wants to be the last man killed in a war that’s already over, but Merwin was one of those who fell just short of making it through alive.

Merwin served in the Argonne and in Flanders, both the scenes of brutal, bloody fighting. I often wonder exactly how he died. Probably from a shrapnel wound. Artillery was the #1 killer in the war, and countless soldiers succumbed to infections and internal injuries suffered when they were hit by flying hunks of metal from exploding artillery shells.

His story doesn't sound particularly distinctive. His life ended the same way millions of others ended, probably in some military hospital. But Merwin Brewer is as real to me as any one of my family and friends, because he was born in the same place I was born. He was a real person whose death, now long forgotten, probably brought unimaginable grief and sorrow to his family back in Ohio.

And chances are good he was no more than 19 or 20 years old. Just a baby. "Virgins with rifles," that's what Sting called the soldiers of the First World War.

I'm as guilty as anyone of treating Memorial Day as a festive day off from work instead of a time for reflection. But while I'm eating my grilled hamburger later today or lounging outside with my family, I promise I'll spend at least another couple of minutes thinking about Merwin Brewer.

It seems like the least I can do.


  1. Scott, very touching. I read this as I am back in my chair from Memorial Park in Sheffield Lake (If you googlemap my address, 685 Roberts St, Sheffield Lake, Ohio, you will see 'Final Touch Entertainment', our business listing, but attached to our yard is Memorial Park.) So, it's not like it takes me any time to remember just there is a ceremony that lasts 2 minutes in that park every memorial day. There are 2 names in that park that are very close to me, first one is Leonard Snitch. Died in Vietnam. His mother was my room mother in grade school. She was the lunch lady/playground supervisor. She was who you seen as a child who protected you from any bullying (even though today I am a big guy, I was still smallish in the first few years of school). I will never forget the day the military car showed up while we were on the playground. She was near the hopscotch area watching the tetherball courts. She sat straight down as the 2 neatly dressed army men (which is what we called them as kids) got out of that '66 Ford Galaxy. An image burned in my brain that I will take to my grave.
    The second name, Lt. Richard Van Der Greer, not unlike Merwin Brewer, died at the end of Vietnam, actually was the last chopper out of Saigon who was shot down as they left the embassy. The last known soldier killed in Vietnam. (Although I am sure there were many who were MIA who still were in camps who spent the rest of their lives in those camps until succumbing to either torture or illness). Unlike Leonard, who was killed when I was 6, Rich was killed when I was 12. My brother's girlfriend's brother. A guy whom I had actually met and remembered (I knew Len Snitch when he walked by the house and remember his face but don't know if he really knew me other than one of the McCullough 5) how he let my drive his gocart at the Dairymen's track in Sheffield. He raced them as a hobby and when we were invited to his reception as he received his commission, he got the gocarts out and let all of the kids ride his toys.
    Mrs Snitch died may years ago now, many years after her eldest son was killed. I think of her and the sacrifice she made. I think of her husband, who's name was also Len, who cried at my father's funeral. It literally brought him back to that day in 1966 when the military honors my dad had were in his casket. He cried as hard as the rest of us.
    I hope to never know the feeling of that. My children are all college graduates but our youngest is still insistant on probably going to OCS.
    I remember those who bear the pain of the loss.
    I remember those who paid that price for our freedoms.
    I remember those who honor their service.
    I pray we all remember the Merwin Brewer's of the world and all get to know just one person who paid a debt for those of us they didn't even know.

    So, I am sure Merwin Brewer's family is proud of him and that someone still remembers him on this day, for that sir, THANK YOU!

  2. Excellent comment, Kerry, and thanks so much for sharing. In memory of Leonard Snitch and Richard Van Der Greer...