from “Mark My Words” -- a column by David Woodbury at www.lincolnmaine.us:


When Wesley, the youngest of the family, was about 11, his father left his wife and five kids in Maine and went to live in Massachusetts.

Not long after that, Woody, as Wesley was known from childhood, made the news several times as a 12-year-old runaway, usually accompanied by Wags, his dog. (I have the yellowed newspaper clippings.) Even though he had made it to Boston at least a couple of these times, (always with a fabricated story of where he was headed and why), he did not reconnect with his father.

By the time he was 14, Woody was a resident at Good Will-Hinckley, then a school for troubled boys, and he ran away from there at least once as well. When Woody was 15, his father, Everett, was driving a small dump truck in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when it was struck at a railway crossing by the Minute Man Express at full throttle.

This news of the spectacular collision reached the family back in Livermore Falls, and even though the parents were separated, Woody and his two brothers and two sisters took it hard.

About the time Woody was first running away, his oldest brother, Donald, joined the Navy. Then his other brother, Victor, was accepted into the Coast Guard, even though he was deaf.

By the time Woody managed to finish high school he had a reputation as an amateur boxer and was going to challenge Rocky Marciano if he could get the Brockton Blockbuster’s attention.

There is no evidence that he ever did. He did manage to get the attention of a girl from Vermont, and after a suitable courtship, they were married. A few months after that, Woody was a new recruit in the US Army and, all too quickly he was shipping out for Korea.

For the first few days after she was born, he had the chance to hold his baby daughter, Brenda, and then, following orders, he went west.

There is a cemetery a mile or so outside Concord, Vermont. It occupies a couple of acres on a steep slope on the north side of US Route 2, isolated from any nearby houses. Summers on the hillside are verdant and sweet, but under the arctic winds of winter the same hill must be desolate and bone-chilling; but what would that matter?

My first recollection of visiting this cemetery might have been when I was eight or ten years old. But no doubt I had been there when I was quite young as well. Just a couple of years ago some friends and I took a northern route on a long-distance fishing trip to Lake Ontario, and as we crossed into Vermont I realized that we would be passing this cemetery, so I asked their indulgence to stop and let me look for something.

I remembered that there was a marker near the back of the field, and in probably less than a minute I found it:

Wesley R. Woodbury, Pvt, US Army, July 20, 1930 - November 22,1952.

My friends gave me a respectable quarter hour to walk around and take in the silence, the loneliness, the finality of it all. There was something else on his headstone about which unit he was in: the 40th Infantry Division, 223rd Infantry Regiment.

He was one of two from the 40th Division killed on November 22. Before the combat ended, 155 more from the 40th have given their lives.
Woody was my father’s younger brother.

Really, though, now that you’ve read a little of his story, what difference is there between Woody Woodbury and all the rest who have died in uniform?

It was August, 1952, when Woody was able to spend a few days at home with his wife and newborn daughter before returning to duty. He crossed the Pacific on the General W.M. Black. After some delay in Japan, he landed in Korea.

In a November 5 letter to my father, Woody wrote: "Letters are pretty hard to write up here. When I write the folks I have to smooth things over so they won’t worry. That leaves me practically nothing to write about. I don’t feel that is necessary with you however. I’ll just tell you facts and you can keep them to yourself. The second day I got in Korea I got a good look at the things that are really happening here. The train that brought me to the front stopped right beside a hospital train. I watched them putting wounded men on the train. The ambulances were bringing the men down faster than they could get them onto the train. It was a sight that made me so sick I had to turn away and vomit."

In that letter he went on to describe how three members of his unit had been killed. And he added: "I guess our outfit will be on line until about May. If I can keep my ass in one peace that long I’ll really be lucky."

And in the same letter, he wrote, ominously, prophetically: "Once in a while we go out into no man’s land and take up mines."

What was there left of him after a land mine lifted him and half a ton of dirt twenty feet into the air in a split second? Is it the concussion that kills, or maybe the hundreds of pieces of gravel piercing like bullets? Does it lift you so suddenly that your joints pull apart all at once? Or does it literally tear you to pieces?

Just before I turned two, Uncle Woody gave me a stuffed animal -- a copper-colored dog. I still have it. His widow, Dottie, re-married and had two more daughters. I saw my cousin, Brenda, on a few brief visits in my younger years, lost touch for most of our adult lives, and in 2007, at the age of 54, she died of a heart attack.

Did she ever hear the stories of her father’s troubled youth? I wish she were still around so that, in our old age, we could meet again and reminisce.


What’s different about Woody is, it makes me mad. And I hope I can make more people mad.

Woody didn’t die for his country. He died for Korea. Just about every American military casualty in the past 115 years was a sacrifice for another country. Woody gave up what should have been another sixty years of doing what the rest of us have been doing while he has been chilling his bones on a Vermont hillside.

He could have been raising his daughter and having more children. He might have enjoyed rock-and-roll, but he never heard a note of it. He might have liked to try out a Corvette when it first appeared. He didn’t get to see Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. He never saw a computer.

May 30, 2012, is the sixtieth Memorial Day since Woody bit the dust, or maybe more precisely, since the dust bit him. We are asked to remember those who gave everything so that the rest of us might have something. OK, remember this: From 1950-1953 there were 36,516 who did not return from Korea alive, and 4,759 are still missing in action. From 1959-1975 there were 58,272 who did not return from Viet Nam alive, and 2,489 are missing. And since 2003 when we set out to defeat terrorism, 6,820 have given their lives, and there are 3 missing.

Altogether, since I was born, over 100,000 Americans have not returned from wars on foreign soil. And I am acutely aware that, wherever our guys died, untold thousands more humble humans have died on the other side as well.

We can’t honor these war dead by holding a barbecue on the Monday nearest Memorial Day. We can honor them by questioning the motives of anyone calling for more of the same.

As a naive 19-year-old I joined the Army during the Viet Nam war. But you can call me a pacifist, because it’s not in my nature to want to hurt anyone. You can call me a war monger, too, because it’s not in my nature to submit to getting hurt, and I believe the only way to stop the killing is to stop the killer fast.

I have this idea about war. It’s like, if the bully punches you once, but you’re not prepared to resist, then you’ve been warned, and you’d better be prepared the next time. If, after a while, the bully punches you again, and you’re still not prepared, by default you have decided to accept whatever he decides to deliver, because life isn’t fair, and the strong decide how the rest will live.

Once a bully hits you, though, he has forfeited all his rights: the right to choose the weapons, the setting, the timing and intensity of your response, and whether he survives or is reduced to dust.

If the bully is a kid on the playground, you can surround yourself with protective friends or go to the principal. If you’re a nation and the bully is another nation, you have no one to run to. It’s up to you, and you had better not be ducking around and trying to find your escape route and protecting you nose while he rearranges your internal organs.

If you’re a nation, and a bully hits you, I think you should lay him out flat, suddenly and with everything you have. I know America doesn’t start wars, but when America gets sucked in by some two-bit bully I cannot comprehend why we tiptoe around with so-called diplomacy. If the bully punches first, I think he ought not have time to draw another breath before he gets stopped instantly. The United States has had the ability to do that ever since the end of World War II.

If we’ve blundered into a treaty to protect some little foreign country, then we need to do the same, because the bully which is North Korea is still there, and still just as evil 60 years after Woody was killed. And we still have troops on the ground there. What will we do when the North resumes where it left off in 1953: negotiate or annihilate?

Our reason for going into Korea in 1950 was all about making the so-called United Nations look important and had nothing to do with protecting the United States.

Therefore, because we’re still playing war games in Asia, we have announced to the rest of the world that the United States is willing to march another 100,000 enthusiastic young American lemmings over the same precipice over the next, say, 60 years, so that diplomats can continue pretending to work for peace. These are the politicians in pressed suits whose motives need to be questioned, who argue that civilian casualties of a decisive response would be too high, who believe it is fitting and proper to kill 100,000 more Americans in the name of peace during one more lifespan.

I would argue that armies are comprised of civilians. The uniform that Woody was wearing did not make him a professional soldier. It made him dead.

Instead of crushing the bully before he knows what hit him back, we put troubled kids from backwoods places like Livermore Falls on the ground in places like Inchon and Pleiku and we tell them that if they just hold the ground for a few more days or weeks our diplomats will have this all solved and they can go home to the mom and baby they left behind. This is what makes me mad.

When I visited his grave on that recent trip, there were fresh flowers lying at the base of Woody’s headstone. His widow, Dottie, now alone and in her eighties, still lives in Vermont. She might know about the flowers.

[Back to Family/Woody]

Postscript: As for my own easy time in the Army, during the Vietnam war, I am reminded of the line in Milton’s short poem (On His Blindness): “They also serve who only stand and wait.”