On April 15th, 1969, while flying a routine reconnaissance mission in international airspace over the Sea of Japan, a U.S. Navy EC-131 aircraft was suddenly and tragically shot out of the sky by two North Korean MIG fighters. This was not a combat engagement, but a routine flight in a peaceful arena. All thirty-one crewmembers onboard PR-21 perished. Only two bodies were ever recovered.
How many Americans have heard this story and know the fate of PR-21? How many Americans have perished in service to our country, in wartime and in peace, only to be forgotten in the annuls of time?
I am humbled to remember the sacrifices of so many Americans. Their willingness to pay the ultimate price for our freedom and our way of life cannot be forgotten. Veterans throughout the ages have understood all too well the dangers and risks of military service, both in battle and in eras of relative tranquility. And yet, they have not run in the face of peril, but stood their ground, side by side their fellow servicemen and women, regardless of politics, ideologies, ethnicity, religion, or social class.
While the realities of our country at war have become strikingly clear in the past decade, for many Gen-Xers, we recall a time in our lives without war. I remember graduating from high school in the late 1980s, with my classmates, my peers…my friends. Little could I imagine that less than two years after crossing that stage, I would be making a far different walk…to a waiting aircraft, deploying in support of Operation Desert Storm – the first in a long string of deployments and real-world missions as an Army light infantry scout and later as a Russian linguist in the Navy.
I regularly think about the 1969 downing of PR-21. This account provides a stark example of our endangered American heritage, a story of heroism and sacrifice known to only a handful of Americans. The importance of Memorial Day lies here…in remembering and revisiting the sacrifices of those who have died in this country’s defense. For many Americans, the significance of Memorial Day is lost in the faceless identities of those who have served so willingly.
So how is it that I first came to know the story of the downing of PR-21?
In Misawa, Japan, each year, a small handful of sailors and marines pause to remember the crew of PR-21 – tolling thirty-one bells, one for each of the men lost that fateful day in 1969. I count myself proudly among those who recall this particular tragedy. For in the hours and days following each annual memorial service, we took to the skies on missions that mirrored that of PR-21 so many years ago.
It is my hope that each of us will take away from this Memorial Day weekend a renewed dedication to learning about those individuals who have not only put themselves in peril in service to this country, but have lost their lives so that the rest of us may live in freedom. Take the time to personalize your heritage. These thousands of Americans lived selflessly for the ideals that so many of us take for granted. It is not enough for us to live life in the present. We need to be mindful of those who have carved out our heritage over time. Through their willingness to serve and die in service to this country, each and every fallen service member proved that they, indeed, were “worthy of their heritage.” By honoring their memories, we can, in small part, be worthy of ours.