Freedom isn’t free
Memorial Day weekend is upon is. The kids are out of school. It’s time to fire up the grill. It’s time to head to the pool, lake, or beach. It’s time to party with family and friends. It’s the beginning of the summer. That’s what Memorial Day is all about, right?
Memorial Day is a federal holiday which occurs each year on the final Monday of May. It should not be confused with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, whereas Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, living or dead.
I took this pic at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.Not taking the time to reflect upon the fallen service member and his or her sacrifices on Memorial Day is akin to not taking the time to reflect upon Jesus Christ and his sacrifice at Easter.
Unlike other holidays, we don’t receive tangible gifts on Memorial Day; however, thanks to all of the brave men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice, we do receive the intangible gift of freedom.
One of those brave warriors was Sergeant First Class (SFC) Raymond D. Penland.
I first learned about SFC Penland by way of his son and my dear friend, Opelika native and resident, Steve Penland.
Raymond D. Penland was born July 5, 1921, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Although he started his senior year of high school, he never finished, but that wouldn’t prevent him from living a remarkable life.
He enlisted in the Army on Feb 23, 1940, at the age of 19.
Unfortunately, SFC Penland’s service record is largely unknown.
On July 12, 1973, there was a fire at the National Personnel Records Center, located just outside of St. Louis, that destroyed 80% of the records for U.S. Army personnel discharged over a nearly 50 year span from 1912 to 1960. Additionally, 75% of the records for U.S. Air Force personnel discharged from 1947 to 1964 were also destroyed.
None of the records that were destroyed in the fire had duplicate copies made, nor had they been copied to microfilm.
Regrettably, up to 18 million service records were destroyed leaving veterans and families alike looking for answers.
The family has no record of where Penland attended basic training, but older son, Raymond (Ray) C. Penland, through due diligence alone, has been able to obtain some of his father’s records.
After completing basic training, Penland was assigned to 2nd Infantry Division (ID) as a rifleman from 1940-42, which is significant to me, because I, too, was assigned to 2ID, albeit 61 years later.
Over the next few years, Penland’s stellar performance would allow him to rise up the ranks of 10th Infantry Regiment holding such positions as squad leader, platoon guide, and platoon sergeant.
Penland was part of the greatest generation and saw action in the European theater during World War II. While serving with 10th Infantry, he was awarded his first of two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained along the Moselle River in Northern France.
In 1946, Penland was assigned to recruiting duty in, of all places, Opelika, Alabama. His time here would be very productive.
Raymond D. Penland married Opelika native Sara H. May in Troup County, Georgia, on March 1, 1947.
Over the next few years, Ray and Steve would come along, respectively.
Also, while in Opelika, Penland would go on to earn his GED.
In 1949, SFC Penland returned to 10th Infantry where he reassumed his role as Platoon Sergeant.
He departed Ft. Benning, Georgia, for Korea in July of 1950, just weeks after the outbreak of the Korean War.
Due to the fire of 1973, the family has little knowledge of his duties in Korea, although they do know he was assigned to Company L, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
According to a letter from CPT McCaffrey, his Commanding Officer, on December 16, 1950, Penland departed the Company Headquarters with the Executive Officer and a driver in order to go to the rear for ammunition. During their return, they were ambushed by a group of North Korean soldiers, and, sadly, Sergeant First Class Raymond D. Penland was killed in action by machine gun fire.
His XO and driver were wounded in the attack.
His unit was evacuated by sea just three days later.
He was just 29 years old. He would leave behind a young wife, the mother of his two sons.
For his leadership and valor, SFC Penland was awarded two Purple Hearts, the American Defense Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Good Conduct Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those who have been wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917 with the U.S. military.
He was most likely awarded additional medals including the Bronze Star. Unfortunately, that can’t be verified at this time due to the fire at the records center.
Records show that SFC Penland is buried in what is registered as United Nations Military Cemetery #2 in Hungnam, North Korea; however, there is no evidence of him actually being there. They were intentionally hidden so the enemy wouldn’t dig up the remains for their clothing. There are 48 other soldiers buried there with him. Furthermore, there are thousands of other U.S. servicemen still buried in North Korea.
In the early nineties, Ray, retired U.S. Navy, was stationed in Japan and went to Korea on assignment. His unit visited the U.N. base in P’anmunjom on the demilitarized zone. This is the closest any member of the Penland family has ever been to SFC Penland’s grave.
His name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. This Honolulu memorial is also known as “The Punchbowl.”
I took these photos in Jan 2014.
Korea has often been referred to as “The Forgotten War” because of the lack of public attention it received both during and after the war, but I can assure you that neither the Penland family nor the families of the more than 33,000 casualties from the Korean War have ever forgotten.
“I was 9 months old and my brother was almost 3 when my mother received the telegram. There’s never a day that goes by that I don’t think about him and wish that one day he can be brought back home and given a final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery,” said Steve.
Ray sums it up well, “Each memorial day I remind my friends that there are missing servicemen and women all over the world. They are in unmarked graves in cities, jungles, deserts, and at sea. As we celebrate our nation’s greatness, let us not forget those who gave their all for their country and may never come home again.”
So enjoy the freedom that this holiday allows. Enjoy the outdoor recreation, the barbeques, and the start of summer, but I encourage you to take a moment and reflect upon those men and women whose sacrifice paved the way for you to do so, because a true reflection of this sacred day clearly shows that freedom is not free.
This is what Memorial Day is really about.