I had no intention of writing this. Monday was a holiday for me as well.
But I showed up to Monday’s Memorial Day service at the VFW Stanley McLeod Post in Sanford more as “back-up” in case my reporter or my photographer were running late or weren’t able to make it. You never know with holidays.
They both arrived on time, but I decided to stay. I’m glad I did.
In addition to a moving speech by retired Lt. Gen. George Christmas, I was able to speak to a handful of veterans who were among the 100 or so in attendance Monday. During a prayer midway through, I glanced up and saw 94-year-old Julian Mansfield, head bowed in prayer, reach over slowly and grab the hand of his wife Rachel, also praying at the time.
It was a tender moment, one that touched me, a guy not so easily moved by such things. I broke from the ranks of prayer (sorry, God) and snapped a photo of the two as they stood hand in hand. I looked down at the image on my camera, and while I liked it, I didn’t feel the photo did justice for the moment. So when it was all said and done, I sought the couple out and asked them to tell me more about themselves.
I felt I just needed to know more.
Julian and Rachel Mansfield met in 1945, the year World War II came to an end and a couple of years after Julian’s tour in the South Pacific, where he fought in Operation Watchtower, better known as the Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major offensive by U.S. forces against the Japanese Empire.
I won’t go much into war history, but Guadalcanal is believed by many to have been the turning point in the Allied Forces’ effort to defeat the Japanese. Mansfield said he was there for the initial invasion and five battles after that. He didn’t talk much about his experience, but I imagine he saw more than few of us can conceive during his months in the Pacific.
While he was off fighting, Rachel Mansfield was in high school. The two met after the war and were married seven years later in 1952.
In my few minutes with them, they came off as a happy couple. Julian, somewhat frail but better off than most people in their mid-90s, wears a hearing aid and still has trouble with people who speak softly (like myself), and Rachel, 10 years younger, happily repeats things for him and even finishes his sentences.
They said they were both proud of the turnout at Monday’s event at the VFW. An even better moment for Julian recently was his participation in the Flight of Honor in Washington, D.C., this year, flights to the WWII Memorial where thousands greeted the aging vets upon arrival.
“He still talks about it today,” Rachel said, beaming as she looked his way.
“It was wonderful, that trip,” Julian added.
As for the war, Julian had little to say, other than, “I’m proud I was in it. I wouldn’t want to be in it again, but I’m proud I did it.”
My conversation with the Mansfields ended soon after it began. He talked a little more about Christmas’ speech and his friends who were there, but Julian had too many hands to shake, too many expressions of gratitude to take in from those who gathered to hang around with me much longer.
He thanked me for my time and headed toward the VFW, his wife holding his hand as they walked away.