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‘Every day is Memorial Day’: A lifetime of grief for a soldier’s son

Chicago Tribune

There’s a heroic tale to tell about the Korean War service and sacrifice of Army Maj. Charles A. Newman, a tank commander from Glenview who led an assault on Chinese forces in May 1951.

The story, appropriate for Memorial Day, involves bravery under fire and an impatient general who goads Newman while waving a swagger stick. “Get those god-damned tanks on the road and keep going until you hit a mine,” Lt. Gen. Edward Almond ordered. Newman got going, seized a bridgehead and thereby earned a place in military history books.

Three months later Newman was killed at the Battle of Bloody Ridge. He was 35. The Chicago Tribune reported the news on Sept. 26, 1951. The short article noted that Newman left behind a widow, Frances, and four sons, the youngest of whom, Stephen, the major never met.

There ends the public version of events connected to Newman’s death. Privately, an American family was irrevocably changed. Stephen Newman, born at Great Lakes Naval Training Center hospital after his father departed for Korea, is 67 years old today. He continues to feel the loss of the father he never knew.

Two calendar dates are especially difficult: Aug. 19, when his father was killed, and Memorial Day. “I just sort of pass on it,” Newman tells us about the holiday to commemorate war dead. The scheduled sentiment rankles him. “I’ve got all the Memorial Days I need in the other 364 days a year.”

After discovering the Tribune news clipping, we located Newman in Northern California. We wanted to learn more about his father as a way of honoring all fallen service members. We also wanted to understand Memorial Day from the perspective of a surviving son, out of respect for the origin of a holiday that tends to emphasize barbecues and mattress sales over mourning. It was an emotional conversation that makes for raw reading.

Stephen Newman’s reflections are tinged with sadness and resentment. All these years later he struggles with the question of why his father, a World War II vet, chose to leave his wife and young family to fight in another war. “He could have opted out, but he chose not to,” Newman says. “There’s a question that kind of hangs over me: You’ve got that many kids at home and one fresh out of the oven. Why’d he go fight the war? It’s a young man’s game. Why would he do that? I think it had to do with his feelings about the military as an extended family. I can only speculate.”

Newman said public expressions of support for military vets and families do not ameliorate that hurt. Yes, veterans earn the thanks of Americans, while the fallen receive eternal honor – Newman understands those shows of respect. But it’s not compensatory. Memorial Day gestures of gratitude feel especially empty. “There’s no amount of patriotic songs or parades or bad music that’s going to put a Band-Aid over it,” he says. “It’s there for the rest of my life.”

Charles Newman fought in Europe during World War II. He remained in Germany afterward with occupation forces, joined by his family. Then in 1947, a tragedy occurred: His 2-year-old son, Richard, was struck and killed by a military vehicle. The Newmans returned to the United States a year later. They settled in Glenview. Charles Newman taught military science at South Shore High School until leaving for Korea in late 1950.

Maj. Newman is recognized in Korean War histories for taking the point in a May 24, 1951, probing operation sometimes known as Task Force Gerhardt. At Gen. Almond’s urging, Newman’s advance guard with four tanks raced up a road and bombarded Chinese troops with fire to reach their objective at the Soyang River. The enemy “went to pieces after the first three or four miles,” Charles Newman said afterward.

We were gratified to find Newman’s name in the historical record. Gallantry should be recognized, and sacrifice should be respected. The major deserves acknowledgment on Memorial Day.

But as a surviving son, Stephen Newman makes a separate request. He wants Americans to give more consideration to the foreign policy decisions that put military lives at risk: Do the research. Read. Be a thoughtful voter. Don’t deal in “cheap, sentimental” cliches of patriotism.

“Does nobody appreciate the fact that somebody’s son, daughter, aunt or uncle is going to die? If it was your son or daughter, would you think it’s worth the price? We don’t ask ourselves that question often enough.”

Maj. Charles Newman has been dead for nearly 67 years. Stephen Newman is still paying a price.