On maps today it is known as Liberty Church Road but when I was young everyone knew it as Liberty. It rises up from the Tippah River and skips from ridge to ridge until it reaches Liberty Methodist Church perched on the crest of a hill.
The church building is a modest red brick structure and has a gravel parking lot. Behind the church the cemetery, with some gravestones bearing dates back to the early 1800s, is situated on a slope that cants down toward the distant river. The view stretches for miles over the wooded hills, and, in the spring, shows more shades of green than can be found in one of those big-box paint stores. The only sounds are the lazy drone of insects and the wind in the leaves. It is the most peaceful place I know.
I come here to clear my mind, but more importantly, to pay respect to my uncle, Charles McGaughy. His grave is here, the marker a simple one with his name, two dates, and the Marine Corps insignia inscribed upon it.
I remember him as a big, stout man with a calm demeanor, the kind of man who could convey more with a whisper than most people can with a scream. He was the fun uncle. When other families shot firecrackers at holidays, Charles would shoot blasting caps used for dynamite.
Charles joined the Marine Corp before WW2 and quickly distinguished himself. He served on the Honor Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, was the Drill Sergeant for the U.S. Marine Corps Drill Team, and served as Drill Instructor at Parris Island. He was transferred to a unit at the White House to help guard FDR and later taught underwater demolition to the Navy Seals.
And he fought for our country. As he waded through the water toward the beach on Iwo Jima, the soldiers on each side of him were shot and killed. Charles headed toward a small rise of sand and dug in until more troops assembled. While digging, he found a small wooden tobacco pipe and stuck it in his pocket. Once during the battle he was stuck in a shell crater with two other Marines as night fell. Suspicious noises and strange whisperings made by the enemy surrounded them. One of the men, despite Charles’s warning, peered over the edge of the crater and was shot. The sounds grew nearer as the darkness dragged on and the other man eventually suffered the same fate. Charles, a country boy, had been to too many turkey shoots to do the same. He dragged the two corpses over to him and draped them across his body, hoping that any enemy that looked into the crater would only see dead bodies. He kept his sidearm handy as he spent the night carving the names of his wife and son into the bowl of the pipe he had found, waiting for daylight and reinforcements.
Later, he stood guard, taking and receiving fire, as the Marines planted the flag on Mt. Suribachi. After that, as the troops worked their way across the island, he went back to find a flamethrower. When he and the other Marine returned, Charles found that the remnant of his company had been wiped out.
Charles spent 20 years on active service and 10 years on Active Reserve. He retired as a Master Sergeant, having turned down promotion at least three times. To most who knew him, he was the epitome of a tough Marine Sergeant. But he had a secret. At night, the war would return. His wife would hear him talking in his sleep, saying, “Get down! Keep you’re head down!” soon to be followed by an anguished groan, “Why didn’t you listen? Why?” She would hold him until his shaking stopped.
This Memorial Day there will celebrations, commemorations, speeches and parades across the country, from something as simple as sticking a flag in the ground in a small country cemetery to more elaborate ceremonies at Arlington. Charles could have been buried at Arlington. His life of service would merit such and I believe he would be among equals there. But I am glad he is here in this place of perfect tranquility, among family and friends, here in the hills he roamed in his youth, no longer haunted by the comrades he lost, safe from the horrible nightmares of war.
Could there be a better place for someone who dedicated his life to our freedom than a place called Liberty?