Remember Sgt. Provost and other soldiers Memorial Day 2009

Just in time for Memorial Day, I took out the medals won by Roland Francis Provost for “combat valor” in World War II, pinned them to the flag draped over his casket and hung it up on our bedroom wall in Baltimore.

Those medals have been stored safely out of sight in a file cabinet for as long as Joyce and I have been married. He was the father she hardly knew. He died and was buried near the family home in Orlando, Fla., when she was just a little girl.

I did some research on the War in the Pacific pinpointing where Provost was at various stages of the conflict. It is a story of a fiasco, a debacle, a huge human tragedy imposed on humanity by fascism and imperial ambitions.

That war has been called “The Good War.” Whether “good” or “bad,” World War II was a completely avoidable war. If the U.S., France and Britain had heeded the Soviet Union’s call for “collective security” measures against Nazi Germany and the fascist axis, the war could have been prevented.

Provost was a U.S. Army Air Corps Master Sergeant, an aircraft engine mechanic, and a navigator stationed at Hickam Airfield, Hawaii, when Joyce was born Jan. 26, 1941. He was a doting father.

But with ominous war clouds gathering, Provost was assigned to the 30th Bomber Squadron and flew Sept. 20, 1941, in a flotilla of hundreds of B-17s and B-25s bombers to Clark Air Field in the Philippines leaving his wife, daughter, and stepson behind in Hawaii. A few weeks later they survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

One day later, Dec. 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked Clark Air Field destroying all but 14 of the planes on the ground, even though General Douglas MacArthur had been forewarned that the Philippines would be Japan’s next target. Somehow, Provost escaped, flying with his comrades to an airbase outside Darwin, Australia.

A few days later, they flew back to Bandeong, Indonesia, joining in a futile attempt to block the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia.
Among Provost’s papers is a yellow, mimeographed sheet dated Feb. 12, 1942, and signed by Commanding General L.H. Brereton, citing Provost and his fellow airmen for “combat valor.” They were awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross even as the Japanese Imperial Army closed in for the final kill.

Outnumbered and outgunned, their defenses crumbling, Provost and his comrades scrambled their planes and fled back to Darwin, March 6, 1942.

Provost moved on a few months later to an airbase near Port Moresby, Papua, New Guinea and probably helped provide air cover for the U.S. Navy during the “Battle of the Coral Sea” May 3-7, 1942.

Retreat sometimes brings out acts of heroism, amid panic and confusion, even braver than offense when the attacker has the advantage of treachery and surprise.

I am reading, now, the memoirs of Gen. Georgi Zhukov, who commanded the Soviet Army during World War II. He provides many examples of bravery among the Soviet people in the early weeks of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

German General Hans Guderian, for example, was driving with an enormous force of Panzers and crack Wehrmacht infantry divisions to the southeast of Moscow. His aim was to capture the town of Tula, famed as the “Czar’s armory,” and swing around to encircle the Soviet capital. Fighting desperate defensive engagements, the Red Army was in retreat. Workers in the Tula plants left their lathes and drill presses, took up rifles and marched out to reinforce the Red Army. The Nazi advance was halted.

Workers in Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad and other cities carried out similar acts of mass heroism during the “Great Patriotic War,” Zhukov writes. They were motivated by their hatred of fascism and fascist atrocities and their love of the socialist homeland.

The flower of Soviet society, those most loyal to the October Revolution of 1917 died, a blow that may have been a factor in the collapse of the USSR fifty years later.

So what if “collective action” had successfully blocked the fascist war?

Tens of millions of lives would have been saved. Joyce would have grown up with a father. This is not idle speculation about how we might have avoided a war fought 67 years ago. Every war fought since then has been avoidable, a squandering of life, a waste of material resources needed to improve the living conditions of humanity.

On this Memorial Day, lets remember the words on those Quaker yard signs that went up five years ago and never came down: “War is not the answer.”

Tim Wheeler ( is a veteran journalist for the People’s Weekly World and its editor from 1992-2003.