Published on May 27, 2012
Military uncles form true appreciation of Memorial Day
Under a soot-gray blanket of clouds, snow fell in swirls, filling the thick forest along Belgium's Ardennes with ghostly white figures of ice. It was 5:30 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944, the first day of what would be called the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle that American forces would fight during World War II.
The German's 6th Panzer Army unleashed a 90-minute barrage using 1,600-military pieces. Trees exploded into splinters and chaos rained down upon the American troops.
Among those caught by the surprise attack was Lt. Tommy Sollitt. Tommy grew up in Chicago, the oldest of four children to George and Blanche Sollitt. He had gone to Purdue and played football. He studied engineering, hoping in time to take a prominent role in his father's construction company.
On that first day of the Battle of the Bulge, he and a military chaplain were walking along the battle lines and came upon a group of soldiers from his artillery company. The soldiers were trying to defuse a land mine. The 27-year-old lieutenant stopped to help. Just then the land mine exploded, sending lethal shards of metal in all directions. The lieutenant died instantly.
He was my Uncle Tommy, one of the 19,000 Americans killed in the Battle of the Bulge. I never met him and only knew what he looked like from weathered photographs. He was handsome and so young. He had a son who was born several months after his death. His name also was Tommy.
On the other side of the world, Bruce Lippincott had orders to patrol a river deep within China. He was a U.S. Navy officer and was practicing critical maneuvers his men would take if the Japanese military attacked.
It was a daunting task filled with uncertainties. Already, the Japanese had devastated the poorly led forces of China's National Revolutionary Army under the command of Chiang Kai-shek. From April to the end of December 1944, Japan's superior forces had wounded or killed 300,000 of the Chinese troops and had left more than 200,000 civilians dead.
War is always a calculation of risks and luck. The Japanese forces marched in a different direction and never ventured through the river region where the 23-year-old Navy officer stood ready to defend.
That officer was my uncle, too.
I had two wartime uncles with two different destinies, a life cut short and another saved.
Two years after the war ended, Bruce married Nancy Sollitt, the youngest of Uncle Tommy's three sisters. Marian, my mother, was the oldest.
After grandfather Sollitt died, Uncle Bruce helped to lead the Chicago construction company and, no doubt, would have worked alongside Uncle Tommy had he survived the war.
Uncle Bruce and Aunt Nancy raised three sons. Later they moved to Seattle, where my uncle set up a successful extension of Sollitt Construction.
They eventually moved to Whidbey Island, where Uncle Bruce could be surrounded by water. He loved boating, thanks to his father who was famous in the world of sailing, having developed a handicapping system that allowed sailboats of all sizes to start a race at the same time.
Uncle Bruce owned sleek-looking sailboats, cabin cruisers and even a tugboat, the Bee, which he kept at a slip in Lake Union. On one sunny day, he took his family and mine on a tour of Lake Washington, the mighty Bee chugging along at a modest 5-mph clip.
A gracious and decent man who fought for what he believed in and for his country as well, Uncle Bruce died May 10 at Providence Hospital in Everett. He was 91.
The story of my two uncles speaks to the remarkable sacrifices men and women in uniform have endured so others could fulfill their dreams. That's why Memorial Day is set aside to honor those who have died in service to this nation.
Its roots reach back to the Civil War when women in the South decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers. And there were many to decorate. On the bloodiest single-day battle in American history — Sept. 17, 1862, in the Battle of Antietam — more than 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were either killed or wounded.
Americans first celebrated Memorial Day on May 30, 1868. Decorating grave sites and displaying American flags became routine, as were parades and speeches.
That tradition, though, has faded over time. Few parades are held and flags now adorn T-shirts and automobile advertisements. Even the date fluctuates. Instead of May 30, Memorial Day falls on the last Monday of the month so we can enjoy a three-day holiday. We have eroded the meaning of Memorial Day by making it too convenient, too easy to forget. We just don't get it, do we? It's about time we take a hard look at what we have become as a nation — self-indulgent.
We feel entitled to our freedom, to our excesses. What about that young lieutenant who once bled for us nearly 70 years ago in the bitter cold of the Ardennes, thousands of miles from home?
It certainly wasn't convenient for my Uncle Tommy and Uncle Bruce to serve our country. But they did, and we are better for it. That I'm sure of.