Remembrance Day, held this year on Saturday, November 18, takes place annually on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of the day Abraham Lincoln gave his immortal Gettysburg Address on the morning of November 19, 1863. Presented by the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, the reenactment of that mild November day 154 years ago was first offered to the public in 1938.
November is a month of remembrance and gratitude – for those two words go together. In addition to Thanksgiving and Veterans’ Day, Remembrance Day is an important event for those who will never forget the sacrifices made for liberty. All wars combined, Americans have suffered over 3 million casualties. The battle with the highest number of casualties, interestingly, is the Battle of Gettysburg – where men in blue and gray grappled in Death’s grip for three summer days in the middle of the war. When comparing it to D-Day or the infamous Battle of the Bulge – which had higher casualties in effect, but over many weeks of fighting – Gettysburg’s losses are still staggering.
One Marine veteran, at age 83, comes to Gettysburg annually simply to pay his respects on Remembrance Day. John R. Halderman, who served on the U.S.S. Curtiss
in the South Pacific, is lucky to be alive. He enlisted to fight in Korea, but was instead chosen to go aboard the Curtiss,
a World War II sea plane tender, for testing the first hydrogen bomb explosion on Bikini Atoll. The test took place on March 1, 1954. The event was top secret for many years, until it was declassified during the Clinton Administration. The test was known as the Bravo Shot.
“No one knew how this blast would affect us,” Sergeant Halderman explained. “We were human guinea pigs.”
The U.S.S. Curtiss
was the ship that carried the bomb, amidst a large fleet that left California for the middle of the Pacific. When the bomb was detonated, the Curtiss was the ship closest to the blast – at 22 miles distant. The ship had carried the bomb across the sea, and Halderman was one who often had to guard the bomb before detonation.
According to Sgt. Halderman, the men were given goggles that completely blocked out all light. Ordered to put them on, the entire crew – Marines and sailors alike – were then deployed on the fantail of the ship. With their backs to the atoll, the countdown began.
The excessive heat from the blast exposed the crew to dangerous Gamma rays and spurred a large tsunami that almost sank them.
“We expected to see the atomic cloud 22 miles away,” John said. “It was right over us.”
Apparently, the captain had not expected the tidal wave, and it hit them broadside.
“I looked at my friend Timme,” Halderman said of his close friend, Dean Timme, who was one of his closest friends in the Marine Corps. “I said, ‘I think we’re goners, Tim.’”
“I think you’re right,” he told me.
“There was no time to be afraid,” he added. “The terror doesn’t register. You just think, ‘well, this is it.’”
The ship listed and shook, as one of John’s shipmates remembered, “like a peanut in a can.” One Marine lost his balance and nearly slid overboard during that dangerous moment. Halderman reached out and grabbed him. The ship miraculously remained afloat, and no one was lost.
However, most of the men who were aboard the Curtiss that day are gone. Most of them suffered from cancer. One of them was his friend, Dean Timme, who died October 5, 2013.
John Halderman won’t ever forget them. He remembers all his shipmates who made the sacrifice to serve the nation.
That is why he stands on Steinwehr Avenue annually – for as long as his health will permit – and salutes the reenactors in Gettysburg’s Remembrance Day parade. Union, Confederate, or civilian – it doesn’t matter to him. They represent those who fought, those who sacrificed on the home front, and those who did not come home.
Like Sergeant Halderman, the reenactors realize the importance of remembrance. Many are veterans themselves – but all share a patriotic spirit for that the sacrifice of those who served to defend and protect the citizens of the United States.
The Remembrance Day parade will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 18; and follows the traditional route from downtown up Baltimore Street and onto Steinwehr Avenue before ending on Cemetery Ridge. Sergeant Halderman plans on being there, like he is every year. He will be the one in the red Curtiss Marine cap, saluting the troops.
( J.R. Halderman is the author's father.