Clemson and Memorial Day: Freedom Isn't Free


by - Senior Writer -
Flowers decorate Clemson's Scroll of Honor
Flowers decorate Clemson's Scroll of Honor

CLEMSON – Not a rain cloud was in sight late Friday afternoon, an early summer heat wave gripping the Clemson campus in a furnace grip. It was one of those days where you’re better off inside instead of outside.

I was out and about with my two sons – my oldest son Koty and my 8-month old Eli. The three of us were letting Nikki get some rest, so I had the boys out rambling around the Clemson campus. I wanted to show Koty – and Eli – Clemson’s Scroll of Honor and continue to drill into Koty’s head the reason we have a Memorial Day.

We drove up outside the stadium – across from the Scroll of Honor – in time to see retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon, a 101-year-old survivor of the Bataan Death March and revered alumnus and professor emeritus of Clemson University – place a flag on the stones bearing the names of two his closest friends.

Skardon led his troops through some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the war, earning two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars for valor in combat, as well as a Purple Heart during the first four months of the war.

On April 9, 1942, he became a prisoner of war with tens of thousands of his brothers-in-arms when American troops in that area of operation were forced to surrender to the Japanese. Skardon and his fellow POWs were marched 80 miles north by their captors in one of the most notorious war crimes in history: The Bataan Death March.

There are two names that are special to Skardon: One is on the name of Otis Morgan (Class of 38) and the other belongs to Henry Leitner (Class of 37). Those two Clemson graduates were with Skardon on the infamous Bataan Death March.

Skardon recalls that he noticed the Japanese soldiers taking the rings and watches of the American soldiers, and he took great care to hide his cherished Clemson ring. Skardon says he never took out the ring to look at it or admire it.

Then he got sick, and I will let him tell the story in his own words:

I was captured by units of the Japanese Army on April 10, 1942, on the southern end of the Bataan Peninsula. I made the march northward from the vicinity of Mariveles to San Fernando, Pampanga – a distance of approximately 80 miles. The march took eight or nine days and later became known as the Bataan Death March.

At my lowest point as a POW, I was a victim of beriberi, malaria, and diarrhea. I also developed an eye infection with yellow discharge which would seal my eyes shut. I had no appetite, and I could hardly swallow. Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan, Clemson classmates, took turns spoon-feeding me, cleaning my eyes, carrying me piggy-back to an open latrine – washing me – and carrying me back to our NIPA shack.

Most of our personal possessions had disappeared. However, I had managed to keep my Clemson class ring hidden. Otis, who worked on the FARM as an “in-charge” (an American who understood enough Japanese to pass on the instructions to the POW work details), let it be known that he knew of a gold ring available for trade to the Japanese for food. A deal was made and one evening Otis came in from the FARM with a small can of potted ham and a live pullet-sized chicken. Henry borrowed a tin pail, built a fire, and boiled the chicken. Nothing was left except the bones, which by that time were gleaming white. They broke the bones and retrieved the marrow with a piece of wire. Nothing edible remained.

The little can of potted ham was used to make highly-flavored rice balls. My diarrhea dried up, and the yellow discharge from my eyes disappeared. My appetite was restored.

My debt to Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan is heavy – it cannot be repaid. Otis was killed aboard an unmarked ship carrying POW’s to Japan. Henry died in early 1945 at a POW camp in Japan.

Yes, the heat was bad, but I waited on the ceremony to end before carrying my youngest out to the Scroll of Honor. I’ve written about this before, but I feel like Clemson’s military history bears repeating. And even my youngest won’t remember this day, it’s never too early to show him the spots on campus that reflect back on Clemson’s military heritage.

And, if I have anything to do with it, he will grow up understanding why all of this is important and why the Scroll of Honor is important.

There are reasons the Scroll of Honor sits where it sits and why it’s designed the way it’s designed, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity.

*The overall design is simple, yet dignified – like an outdoor chapel.

*The Tigers represent a perpetual honor guard to ensure the sanctity of the Memorial. They appear to be engaged in a conversation about their responsibility.

*The mound is circular in design to represent that duty, honor, and country are values that transcend time. The legacy of these heroes will never end, just as Roy Pearce wrote in 1944: “we’ll never let them down, never!”

*This circular form symbolizes unity within this select group of people and more broadly represents the devotion that ultimately all within the Clemson family should share.

*The basic and unrefined stone elements celebrate the uniqueness of the individuals while the assembly of the pieces around a mound – or barrow – celebrates their common bond.

*The names are engraved in the stones in random fashion, just as the men fell on the battlefield. There is no pattern to death in war.

*Only their names and class year are engraved on the stones. These were Clemson men and they were bound to their classmates. This they all had in common – not date of death, military service or rank.

*The stones are mounted in the barrow at an angle so that visitors must bow their heads to read the names on the stones – as if in reverence to the memory of the heroes.

*The trees are all slanted toward the barrow as if bowing to pay homage to the sacrifices of the honorees.

*The area above the barrow is clear so that visitors can look up toward heaven as if to pay respect to the honorees.

*The inscription on the base of the National Colors Monument – “Freedom is not Free” – tells the story of the sacrifice made by all these great men.

There are 493 Clemson Alumni honored there:

World War I (The Great War) – 32

Nicaraguan Campaign – 1

WWI/WWII Interwar Period – 2

World War II – 376

Korean War – 19

Cuban Missile Crisis – 1

Vietnam War – 31

The Cold War – 28

Global War on Terrorism – 3

Remember them. Because Freedom isn’t free.

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