Remarks by Vice Admiral Gregory G. Johnson
Tribute to Corporal Edgar Bunker
Good afternoon and welcome to our brief ceremony, especially to Edgar's sisters Ada Rice, Leona McAllister, Pauline Bunker and Charlene Allen; Edgar's nephew, Gary Allen, who we thank for doing so much to make this day possible; all the members of the Bunker family here today; all the members of the extended Great Cranberry Island family; friends of Great Cranberry Island; ladies and gentlemen.
I am here today on behalf of Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen. For the past 15 months, I have been blessed to serve as the Secretary's Senior Military Assistant and it is my privilege to represent him today and to convey his best wishes and gratitude to you.
However, I must note that I am chastened by the fact that my presence pales in comparison to a recent distinguished visitor from across the bay in Seal Harbor who was here last week -- Martha Stewart. But I hasten to add that I am a true son of Maine and not a "come-lately rusticator."
So I also come to you as a fellow Mainer for whom this island is more familiar than foreign. I hail from the small town of Westmanland in a remote corner of Aroostook County. It is also a small community where the entire population could fit in this sanctuary, albeit four times over. It is also a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone . . . and often everything. And I like Edgar and other Great Cranberry Island residents also attended a small schoolhouse, although yours is twice as large as my one-room school. So I am delighted to be here with you this afternoon.
And even though we are day trippers from off island, it is my pleasure to join you on a patch of earth that harkens back to our nation's maritime history and heritage and to join you in honoring a soldier and a family that are as much a part of this island as the soil itself. And it is fitting that we do so here in the very church where this community bid farewell to Edgar Bunker and his proud Dad over 48 years ago.
As you may know, just yesterday in Bangor there was a U.S.-Canadian observance of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. Hundreds of veterans from Maine and Canada proudly paraded down Main Street. Hundreds of families and friends gathered at Mount Hope Cemetery around the Maine Korean War Memorial. And on that granite memorial, under the words "They Gave Their Lives" are etched the names of the 233 men from Maine who died in Korea so that we might live free. And the most moving moment of all for me was the roll call when the name of each man was read aloud. Names like Corporal Edgar Bunker.
But it was our preparations for another commemoration at another memorial to Korea that brings me here today. Two months ago, Secretary Cohen was preparing for the national observance of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War at the national Korean War Memorial in Washington. One of the veterans and forces behind the creation of that inspiring memorial is a man by the name of Ray Donnelly. As the Bunker sisters know, Ray and Edgar met in early 1951 when both found themselves in basic training at Fort Devons, Massachusetts.
When Ray told us of the story of his buddy "Eddie" -- as Ray called Edgar -- and the Bunker family, we knew we had to come here. It was such a compelling story of sacrifice. It tugged at my Maine roots and heritage, and it reminded me of the poignancy and the power of the places where we grew up, places where we faced the trials in our lives, places where our character was forged. And Great Cranberry Island is one of those special places that forges into its sons and daughters resiliency, perseverance and fierce independence combined with a profound sense of public duty to the larger demands of community, state and nation. Hence Edgar's service in the Army during a time of war.
I recall the words of a former Maine Governor and the Civil War General, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who left his professorship at Bowdoin to lead the 20th Maine through the mid-Atlantic, including to a place called Gettysburg. And years after the guns had fallen silent, General Chamberlain returned to those hallowed grounds for the dedication of the Maine Monument at Gettysburg. He looked into the eyes of his fellow veterans, and he said:
In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass. Bodies disappear. But spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream. And lo! The shadow of the mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom and the power of the vision shall pass into their souls.
Today, we are here to wrap ourselves in the bosom of Edgar Bunker's mighty presence, and the power of the vision shall pass into our souls. We must pass it on to succeeding generations.
Much of the story of Edgar Bunker is already known to many of you in this church this afternoon. It is still held in your souls. The Bunker sisters, family and friends could talk about years past as though they were only yesterday: about the fun-loving brother with the quick smile and the same brilliant blue eyes I see in his sisters; about the hard-working young man who would return in the wee hours of the morning from an off island party and immediately trade his dancing shoes for the rubber boots of the boatyard; about the only son of Elisha and Hannah Bunker from a town where love of country, like the waters that surround it, runs deep.
Ray Donnelly, Edgar's bootcamp buddy, could talk about the modest man of quiet leadership and about wiling away weekend passes from Fort Devons on the porch of the Donnelly family home in Worcester, dreaming of a future building boats back on Great Cranberry Island.
Sadly, I know that many in this room could talk about that day in this place when father and son joined spirits in the next world, when this family gave this nation more than any one family should ever have to give.
So I will not take time recounting what you already know. Rather, I want to offer you what I hope is a special gift of insight into what you don't know the gift of information about the selfless service and sacrifice of Corporal Edgar Bunker. In recent weeks, various staffs at the Pentagon have done extensive research on the units in which Edgar served. While the passage of time, the fog of war, and an imperfect records archive prevents a full story, I want to share with you some of what we have learned.
We know that Edgar arrived in Korea in the summer of 1951, exactly one year into the war. It has been said about the Korean War that "seldom in modern Army history had Americans fought for so long with so little in such miserable terrain and weather." This was the battle Edgar joined. Over 21,000 Americans had already lost their lives, and the battle had degenerated into a stalemate at about the 38th Parallel near where the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea is today.
As his gravestone in Bunker Cemetery attests, Edgar was assigned to K Company, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the legendary 1st Cavalry Division. He was one of some half a million United Nations troops from 22 nations. In fact, attached to his division were forces from Britain, Canada, Greece and Thailand, and, of course, the Republic of Korea. It is not too difficult to imagine Edgar, the affable son of Maine and Great Cranberry Island, dealing with his Greek and Thai compatriots.
Edgar linked up with the 1st Cavalry in central Korea, near Yonchon. The 1st Cavalry Division had been in Korea for the entire war, and had seen bitter fighting. Edgar was among thousands of replacements who arrived that first spring and the arrival of fresh faces like Edgar's surely brought comfort and relief to those battle-tired soldiers.
Fortunately for Edgar, his arrival coincided with the first armistice talks taking place in Kae-song, Korea just to the west of the 1st Cavalry's position. With hopes for peace, commanders slowed the pace of operations. Soldiers like Edgar spent days in the hills, along the UN command's forward defenses called the Wyoming Line. They were busy reinforcing and strengthening their bunkers of logs and sandbags, connected by long trenches, looking out past minefields and barbed wire at the enemy forces to the North. It was comparable to the trench warfare of the First World War. We also know that during the lull the Red Chinese forces were concentrating the bulk of its reinforcements opposite the I Corps, and in particular the 1st Cavalry Division, because this was the region that contained the most advantageous avenues of approach leading into the capital of Seoul. This explains why the fighting was so fierce in that area Edgar's area once the armistice talks broke down and fighting resumed.
We also know that Edgar never forgot home, even though he was on the other side of the world. Although he was no longer with Edgar at this point, what Ray Donnelly recalls of earlier times was surely true in those trenches as well. Whether in basic training, on the long train ride to the West Coast, on transport ships across the Pacific to Japan and then to Korea, not a day went by when Eddie didn't talk about his family and this island.
In Korea, July and August were also monsoon season, and the rains were especially heavy in the summer of 1951. Downpours lasted for days on end. Edgar no doubt endured the torrential rains and mud like most -- in the Army's ubiquitous poncho. So when you see pictures of the Korean War Memorial in Washington with its steel statues of soldiers in their ponchos think of Edgar Bunker.
After a largely quiet summer, armistice talks broke down in the early Fall. Hopes for an early peace evaporated, and the fighting resumed. The Communists began night ambushes and Edgar gained first-hand experience.
We know that in early September, Edgar's K Company was manning a patrol base near a place called Nung-kol. According to reports, just before midnight on September 5th more than 200 Chinese troops attacked the 120 men of K Company. Edgar and his fellow soldiers were outnumbered 2 to 1 and the attack lasted for hours. But K Company fought back and held on.
Just before dawn, 300 more fresh Chinese troops launched a second attack. But still, K Company fought back and held on. With morning wearing on, ammo running low, and the fight growing desperate, K Company called for tanks and air strikes. By late afternoon, as they waited for reinforcements, the enemy forces opposing the 120 men of K Company had grown to nearly 1,000-strong. K Company could hold on no more.
Although forced to withdraw, Edgar's K Company had held back overwhelming forces for a full day. One report called it "an outstanding feat." We can imagine Edgar's comrades speaking the same words Ray Donnelly speaks today, "I would go with Eddie anywhere. He was the kind of guy you'd want to be like. He was a soldier. He was my hero."
Yet the intense fighting of September was only a warm-up for the battle that was to come in October. Operation Commando would be the largest United Nations operation of the entire autumn. Some 15,000 troops such as Edgar would attack across a 45-mile front. The mission would be to push the Communists back 6 precious miles to better protect our supply lines, gain a better position for the coming winter and, perhaps, force the Communists back to the negotiating table.
Operation Commando began at dawn on Thursday, the 3rd of October. Edgar and the men of the 5th Regiment ran straight into a massive Chinese army dug-in behind elaborate trenches and tunnels. It has been reported that Edgar's regiment "ran into a wall of steel" and that they "had to battle for every foot of ground" against "savage resistance." Artillery, mortar and grenade fire rained down like the monsoon rains. Photographs reveal rugged hills and ridges completely stripped bare of trees.
Day after day, waves of fresh Chinese reinforcements hurled themselves at the Americans and hand-to-hand-combat was common. Day after day, Edgar's company and regiment attacked the Chinese up steep sides of hills known only by numbers like 222, 272 and 287. Day after day, the 1st Cavalry Division endured more than half of all UN casualties in the operation, including on the fifth day of battle Sunday, October 7, 1951 -- at a place called Yonchon.
One historian has written that the 1st Cavalry Division "was engaged almost constantly in the most bitter fighting of the entire Korean campaign. The effort required in driving an entire Chinese Army from an excellent defensive line was so great as to almost defy description. This maximum, around-the-clock exertion extended to every unit and every man." Corporal Edgar Bunker was one of those men.
As the bronze plaque near the entrance of this church reminds us, Edgar succumbed to his wounds on the following day, Monday, October 8, 1951. But because of brave soldiers like Edgar -- indeed, on the very day he died -- the major objective was accomplished. The Communist forces were pushed back and they agreed to return to the negotiating table. As a result, the free world had made its first stand of the new Cold War and contained the spread of communism. Because of soldiers like Edgar, Korea was one step closer to peace. As the Army Commanding General, Lt. General James van Fleet, said, "In seizing these hills we lost men, but we saved other thousands."
Ladies and gentlemen, because Corporal Edgar Bunker gave his life, countless others are alive today. Because of the selfless sacrifice of soldiers like Edgar then, Korea is a flourishing free-market democracy and there is renewed hope for peace across the Peninsula today.
Half a century later, I trust that you will find some peace and take some comfort from this knowledge. Although Edgar's time in Korea was brief, his service endures. Like his tractor that still sits where he left it on the beach. Like the keel that still stands as a testament to friends and friendship and the surprise they had begun to build for him. Indeed, Edgar belongs not only to this family, but to this island, this state, this nation, and, indeed, the world.
As the Bunker sisters recall, several years ago Korean television came here to produce a documentary so that the Korean people could better appreciate the sacrifice that some 34,000 American families like the Bunkers made for the cause of peace on the other side of the world to defend -- paraphrasing the words on the Korean Memorial in Washington -- a place they had never been and a people they had never met. Just as the Bunker name has endured for decades through the boats they build, so will the Bunker name endure on the pages of history for all time. So as you carry the pain of his loss, please also carry your pride in his legacy. In fact, the memorial marker in the rear of this sanctuary has a verse of scripture that sums it up very succinctly, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." I think we can all agree that there is no greater love.
In a few moments, it will be my honor to present the Bunker sisters with a medal for Edgar's courageous service and sacrifice. During the war, the Republic of Korea first offered the Korea War Service Medal to Americans who served there, but at that time U.S. soldiers were not allowed to wear foreign medals. By the time U.S. law changed to allow such medals, most eligible U.S. soldiers had left Korea. Two years ago, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the war, the Korean government renewed the offer and last year the U.S. Government accepted. This year, 1.8 million Americans like Edgar who served in Korea, or their kin, can rightly receive the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
In closing, I want to relate a story that captures the spirit and soul of the soldier we honor today. Ray Donnelly says that one of the things that amazed him most about your brother was his ability to see the natural beauty in everything. Ray said that when they got off the boat together in Korea, when they looked up at landscape, despite all the mayhem, Edgar saw the mountains. Despite all the fury, he saw the flowers. And he said, "What a beautiful country."
In the bright light of peace and freedom half a century later, we too can look on this nation and say, "What a beautiful country." To which we would add, what a fortunate country to have had the likes of a brave soldier like Corporal Edgar Bunker and you, his family, in its service.
So on behalf of Secretary of Defense Cohen and the people of the United States of America, we say today that they did not lay down their lives in war for us to forget their lives in peace. America will always remember. America will always revere the sacrifice of its sons and daughters, such as Corporal Edgar Bunker, and all he and his family have done for this nation. God bless each of you, and God bless America.