Tomorrow is Veterans Day, so it was appropriate that I got to thinking about the great men and women who defend our freedom…and the not-so-great things we do to honor them.
I began considering the subject as I was driving down Master Sergeant Homer L. Wise WWII Medal of Honor Recipient Memorial Highway, which is a real street here in Stamford. Sort of.
Sgt. Wise was a true war hero, and you can read his Medal of Honor Citation below. His bravery while under enemy fire is the type of thing they used to turn into John Wayne movies, and I have no doubt that he should be remembered for his courageous and selfless acts.
But I have to question the Master Sergeant Homer L. Wise WWII Medal of Honor Recipient Memorial Highway.
There’s no way to look at it other than as a half-hearted tribute. The entire thing is no more than a sign, plus the already-forgotten speeches that were made when the sign was dedicated. It’s not like they really meant to rename the highway, which isn’t a highway at all, but, rather, Washington Boulevard which, obviously, had already been named for somebody (I’m assuming), probably George Washington, although it could have been Denzel for all I know. They didn’t even give Sgt. Wise the whole street; they recently awarded a piece of Washington Blvd. to a more recent war hero, and while traveling on Master Sergeant Homer L. Wise WWII Medal of Honor Recipient Memorial Highway, you’ll be surprised to find that it suddenly turns into U.S. Navy SEAL Brian R. Bill Memorial Highway (see below).
(Interestingly, although the two men served some 60 years apart, both of their memorial highways were dedicated just two months ago, which leads me to believe Stamford got a volume discount on the signs.)
The point is, they really didn’t change the name of anything. Stamford certainly is not expecting its citizens to actually call the thoroughfare Master Sergeant Homer L. Wise WWII Medal of Honor Recipient Memorial Highway. For one thing, you’d be past the turn before your GPS could say “Turn right on Master Sergeant Homer L. Wise WWII Medal of Honor Recip–recalculating!” And businesses on Washington Blvd do not have to change their business cards, which they couldn’t do anyway, because it would have to be an awfully large business card to fit Master Sergeant Homer L. Wise WWII Medal of Honor Recipient Memorial Highway. Plus a phone number.
I don’t know how it is in the rest of the country, but in the Tri-State area, they’ll throw somebody’s name onto just about anything. Got a triangle of grass where three streets intersect? Let’s call it a park and put someone’s name on it. Got a bridge that goes over the Housatonic River? Why call it the Housatonic River Bridge when you can call it the Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Bridge…especially when the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation just happens to have its headquarters nearby?
New York City is loaded with “honorary” street names. Just about every block has a second name, which comes in handy in case the street ever wants to flee the city under an alias. But no one expects you to use the memorial names. Hail a cab and tell the driver to take you to Jackie Mason Way, and all you’ll get is a lot of tsuris.*
You can always tell if a municipality is serious about changing the name of something. For instance, when New York City renamed a bridge for Robert Kennedy in 2008, they made it clear that Mr. Triborough was no longer being honored, and that you were now required to call it the RFK Bridge or the Robert Kennedy Bridge, although it will probably be a decade or two before any New Yorker knows what you’re talking about if you ask for directions to the RFK Bridge. After all, most natives still refer to “Sixth Avenue” instead of “the Avenue of the Americas,” and that change happened in 1945.
But you’ll notice that they didn’t call it the Senator Robert F. Kennedy Brother of John Who Got Assassinated By Sirhan Sirhan Memorial Bridge. That’s because they really intend for us to call it the RFK Bridge, although many motorists call it something else entirely when they see that the toll is $7.50. The city has also changed all the traffic signs, in some cases, evidently, with the infrastructure equivalent of Post-It Notes®.
The thing is, if you really think someone is worth honoring, as Master Sergeant Wise most certainly is, then do it sincerely. George Washington has enough stuff named after him (and Denzel won’t mind); go ahead and change it to Wise Boulevard, and put up new street signs and a plaque that tells everyone what he did.
And, by the way, the good sergeant’s last name might go very well on a government office building.
See you soon.
*45th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
Medal of Honor Citation for Master Sergeant Homer L. Wise: While his platoon was pinned down by enemy small-arms fire from both flanks, he left his position of comparative safety and assisted in carrying 1 of his men, who had been seriously wounded and who lay in an exposed position, to a point where he could receive medical attention. The advance of the platoon was resumed but was again stopped by enemy frontal fire. A German officer and 2 enlisted men, armed with automatic weapons, threatened the right flank. Fearlessly exposing himself, he moved to a position from which he killed all 3 with his submachinegun. Returning to his squad, he obtained an M1 rifle and several antitank grenades, then took up a position from which he delivered accurate fire on the enemy holding up the advance. As the battalion moved forward it was again stopped by enemy frontal and flanking fire. He procured an automatic rifle and, advancing ahead of his men, neutralized an enemy machinegun with his fire. When the flanking fire became more intense he ran to a nearby tank and exposing himself on the turret, restored a jammed machinegun to operating efficiency and used it so effectively that the enemy fire from an adjacent ridge was materially reduced thus permitting the battalion to occupy its objective.
Navy Special Warfare Operator Master Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) Brian R. Bill served 12 years. His decorations include the Bronze Star with combat ‘V’ device for valor; Joint Service Commendation Medal with combat ‘V’ device for valor; Navy Marine Corps Commendation Medal; Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal; Combat Action Ribbon; Presidential Unit Citation; Navy Unit Citation; Good Conduct Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Afghanistan Campaign Medal; Iraq Campaign Medal; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Rifle Expert Medal and Pistol Expert Medal. Brian R. Bill died August 6, 2013 in Wardak province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when the CH-47 Chinook helicopter in which he was riding was shot down.