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America Remembers Unsung Heroes On Memorial Day

At the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington DC, 79-year-old Lorraine Dieterle contemplates an exhibition of paint and pencil artworks called 'Faces of the Fallen.' The montage of portraits stretches nearly 100 meters across the interior walls of the gallery.

Mrs. Dieterle describes the faces gazing out into the room. “We are looking at more than 1,300 works of art of men and women that have perished during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. The whole exhibition allows Americans to get a glimpse of the men and women who lost their lives.”

Artists from around the country created this visual tribute. Flowers, rosaries, photos, and notes -- one from the child of a fallen soldier -- sit quietly among the portraits.

Mrs. Dieterle is a volunteer at the Women in Military Service Memorial. At the outbreak of the Second World War, she was an accomplished photographer. But she was not permitted to fight on the frontlines because of her gender. Historians say many women served the United States in a variety of ways before they were formally accepted in combat units. Ms. Dieterle was hired by the US Coast Guard as an official photographer assigned to train her male counterparts to document the war then raging in Europe. “My job was to teach the men combat photography, how to stay alive with a camera and a gun on their back, how to block out their cameras, how to mix developer with seawater, how to go through the jungles and how to photograph the landings on D-Day.”

After an invasion was launched, military and civilian photographers were often among the first to arrive in enemy territory. On D-Day in June of 1944, when tens of thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy to liberate Europe from the Nazis, photographers suffered heavy casualties. When one was killed, another would retrieve his camera gear and continue taking pictures. Camera kits were heavy and bulky, often weighing more than 30 kilograms.

Mrs. Dieterle says many of her students never returned from battle. But their film usually did. She developed many of the World War II combat photos and film reels in the nation's official archive of the war. ”I saw the bloodshed, the gore, and all the horrible things including broken bodies. And I would cry and I said, oh, they are so young. We were all young and afraid. When I look at all the men that perished in the invasions, I could not help but pray for their mothers, their wives and their sisters.”

Lorraine Dieterle also took her own photographs of returning generals and German prisoners of war. She says Memorial Day is for her a time to remember these lost men and women and their families.

While women faced some obstacles to military service during the Second World War, African-Americans were confronted with more difficult barriers of racism and segregation. But their determination to serve, and America's urgent need for able soldiers, sailors and airmen, helped to break down some of those barriers, many years before the civil rights movement.

Among the most famous of these pioneering African American servicemen was a group of pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, created by the US Congress in 1941 over the objections of some top military officers.

Retired Colonel Charles Edward McGee was one of those Tuskegee pilots. Now 85 years old, he recalls the military's initial doubts that an all-black squadron of fighter pilots could perform ably in combat. “They expected the experiment to fail, but they were surprised that their policy was based on [racial] generalizations and biases rather than on experience. Once given the opportunity, those myths and biases that had controlled policy in the past were no longer valid.”

Near the end of the war, the Tuskegee airmen were assigned to protect vulnerable US bomber squadrons during dangerous missions over Germany. Although some of the Tuskeegee Airmen were shot down by German fighter planes, the group never lost a bomber to enemy fire.

A few years after the war was over, the US Air Force began integrating blacks and whites into the same units.

Today, 60 years after the end of the Second World War, Colonel McGee is observing the Memorial Day holiday by remembering his fallen comrades at the new World War II Memorial here in Washington DC. “Monuments, in my mind, and as I look at this one, I don't get the feeling that we're glorifying war, we are uplifting the service of all of those who were a part of the war; the sacrifices they gave individually and collectively for a cause that felt just and certainly added to years of world peace.”

Retired Tuskeegee Airman Colonel Charles McGee, like military photographer Lorraine Dieterle, is spending the Memorial Day holiday both to celebrate the diversity and courage of America's fallen servicemen and women, and to honor their sacrifices.