Derek Gentile: 'So many empty seats at the table'


PITTSFIELD -- Memorial Day is just around the corner and I hope the folks who read this take a moment to understand why we celebrate it.

Yes, it’s a nice day for families to get together, maybe have a barbecue and a few libations. And that’s fine. But there has always been more to it.

I remember reading a book called "The Killer Angels" by an author named Michael Shaara. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, and it was deserving.

The book is about the Battle of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of several of the officers involved, including Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. James Longstreet, both of the Confederacy, and Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the Union Army.

The book contains a lot of observations about war and death. Not surprising, because a lot of people died over the course of that battle. I thought Shaara did a good job conveying how these men saw death and dying, as well as duty and loyalty.

One of the more salient quotes, uttered by Gen. Lee, has always struck me. Lee, acknowledged now as one of the best generals in American history, pointed out "we all expect death in war; a glass raised to fallen comrades; a sad farewell. But we never expected so much death. We didn’t expect so many comrades to be gone. So many empty seats at the table."

That, of course, is the nature of war. But it is something soldiers try not to think too much about.

I remember, a decade ago, I wrote a story on the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion during World War II. what we know as
D-Day. I interviewed a bunch of local veterans who were there. It remains one of the more emotional assignments of my life.

One of the overwhelming impressions I got from the men who survived it was an interesting one. Most of them couldn’t believe they survived it.

"The movies never get it right," said one vet. "You see these guys charging up the hill, and every time someone gets hit, they fling up their arms and stagger backwards.

"Crap. The bullets buzz around your head like bees. And you know that any one of them could finish you off. So you stay as low to the ground as you can. And pray."

A lot of these guys saw soldiers on their left and on their right hit and killed by a bullet. Just like that. Everyone was crawling over the beach and there would be a thunk! and the guy 10 feet away was gone.

A lot of them saw guys with whom they went through basic training literally blown into pieces. I cannot imagine what that must be like. In my head, I understand it’s not a cartoon or a special effects trick. It was a real person with parents, maybe a wife, maybe with kids. But to be in a place where the people up in front of you were deliberately trying to accomplish that. Whew.

My veteran friends explained -- or tried to explain -- that the sheer abruptness of these incidents is staggering, and psychologically devastating. And at the end of that D-Day -- the longest day, for sure -- to be able to look back on Omaha Beach, and see all those men still there, never to leave, was clearly difficult.

I have other stories, but I think my point is made. My uncle Kenny Palmer served during World War II, and the tragedy of his service was that he died in an accident in Texas a week after the war ended, a story I told a few years ago. Maybe that’s why I feel so strongly about at least taking a moment to remember the soldiers who have given their lives for this country for the past 250 years.

Derek Gentile is an Eagle staff writer. He can be reached at


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