correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled the last name of Florent Groberg. This version has been updated.
Before the burgers and beer, let’s take a few minutes to think about what it is that Memorial Day commemorates.
Matej Kocak arrived in the United States in 1906 from what is now Slovakia. The strapping young man of 23 made his way to Pittsburgh, where thousands of immigrants were making new lives in the glow of steel forges on the banks of the Monongahela.
But steelwork was not for Kocak. Instead, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and, after more than a decade of honorable service, shipped out for the bloodbath now known as World War I. Cpl. Kocak arrived at the French harbor of Saint-Nazaire on New Year’s Eve 1917.
Promoted to sergeant six months later, Kocak led a group of Marines through heavy woods on the first day of the Battle of Soissons, July 18, 1918. When a storm of bullets erupted from a hidden German machine gun nest, Kocak charged forward, flanked the position, then attacked with his bayonet, driving off the frightened enemy. A short time later, in the chaos of a battle that would leave nearly 90,000 men dead on both sides, Kocak rallied some two dozen leaderless French troops to attack and silence another enemy machine gun.
For his heroics in this critical engagement, Sgt. Kocak was awarded the Medal of Honor — posthumously, for by the time the citation was processed, he lay buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, killed in action on Oct. 4, 1918.
Macario Garcia was a boy of 3 when his parents moved their large family across the Rio Grande from Mexico to work in the fields of South Texas. That’s where the draft board found him, 19 years later, in 1942.
Wounded in the Normandy invasion, Garcia recovered in time to rejoin the 22nd Infantry Regiment for its advance through the Hürtgen Forest — some of the most ferocious fighting of the war in Europe. On Nov. 27, 1944, acting squad leader Garcia led his men up a hill toward entrenched German positions. When the first machine guns opened up amid a rain of mortar fire, Garcia ignored severe wounds to his shoulder and ankle to drag himself toward the nest. When he destroyed that position, a second German gunner began firing. Once again, Garcia attacked, silencing the gun and taking four enemy prisoners. Even then, he refused to be carried from the battlefield until he knew the hill had been taken.
At a White House ceremony in 1945, Staff Sgt. Garcia became the first Mexican-born soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. A month later, he was denied service at a segregated restaurant south of Houston, and when he refused to leave the premises, the owner beat him with a baseball bat.
Leslie Sabo was a political refugee whose family fled the Soviet takeover of Hungary to settle in Western Pennsylvania. Drafted into the Army at 21, Spec. Sabo entered Cambodia in 1970 as part of an infantry company assigned to disrupt the supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
On May 10 of that year — the fifth day of heavy fighting — Sabo’s platoon was ambushed by North Vietnamese troops near the village of Se San. Fighting desperately to avoid being surrounded, Sabo saw a grenade fall near a wounded comrade. Throwing himself over his friend, he absorbed the blast, then staggered forward despite his wounds to take out the enemy soldiers who had thrown the missile.
As daylight waned, Sabo fought on to protect a landing zone for a helicopter evacuation. But when the birds arrived, rather than climb aboard, he provided covering fire until he ran out of ammunition. Hit multiple times while reloading, Sabo crawled toward the enemy to drop a final grenade.
The Medal of Honor was presented to Sgt. Sabo’s widow 42 years after his death — a delay caused by lost paperwork in a war marked by bureaucratic bungling.
Florent Groberg is the son of a French-Algerian mother who brought him to the United States when he was 11. A talented runner, Groberg competed in track and cross-country for the University of Maryland before completing the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School.
On Aug. 8, 2012, during his second deployment to Afghanistan, Capt. Groberg was part of a security detail protecting high-ranking American officials. He saved multiple lives that morning by spotting and tackling a suicide bomber. When the enemy detonated his vest, Groberg was badly wounded; for his valor he earned the nation’s highest decoration.
I would need hours to recount the heroism of every immigrant who has earned the Medal of Honor, so let these men represent them all. May they remind us of a simple but precious truth — one we owe it to them to remember.
The American story is not told on birth certificates. It’s written on hearts.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.