Founded in 1868 as an annual occasion to recall those killed in the Civil War, Memorial Day has come to be observed over the years as a day to honor all those who have served in America's armed forces.
Last year, gifts from Davidson alumni funded expansion of an alumni veteran's memorial garden behind Elm Row. It now features five granite markers on which are inscribed the names of alumni who died in service during each of the nation's wars since World War I, with one exception. A small, low plaque honors Rufus G. Herring '42, a veteran who survived World War II through heroic actions that led him to become the only Davidson alumnus to receive the nation's highest military decoration, The Congressional Medal of Honor.
There were 2,428 Davidson alumni in the armed forces during World War II, and 137 of them were killed.
Herring's war story illustrates the fine line between death and life in war. And his actions back on the home front after the war demonstrate how soldiers of "the greatest generation" felt a duty to serve their country in civilian life as deeply as they had in war.
Herring's extraordinary bravery is the focus of a new book titled The Heart of Hell: The Untold Story of Courage and Sacrifice in the Shadow of Iwo Jima by Mitch Weiss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for The Associated Press.
Herring, an economics major from Sampson County, North Carolina, graduated from Davidson and joined the Navy. He was part of the original 55-man crew who took charge of the ship LCI 449 when it was commissioned in August 1943. He was the ship's engineering officer, and later was promoted to captain.
LCI 449, an infantry landing craft converted to a gunboat, served in the Pacific theatre in 1943, 1944 and 1945, providing fire to cover landings in the Marshall Island chain -- Saipan, Tinian and Guam. Herring and the crew were never fired upon during any of those battles.
But next up was the heavily fortified island of Iwo Jima. On Feb. 17, 1945, LCI 449 was assigned, along with a dozen similar craft, to protect and extract underwater demolition specialists who were scouting the approach to the beaches where invading troops would come ashore two days later.
Herring knew it was a highly dangerous mission. The LCI 449 and its small flotilla were sitting ducks.
"The Japanese knew we were coming sooner or later. The morning we went in, at 1,000 yards offshore they opened fire on us," Herring recalled.
Herring said it was all over in 45 devastating, horrific seconds.
"The first shell hit our forward gun and killed that entire crew. The second shell took out the other forward gun and killed that crew. The third shell hit the bridge. There were seven of us up there and everyone was killed but me," he recalled.
Almost instantly, 20 men on LCI 449 were killed and 21 wounded. The situation was dire. Herring's right foot was broken and left shoulder was dislocated and torn by shell fragments. Despite his injuries, he directed 40 mm and 20 mm gunfire at Japanese positions.
In addition to the casualties on deck, there were 14 crew members alive below in the engine room. But they had lost navigational control and the ship was foundering straight for the enemy beach.
Herring's Medal of Honor citation read, "Lt. Herring resolutely climbed down to the pilot house and, fighting against his rapidly waning strength, took over the helm and established communication with the engine room... When no longer able to stand, he propped himself against empty shell cases and rallied his men to the aid of the wounded; he maintained position in the firing line with his 20 mm guns in action in the face of sustained enemy fire as he directed his crippled ship to safety... His unwavering fortitude, aggressive perseverance and indomitable spirit against terrific odds reflect the highest credit upon Lt. Herring and uphold the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval service."
His war was over, but his dedication as a public servant was just beginning. While recovering from his wounds at a military hospital he got a good start on civilian life, meeting Navy nurse Virginia Lee Higgs and marrying her in 1947.
Herring settled into business in his hometown of Roseboro, North Carolina, joining his brother as a partner in a lumber business. They later opened a retail furniture business, and Herrring was later a partner in a feed mill and egg hatchery.
He was elected mayor of Roseboro in 1948-49 and was active throughout his life in civic affairs, veteran's organizations and raising three children.
He chaired the Sampson County Board of Education, served on the board of a bank and was president of the Lions Club. He served on the local Alcoholic Board of Control for eight years, and was a lifelong member of the Methodist church, which he served as treasurer and Sunday School administrator.
He was also appointed regional vice president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of the United States.
Though he never attended formal Davidson alumni reunions, he thought highly of the college. He participated in regional gatherings, donated to the annual fund and dutifully filled out alumni office questionnaires. Responding to a question asking for the most attractive aspect of Davidson in his day, he responded, "high scholastic rating and fellowship with high-type boys."
Herring retired from business in 1982, and continued to recall his war experiences regularly for media articles and talks to veterans groups. He was celebrated in many ways through the years, including receipt of the state's Long Leaf Pine citizenship award. A few months before he died in 1996 at age 74, the Roseboro National Guard Armory was dedicated in his name.