An Online Memorial to an American Hero

shiftypowersI recently received an email that was quite touching and I thought worth sharing here (see below).  SSgt Darrell “Shifty” Powers served with the 101st Airborne Infantry Easy Company.  Anyone who has read Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers or seen the HBO hit series by the same name will recognize Shifty’s name.  Actor Peter Youngblood Hills portrays Shifty’s character on the HBO series.

SSgt Powers died at his home in Dickenson County, Virginia on June 17 at the age of 86 after losing a prolonged battle with cancer.  While the story was covered by several local news outlets in and around Shifty’s hometown in rural Virginia, the story and Shifty’s significance to American history seems to have been lost on the national media. 

The email I received was written by an individual who met Powers in a Philadelphia airport a couple of years before Shifty’s death.  After helping Powers confirm that he was waiting at the correct gate, the email’s author engaged in some small talk with the elderly man that led the author to discover that he was chit-chatting with a true American hero.  After recognizing the emblem of the 101st Airborne on Powers’ hat, the author quickly discovered that Powers was not only a World War II veteran, he was in fact a man of notable military experience and distinction. 

After circulating the internet, the email gained enough attention for several to seek the name of its author.  Originally attributed to General Chuck Yeager and even athlete Roberto Clemente, the author has been confirmed as Mark Pfeiffer, an average American with some knowledge of World War II history.  According to an article last month in Navy Times, after meeting Powers and digesting the significance of the opportunity to chat with such a notable American hero, Pfeiffer became a bit “overwhelmed” by the amount of media attention given to the death of Michael Jackson when compared to that of Shifty Powers.  As a result, Pfeiffer crafted his email which reminds readers of the significant sacrifices of SSgt Powers and those with whom he served. 

Pfeiffer wrote of Powers’ death in his email, “There was no parade.  No big event in Staples Center.  No wall-to-wall, back-to-back, 24/7 news coverage.  No weeping fans on television.  And that’s not right.”  Within days of posting his email which proposed an online memorial for this fallen hero, memorial pages began cropping up on sites all over the internet, including on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and other online networking sites. 

Several elements of this story strike me as particularly significant.  First and obviously, SSgt Powers certainly deserves recognition.  Without question his service to our nation is to be applauded.  Second, the speed and scope with which his story spread across the country is interesting.  From only one person recounting a chance encounter in an airport, Shifty has now received national attention.  At arguably no other time in our nation’s history has information been able to travel as quickly as it does today.  Third, Pfeiffer’s frustration with the volume of media coverage over the death of Michael Jackson when compared to the fanfare over the death of such a revered American military hero is something I have also experienced.  While the death of Michael Jackson is certainly tragic and while it is understandable why many would be saddened by the loss of “The King of Pop,” it does seem a strange juxtaposition when compared to the lack of media attention upon the death of Shifty Powers.

Without question the members of our nation’s armed forces deserve the utmost respect for the sacrifices they willingly make in the name of American freedom.  When a hero of the magnitude of Shifty Powers passes quietly in his home without so much as a mention on the national news circuit, it saddens me greatly.  Perhaps the best way to honor the life of Shifty Powers is to keep his memory and those with whom he served in the forefront of our minds while remaining supportive of those in our nation’s military who are serving today. 

Text of the email received advocating for an online memorial for SSgt Darrell “Shifty” Powers:

We’re hearing a lot today about big splashy memorial services.

I want a nationwide memorial service for Darrell “Shifty” Powers.

Shifty volunteered for the airborne in WWII and served with Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Infantry.  If you’ve seen Band of Brothers on HBO or the History  Channel, you know Shifty.  His character appears in all 10 episodes, and Shifty himself is interviewed in  several of them.

I met Shifty in the Philadelphia airport several years ago.  I didn’t know who he was at the time.  I just saw an elderly gentleman having trouble reading his ticket.  I offered to help, assured him that he was at the right gate and noticed the “Screaming Eagle,” the symbol of the 101st Airborne, on his hat.

Making conversation, I asked him if he’d been in the 101st Airborne or if his son was serving.  He said quietly that he had been in the 101st.  I thanked him for his service, then asked him when he served, and how many jumps he made.

Quietly and humbly, he said, ‘Well, I guess I signed up in 1941 or so, and was in until sometime in 1945…’ at which point my heart skipped.

At that point, again, very humbly, he said, ‘I made the 5 training jumps at Toccoa, and then jumped into Normandy…do you know where Normandy is?’  At this point my heart stopped.

I told him yes, I know exactly where Normandy was, and I know what D-Day was.  At that point he said, ‘I also made a second jump into Holland, into Arnhem.’  I was standing with a genuine war hero…and then I realized that it was June, just after the anniversary of D-Day.

I asked Shifty if he was on his way back from France, and he said, ‘Yes.  And it’s real sad because these days few of the guys are left, and those that are, lots of them can’t make the trip.’  My heart was in my throat and I didn’t know what to say.

I helped Shifty get onto the plane and then realized he was back in coach, while I was in first class.  I sent the flight attendant back to get him and said that I wanted to switch seats.  When Shifty came forward, I got up out of the seat and told him I wanted him to have it, that I’d take his in coach.

He said, ‘No, son, you enjoy that seat.  Just knowing that there are still some who remember what we did and still care is enough to make an old man very happy.’  His eyes were filling up as he said it.  And mine are brimming up now as I write this.

Shifty died on June 17 after fighting cancer.

There was no parade.

No big event at Staples Center.

No wall-to-wall, back- to-back 24/7 news coverage.

No weeping fans on television.

And that’s not right.

Let’s give Shifty his own Memorial Service, on-line, in our own quiet way.  Please forward this email to everyone you know.  Especially to the veterans.

Rest in peace, Shifty.

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