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by Debra Roark Mourning
What began as a family reunion, ended with the fulfilment of a promise made 61 years before. On Sunday, June 29, 2003, during a patriotic program held at Central Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas, Louis Roark finally received the Silver Star medal awarded to him in 1942.
"The pages of American history are filled with the stories of our country's heroes..." began the speaker. "But most are ordinary people like you and me who, for whatever reason, found themselves with a choice to make...and they chose the sometimes difficult, often dangerous, but right thing to do. There are heroes in this very room. This is the story of just one."
He went on to tell the story of Louis Roark, the eldest in his Irish-American family of five brothers and one sister, who left his home in Gypsum, Kansas in the Autumn of 1940 to join the Coast Artillery. Little did anyone know that by the Winter of 1941-1942, our country would be embroiled in a war like none other. That April, as enemy planes rained an artillery hailstorm over Corregidor and the soldiers below, Louis looked up and saw the American flag slowly descending down its staff. A shell fragment had struck the flagpole and snapped the halyard in two. Fearing the Japanese would misunderstand the reason for the disappearance of the flag, Commanding Officer Huff called for volunteers. Louis and three of his mates jumped to their feet and ran through the barrage of enemy fire. With shells exploding all around them, Louis and one of the other men climbed the pole to make the necessary repairs. Just then dive bombers swooped down upon the island with the flagpole once again in their sites. The boys held fast to the pole and closed their eyes. The bombs missed their target. The flag was hoisted up, and the soldiers ran back to shelter. The troops would not lose hope...not this night...not on their watch.
Rescuing the flag didn't bring anyone back to life—at least physically. But the spirit of a battalion was resurrected that day. To those soldiers, never had these words been more inspiring or rang as true: "...the rocket's red glare, the bomb's bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there."
But then came a day when lives would be saved by Louis. It was at the end of April 1942 during another fierce attack, when several of his comrades lay wounded and exposed near a gun emplacement. Louis and a fellow soldier ran to help. Making their way to the disabled men, without regard for their own safety, they helped evacuate the fallen men several hundred yards through the continuing barrage to an aid station.
Back home, Louis' family huddled around the radio as a reporter announced Louis Roark would be receiving the Silver Star for his heroic efforts. Later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt talked about the incident during one of his fireside chats. But the good news was soon shattered when the family learned that Corregidor had fallen and our troops had surrendered to the Japanese. At just 24 years of age, our young hero was taken to a work camp in Manchuria where, for the next 3-1/2 years, he would be held a prisoner of war. His tearful mother sat by her radio awaiting news. In the window hung a four-starred banner, signifying the number of sons she had fighting overseas.
Nearly four years later, when Louis finally made it home, he learned that General Jonathan Wainwright had awarded him the Silver Star for his efforts in rescuing the flag. But he never actually received the medal. For years the family tried to obtain it, but to no avail. Then, in May 2003, Louis' niece made one last attempt and contacted U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt who was able to acquire in just a little over one month, not only the Silver Star medal, but several other medals as well. It was discovered that Louis had also been awarded the Bronze Star, a Prisoner of War medal, and the Philippine Liberation medal. But the biggest surprise of all came when they found that a second Silver Star had been authorized to Louis for the rescue of his fallen comrades.
The family quickly rallied together and Louis was told there was to be a reunion in Wichita the last weekend in June. His brothers and sister, nieces, nephews, and cousins came from Washington, New York City, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. After a weekend of enjoying one another's company, the family attended a musical celebration of Independence Day at a local church. Louis, then 85 years old, was completely unaware that he was to be honored that night. At one point in the program a lone bagpiper played "Amazing Grace," then slowly walked down the aisle as the speaker began to tell the story of a young soldier from Kansas...the story you have just read here. Halfway into the story, he stopped reading and out from the shadows at the back of the auditorium stepped a drill sergeant who bellowed, "Sgt. Louis A. Roark...Atten-HUT!" Surprised and speechless, Louis rose and walked to the stage as the crowd of 3,000 jumped to their feet and cheered. Four of his younger brothers (all of whom served their country in the armed services) and one sister—J.D. from Albuquerque, NM; Jesse of Topeka, KS; Ray from Los Lunas, NM; Irene from Ellensburg, WA; and Keith of Wichita, KS—followed behind him and, as each medal was presented, pinned the medals to his shirt. Another brother, Lt. Col. Carl Roark, was unable to make the trip due to ill health.
When asked about the evening's presentation Louis said simply, "That old flag don't mean much when you see it every day, but when you miss it for about 3-1/2 years, why...it makes you appreciate this good old country of ours."
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