LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- The scarlet flags of the U.S. Marine Corps were unmistakable, flapping from cars and motorcycles which formed the funeral procession on Trevilian Way in the Highlands late Saturday morning.
The flashing lights of an approaching Jefferson County Sheriff SUV had prompted me to pull to the side of the road, where I stayed and watched the hearse, the matching grey funeral home limousine and dozens of cars, their hazard lights flashing, following each other closely.
I was driving my nine-year-old son, Sam, to a swim meet. As the procession's cars streamed by, I explained to him that we were pausing out of respect, a tradition my parents taught me by example when I was his age, a practice I frankly was concerned would frustrate the drivers who had to stop behind me, drivers who may not share that tradition. Thankfully, the drivers of two pick-up trucks just ahead of me had made the same decision.
I told Sam about the Marine flags and I silently wondered who was being carried to their final resting place.
Was it a young Marine, perhaps a recent veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan whose injuries, physical or psychological, had finally proven to be too much?
Was it a veteran from Vietnam or Korea, who perhaps only in death was receiving a belated tribute?
Perhaps the hearse carried one of what NBC journalist Tom Brokaw aptly described as The Greatest Generation, one of the 16 million Americans who served in the Second World War. According to the Veterans Administration about one million World War II veterans are still alive today, most in their nineties. We are losing them at the rate of 555 per day.
The eyes of a boy slightly older than my son met mine as he sat in the back of the limousine which passed by, a dark tie on a white shirt. I thought of the countless families who have taken a similar journey. I thought of the people who touched my heart when they stopped their cars out of respect for my sister's funeral procession last year.
I am moved by the simple and powerful message the U.S. military conveys when one of their own dies. When my Marine Corps veteran uncle, Paul Blim, died in 2003, a Marine planted his knee on the astroturf below the family tent next to his grave and invoked the stirring tribute:
"On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.”
The family of this Marine - once a Marine always a Marine (I am reminded by USMC viewers) - would surely receive this same honor.
Later Saturday, I searched the obituaries of Owen Funeral Home, which I noticed had handled the funeral.
My heart sank.
The Marine was Sgt. Maj. Tom Crump, one of a handful of Pearl Harbor survivors in Louisville who had shared his WWII experience with me in my first year as an anchor at WHAS11.
Crump died on Tuesday, July 8.
In 2001, I arranged for the veterans to watch the new movie Pearl Harbor with me at its Louisville debut, then tell me if the movie reflected their experience.
We met at one of the veterans' homes. I will never forget what I saw in the driveway as we pulled up, Tom Crump, then 80 years old, dressed in his Blue Dress Uniform as if he was newly commissioned. He spoke of his Marine Corps service with passion, eloquence and humility.
"It was the most traumatic thing I have ever witnessed in my life,” Crump told WHAS11 in 2012. When the Japanese attacked, Crump was standing guard on the dock next to the USS Pennsylvania directly across from “Battleship Row.”
“I was absolutely scared to death," Crump said. "When you see bodies blown apart and bodies on fire during a situation like that, it stays in your gut for the rest of your life.”
The best word to describe Crump's motivation in relating his memories of December 7, 1941 is "duty."
The Marine Corps motto is "Semper Fidelis," Latin for "always faithful."
"It guides Marines to remain faithful to the mission at hand, to each other, to the Corps and to country, no matter what," the U.S. Marine Corps explains on its website. "Becoming a Marine is a transformation that cannot be undone, and Semper Fidelis is a permanent reminder of that. Once made, a Marine will forever live by the ethics and values of the Corps."
Crump's Marine Corps service spanned 30 years, enlisting when he was 19 years old in 1940. After Pearl Harbor, Crump's World War II service extended to the Guadalcanal campaign and the Battles of Bougainville, Pelileu and Okinawa.
After stateside assignments, Crump returned to combat in Korea in 1953.
In 1964, he became a USMC recruiter in Louisville and in 1967, Crump opened the first JROTC program in the U.S. at Seneca High School.
Maj. Crump felt he owed to those who never came home to share their story. In countless talks to school groups, civic organizations, the public and the media, he was faithful to the end.
Originally not knowing whose funeral procession I witnessed, it fulfilled the purpose of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, to honor all who have served and sacrificed.
My son never met Tom Crump, but I will tell him about him, and I hope when he is old enough to drive, he will pause for the funeral procession to go by.