Fanfare for the Common Man (see link below) premiered this month in 1943, when Aaron Copland presented the world with those solo trumpet notes that pierced the hearts of his fellow Americans—citizens who couldn’t know that they were only half way through the horrors of World War II.
I can never hear this music without stopping mid-thought or mid-sentence to listen, and visualize a March morning decades ago, the first few rays of sun breaking over the horizon, Old Glory on her way up flagpoles across the land, service flags with their blue and gold stars in the windows of every house. Milkman delivering his clanking bottles, farmer chugging his way out to the fields, mother off to the factory in support of the war effort, children dressing for school. Brother in basic training, father abroad in a muddy trench.
The common man loomed even larger in my mind this week after a visit to the Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, where I learned about Sergeant Elbert E. Legg, a young Graves Registration Specialist. Graves Registration Specialists, or Mortuary Affairs Specialists as they are known today, deploy around the world in war and peacetime to conduct the important mission of insuring that the fallen are properly identified, returned to their families, and properly buried.
Born the eldest of 11 children in Clay County, West Virginia, Elbert Excell Legg attended a one-room schoolhouse, and was studying agriculture at West Virginia University when World War II changed his plans.
His unit was not scheduled to land in France until days after the invasion. The Army knew that the death toll to establish the beachhead would be high, but when estimates began to circulate of 10,000 American bodies, Legg volunteered to fly in a glider with the 82nd Airborne Division to participate in the invasion on June 6, 1944.
His plane crash-landed behind enemy lines in a field in Normandy. Unharmed, he immediately began to mark off a temporary cemetery in a nearby field. Sergeant Legg had never touched a dead body prior to D-Day, but in the first 24 hours, he processed more than fifty bodies—glider personnel, paratroopers and infantry. Frenchmen from the nearby town dug graves and helped bury the soldiers. He processed hundreds over the next few days. Seven days later, a portion of his unit joined him and by the end of the month, 6,000 Allied troops and hundreds of German soldiers were interred in this field.
Who raises the children and feeds the family?
Who makes the machines? Who runs them?
Who marches off to war? Who returns in defeat or victory?
Ordinary and extraordinary times alike are peopled with common men and women. Aaron Copland knew that, and in 1943 he presented this fanfare to honor them. Elbert Excell Legg – this one’s for you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLMVB0B1_Ts