Letter | In remembrance of Islander Hu Riley
November 8, 2011 · 4:21 PM
The glorious colors of falling leaves are an annual reminder that even in death there is beauty. Death reminds us of the splendor of those who have left us. Death triggers warm memories of those who have touched our life in wonderful ways.
One such individual was Huston Riley. This Mercer Island resident was best known for his patriotism. Along with countless others, Hu was part of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. War photographer Robert Capa took a picture of Hu that became an iconic image of “the longest day.” Uniformed for combat, the 22-year-old Mercer Islander is seen pushing his backpack and weapon in the water.
NBC correspondent Tom Brokaw interviewed Hu at his home on North Mercer Way. The man revealed was a humble person who (like so many of that greatest generation) was a bit embarrassed by the attention given him. He, like the others, believed he was only doing what was expected of him. The appropriate response of a nephew expressing gratitude to an Uncle who had provided him with a way of life worth preserving.
I determined I wanted to get to know this Islander who represented a disappearing breed of patriots. Hu was only too willing to meet for coffee. He signed copies of the famous photo for my three daughters. I signed an original poem I had written for him. As we sipped our Tully’s, he gave me an insight into what uninvited celebrity feels like.
Two years ago on Veterans Day, Hu was hospitalized. I showed up with a little smile and miniature American flag. After a short visit, I offered a brief prayer. It was a sacred moment as we asked God for His help in time of need.
Three decades ago, a poem called “Footprints in the Sand” was popular. It celebrated the evidence of God’s presence in our lives during hard times. As I contemplate Hu Riley’s life, I think of another set of footprints in the sand. They belong to him (and those like him) who left evidence of courage and patriotism on a bloody beach in France. They are footprints we’d do well to follow when our freedoms are held hostage by fear.
This past June 6, I called Hu to reiterate my gratitude for his example. I had no idea it would be the last time we’d talk. I will miss his voice.
Pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos