🇺🇸 Monday – Memorial Day 2018 🇺🇸
It was a long road from Decoration Day to an official Memorial Day.
Although the term Memorial Day was used beginning in the 1880s, the holiday was officially known as Decoration Day for more than a century, when it was changed by federal law. Four years later, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 finally went into effect, moving Memorial Day from its traditional observance on May 30 (regardless of the day of the week), to a set day—the last Monday in May. The move has not been without controversy, though. Veterans groups, concerned that more Americans associate the holiday with first long weekend of the summer and not its intended purpose to honor the nation’s war dead, continue to lobby for a return to the May 30 observances. For more than 20 years, their cause was championed by Hawaiian Senator—and decorated World War II veteran—Daniel Inouye, who until his 2012 death reintroduced legislation in support of the change at the start of every Congressional term.
One of the earliest commemorations was organized by recently freed slaves.
As the Civil War neared its end, thousands of Union soldiers, held as prisoners of war, were herded into a series of hastily assembled camps in Charleston, South Carolina. Conditions at one camp, a former racetrack near the city’s Citadel, were so bad that more than 250 prisoners died from disease or exposure, and were buried in a mass grave behind the track’s grandstand. Three weeks after the Confederate surrender, an unusual procession entered the former camp: On May 1, 1865, more than 1,000 recently freed slaves, accompanied by regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry) and a handful of white Charlestonians, gathered in the camp to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union dead. The group sang hymns, gave readings and distributed flowers around the cemetery, which they dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
We’re all aware that Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, but Congress has also established an exact minute of remembrance. The National Moment of Remembrance Act, which was adopted in December of 2000, encourages every citizen to pause each Memorial Day at 3:00 p.m. local time to remember the brave men and women who died serving this country. In addition to any federal observances, Major League Baseball games usually come to a stop during the Moment of Remembrance, and for the past several years, Amtrak engineers have taken up the practice of sounding their horns in unison at precisely 3:00 p.m.
“Taps,” the bugle call typically performed at military funerals as well as the annual Memorial Day wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, was actually adapted from a separate Civil War bugle call known as “Scott Tattoo,” which was used to signal lights out. The new melody later became the preferred accompaniment at military funerals after Captain John Tidball of the Union Army alert nearby Confederate troops to their location.
I found some stories about those who served. I thought you might like as much as I did.
First is an oldie but still a goodie.
Memorial Day: A Time for Heroes
In this Guideposts classic story, a teenager learns the importance of Memorial Day.
I leaned against an oak at the side of the road, wishing I were invisible, keeping my distance from my parents on their lawn chairs and my younger siblings scampering about.
I hoped none of my friends saw me there. God forbid they caught me waving one of the small American flags Mom bought at Ben Franklin for a dime. At 16, I was too old and definitely too cool for our small town’s Memorial Day parade.
I ought to be at the lake, I brooded. But, no, the all-day festivities were mandatory in my family.
A high school band marched by, the girl in sequins missing her baton as it tumbled from the sky. Firemen blasted sirens in their polished red trucks. The uniforms on the troop of World War II veterans looked too snug on more than one member.
“Here comes Mema,” my father shouted.
Five black convertibles lumbered down the boulevard. The mayor was in the first, handing out programs. I didn’t need to look at one. I knew my uncle Bud’s name was printed on it, as it had been every year since he was killed in Italy. Our family’s war hero.
And I knew that perched on the backseat of one of the cars, waving and smiling, was Mema, my grandmother. She had a corsage on her lapel and a sign in gold embossed letters on the car door: “Gold Star Mother.”
I hid behind the tree so I wouldn’t have to meet her gaze. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her or appreciate her. She’d taught me how to sew, to call a strike in baseball. She made great cinnamon rolls, which we always ate after the parade.
What embarrassed me was all the attention she got for a son who had died 20 years earlier. With four other children and a dozen grandchildren, why linger over this one long-ago loss?
I peeked out from behind the oak just in time to see Mema wave and blow my family a kiss as the motorcade moved on. The purple ribbon on her hat fluttered in the breeze.
The rest of our Memorial Day ritual was equally scripted. No use trying to get out of it. I followed my family back to Mema’s house, where there was the usual baseball game in the backyard and the same old reminiscing about Uncle Bud in the kitchen.
Helping myself to a cinnamon roll, I retreated to the living room and plopped down on an armchair.
There I found myself staring at the Army photo of Bud on the bookcase. The uncle I’d never known. I must have looked at him a thousand times—so proud in his crested cap and knotted tie. His uniform was decorated with military emblems that I could never decode.
Vietnam War Story
A candy striper’s Lily of the Valley-scented letters represented a sliver of saneness for Marine Bill Young, who, at the time, was a machine gunner in Vietnam.
“When the mail came in, it was a big deal; it was your only connection with the real world,” Bill recalls, nearly 49 years later. “You’d get these letters, and they’d have a perfume smell.”
Newburgh, Indiana, native Nancy Market was the sweet-scented sender. She didn’t know Bill at first, only that he was the weapons platoon leader of a friend of hers “in country.”
“I’m a senior, almost a student nurse, 18 years old, black hair, brown eyes, and 5’ 4 ½” tall,” she wrote in letter one. “P.S.: “Write when you have time—”
Bill stayed busy in battle: search and destroy, snipers, ambushes, air strikes, VC that “melt away” in the mist, the retrieval of body parts of men he knew. But he found time to write during spurts of calm that were flanked by the flashpoints of war.
“I waited for his letters! I was very excited,” recalls Nancy. “I might go a week without getting a letter, and you just didn’t know. He might’ve been killed. I read where the average life span of a Marine Corps machine gunner was two weeks.”
Nancy’s letters to Bill arrived by chopper. The anxious glance for an Evansville postmark. The onion skin envelopes crinkling with freshness in the jungle heat, delivering sweet daydream relief within otherwise nightmare. He’d read her words: “I went down to the river Tuesday night and watched the annual fireworks. Beautiful is all I can say to describe the color, the breathtaking pride I felt thinking of you and the rest of the men who are fighting to make July 4th fireworks possible for us at home.”
For Memorial Day, One Veteran’s Story
On Memorial Day, we honor those who died while serving their country. But how should those who don’t have personal connections to such losses commemorate their sacrifice? The Library of Congress’s long-standing Veterans History Project suggests talking to veterans, and paying tribute to the legacy of service and sacrifice by listening to their stories.
The Veterans History Project, created by Congress in 2000, currently holds 97,620 collections of veterans’ stories—audio interviews, pictures and documents—ranging from World War I to the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 57,000 of the accounts are from those who served in World War II, as Congress mandated that older veterans’ stories be gathered first. One of those stories belongs to my grandfather, Eric L. Strauss, who passed away in March 2011.
My grandfather was never forthright with his story—being Jewish in Nazi Germany, escaping to America and fighting a brutal war against his home country. A strong, silent type, he chose to shield his children and grandchildren from the horrors of his experiences and bear the painful memories alone. But when approached by the Veterans History Project, he came to understand that history is not merely a recitation of past events. Rather, it is a collection of thousands of individual stories, each with a unique vantage point. By exploring individual stories like his, future generations can better understand the realities of war.
On Memorial Day, those who made the ultimate sacrifice in battle cannot tell their stories. But we can get closer to understanding their experiences by listening to the stories of veterans whose lives were touched by their service.
Bless you all and may this day be filled with family love and remembrance.