A Day to Remember by Gil Potts
Seems like just yesterday we were busy preparing for Christmas. Clearing the snow and ice from the sidewalk, a warm sweater, a hot drink, enjoying the company of good friends and family. But all of a sudden, the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, it’s 80 degrees outside and the calendar says we’re well into the month of May, and we’re all looking forward to a three day weekend at the end of the month.
While Christmas and Easter are recognized as two of our most important Christian holidays, and regardless of our religion, those seasons are celebrated by nearly all of us here in America. But, there’s another holiday approaching that many of us, just like Christmas and Easter, have forgotten about the “reason for the season.” I’m talking about Memorial Day.
The last Monday in May (this year, the 27th) is Memorial Day, a holiday celebrated throughout the United States with backyard barbecues, a long weekend at the lake, music festivals, picknicks, outdoor games and sports, and of course, children running through the sprinklers for the first time of the summer season. That’s all fine and good, but unfortunately, many of us have forgotten, or maybe never really knew, the true reason for this holiday. As a veteran, I’d like you to think of Memorial Day as much more than just a three-day weekend and a chance to get your first good sunburn of the year.
For proper perspective we have to go all the way back to the 1860’s and the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers gave their lives. It was a time of unprecedented carnage and loss of life. The effect on families and communities throughout the country was devastating, and led to spontaneous ceremonies nearly everywhere, to honor the dead.
Union hero, Major General John A. Logan, as commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, set aside May 30, 1868 "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.
Although the holiday was first known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags, the name Memorial Day actually goes back to 1882. Federal Memorial Day was established in 1888 and allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day's pay. For the general public, the holidays were enacted state by state. New York was the first to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday, in 1873. Most Northern states had followed suit by the 1890s, but the states of the former Confederacy were rather “unenthusiastic” about a holiday memorializing those who, in General Logan's words, "united to suppress the late rebellion." The South didn't adopt the May 30 Memorial Day until after World War I, by which time its purpose had been broadened to include those who died in all the country's wars and had become generally known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. It wasn’t until 1967 that Federal law declared "Memorial Day" the official name for the holiday, but even so, many still referred to it as Decoration Day.
In 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday of the month, and Memorial Day became more generally accepted as the official name of the Holiday.
In the small community of Arlington, Virginia, located on the outskirts of our nation’s capital, lies what has become recognized as America’s most hallowed ground. Arlington National Cemetery, has been the focal point of national Memorial Day commemorations since 1868 when President Ulysses S. Grant presided over a crowd of more than 5,000 people. The principal speaker was James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, Republican congressman from Ohio, and future president.
"If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung," said Garfield.
As the songs, the speeches, and the sermons ended, the participants helped to decorate the graves of both the Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
Since 1948, troops of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment—the Army’s official ceremonial unit known as the “Old Guard”—have placed small American flags in front of all the tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery. Each flag is planted precisely one foot in front of a grave marker and perfectly centered. Last year, 1,700 soldiers participated in the tradition known as “Flags-In.” They planted approximately 220,000 flags on the Thursday evening before Memorial Day, and were removed at the holiday’s conclusion.
Today there are more than 400,000 souls interned at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the Tomb of the Unknowns. The inscription on the Tomb reads, "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." be the Tomb of the Unknowns, was established at Arlington to inter the remains of the first Unknown Soldier, a World War I fighter, on November 11, 1921. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War subsequently were interred in the tomb on Memorial Day, of 1958.
An emotional President Ronald Reagan presided over the interment of six bones, the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier, on November 28, 1984. Fourteen years later, those remains were disinterred, and thanks to the process of DNA testing, he was no longer unknown.
The once-unknown fighter was Air Force pilot Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, whose jet crashed in South Vietnam in 1972. Lieutenant Blassie was reburied near his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. His crypt at Arlington remains permanently empty.
In 1988, 2500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day weekend for the first Rolling Thunder rally to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action or prisoners of war. By 2002, the ride had swelled to more than 300,000 bikers, many of them veterans. There may have been as many as a half-million participants in 2005 according to a national veterans group, and Rolling Thunder organizers. Rolling Thunder takes its name from the B-52 carpet-bombing runs during the war in Vietnam.
As you might know, Taps, the 24-note bugle call, is played at all military funerals and memorial services. It originated in 1862 when Union General Dan Butterfield "grew tired of the 'lights out' call sounded at the end of each day." According to The Washington Post, together with the brigade bugler, Butterfield made some changes to the tune.
Not long after, the melody was used at a burial for the first time when a battery commander ordered it played in lieu of the customary three rifle volleys over the grave. The battery was so close to enemy lines, that the commander was worried the shots would spark renewed fighting.
As you now know, the Memorial Day Holiday has its roots firmly established in the American Civil War, but it is perhaps the World War I poem, "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrea, which most venerates the many thousands of fallen soldiers we honor on what to me is a sacred holiday. This poem inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. In 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for "keeping the faith with all who died." The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars for many years.
It was in the year 2000, that Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. "is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday."
This year on Memorial Day, and for the years to come, it is my hope that you’ll consider it not just a holiday, but a day of Honor. You can respect and honor those fallen hero’s by remembering.
Now, I’d like to end with the reading of:
In Flanders Fields
BY Lt Colonel JOHN MCCRAE, MD 1872 – 1918
a late member of the Canadian Army
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Please remember, it is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half - staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.