Who Do I Remember on Memorial Day?
By Jeff Salter
It feels a bit odd to write about Memorial Day three days after-the-fact.
Transitioned from Decoration Day (when the graves of Union and Confederate dead were ‘decorated’) Memorial Day was first intended to honor those individuals killed in battle. Eventually – and unofficially – it came to honor all deceased veterans, no matter how or when they died. And now (among some), it’s hardly distinguishable from November’s Veteran’s Day (though, that holiday also has changed quite a bit).
My point? Since people have widely different views of Memorial Day’s purpose/significance, they also might have varied emotional investments in the activities of this ‘holiday’ … which (for many, these days) is merely a three-day weekend.
Of course, whenever someone at a podium calls for veterans to stand (to be ‘recognized’), I quietly and proudly rise among my colleagues. It wasn’t always so. I was on active duty at a time (1971-74) when military men and women were NOT honored by many in our own country. When I was on leave, I never wore my uniform … anywhere. The Vietnam era was divisive for our nation … so I was hugely gratified to see the way MOST of our citizens rallied around the military during the first Gulf War and in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military men and women DESERVE that kind of support.
My family veterans
Anyway, whenever veterans are honored, I always think of my paternal great-grandfather who fought with the Confederates but was captured and held prisoner by Union forces. I remember my maternal grandfather – who died the same year I was born – who fought in France during World War I. Those are the only two relatives (I know of) who were actually in combat.
But, of course, I also think of my own father — who enlisted in 1943, went through extensive training, was accepted for OCS (and commissioned). As a lieutenant, he was assigned to lead a mortar platoon. Eventually, he shipped out to Europe but arrived on V-E Day and never saw ‘action’.
I had a beloved uncle in the Navy who spent much of his overseas time on the Majuro Atoll, in the Marshall Islands. Another uncle was in the Navy Seabees and help build air strips on some Pacific island I don’t even know the name of. Another uncle I never met was in the Army in some capacity.
On my wife’s side: I remember my father-in-law — who enlisted in 1944 and was shipped to the South Pacific. My wife’s grandfather was a Marine during WW I. She also had an uncle at Hickam Field during the attack at Pearl Harbor, another uncle in the Battle of the Bulge, and an uncle who flew the P-47 fighter.
So I always think of these family men whenever veterans are remembered and honored.
The two world wars created mind-boggling numbers of casualties. Some nations lost what amounted to nearly an entire generation (or more).
In WW I, there were about 8.5 million military deaths, including over 900,000 from Great Britain and some 51,000 Americans.
During WW II, approximately 19 million military personnel were killed, including nearly 400,000 from America and some 280,000 from Great Britain.
And I wonder, near a day like Memorial Day, who remembers most of those millions?
[My source: http://necrometrics.com/20c5m.htm#Second ]
What of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guardsmen, and merchant marines — who died during their wars … or who passed away after years of coping with disturbing images of death and destruction?
What of those military KIA who left no one behind to mourn (or remember) them on days such as this?
Departed this life too early
This week, in addition to remembering deceased veterans I’m connected to, I pause to honor those anonymous millions who departed this life too early and could not leave offspring to think of them over subsequent generations. I pay tribute to those who were robbed of their futures by the terrible circumstances they faced and the awesome duties they performed.
On Memorial Day this year, I briefly stand (as surrogate) in a place which their potential ‘offspring’ might have stood … and I salute them. They gave all.
A different angle
Yes, this column is a somber change of pace from what I usually post here. But the original Decoration Day is actually a very solemn recognition. And even the current Memorial Day observance is one which, I believe, demands a certain reflective reverence.
As a writer, I think it’s appropriate to look at things from different angles. For our characters to be multi-dimensional, they should not always have the same vantage point.