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.
Sobering statistics, Jeff. Sigh. I give thanks to you and all who help protect us.
Thanks, Laurie. I’m an amateur historian of military matters and have read extensively on both world wars. But even knowing as much as I know about them ( especially WW 2), I’m still staggered by the huge loss of life.
And I’m deeply humbled by the sacrifices made by previous generations so our nation’s freedoms had a chance to survive.
Jeff, it’s appropriate to depart from the usual to commemorate all the lives lost in defense of our freedoms. Thanks for the somber pause.
Thanks, Chris. I worried that it would be such a ‘downer’ to discuss this … but such sacrifices are both sad and uplifting.
As I walked home after work today in the bright sun, I saw a few score of young men in dress uniform. For a moment, I wondered what was happening then I remembered that today was the funeral of a young man from my town who had been killed by an IED (or rather by the people who laid that weapon of indiscriminant destruction). Two of Caerfyrddin’s young men have lost their lives in recent months. The least we can do is remember their sacrifice and honor their memories.
Very true, Leigh, it’s the least we can do.
Thanks for stopping by today.
Jeff, if we fail to reflect on the somber price of freedom we can never appreciate it fully. It’s come at a cost dear to every generation, and should never be cheapened by mediocre recognition–or no recognition because people are uncomfortable facing the horrific aspects of war.
As a Marine Corps mom, daughter of a WW II Seabee, granddaughter of WW I Army soldier, and great-granddaughter of a Confederate soldier buried at Beau Voir in Biloxi, I salute every soldier, living or dead, who has paid for my freedoms. Bless every single one of you.
We used to drive past Beauvoir on the beach highway everytime we went to Biloxi to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins. I don’t actually remember ever stopping, but I’m sure we must have done so at least once. It was certainly beautiful from the highway. I can’t remember if Hurricane Camille damaged it or not.
Thanks for commenting, Runere.
Beautiful, for sure, and so much history contained inside. It was damaged pretty badly, but the foundation withstood Katrina winds and water so the main house remained standing. A fact so amazing that while the foundation was still exposed architecture and engineering students came from all over the country to photograph and study its construction.
It has since been restored and is open again for visitors, and hosts Fall Muster for Civil War reinactors. It’s extra special to me b/c when Dad was alive, he was the paint contractor for Beauvoir. To maintain the home’s historical integrity, much of the work had to be done by hand, with special tools and special paint. If I came up missing while helping him, I could be found studying the “Newest Technology” in the medical section of the museum. (One particular bone saw always set me on edge. Think it was more of that Irish energy reading woo-woo stuff. lol)
I’m glad to hear Beauvoir has been rescued and restored. I’d love to have another chance at it someday.
Great post, Jeff.
I know I have relatives that fought in the Civil War, but my relation with them (paternal vs. maternal, etc) I can’t at the moment remember. I do know they were Confederates. It is one of my to-do list projects that I want to further investigate as I find it fascinating. Especially since I love to write stories set during the Civil War.
More recently, my paternal grandfather retired a master sergeant of the US Air Corp. He fought in WWII and the Korean War. He survived 8 airplane crashes and 1 helicopter crash, seeveral of these were in combat. He also survived two raid raids, hiding in the ammunition bunker during one of them. On top of that, he survived a hostile takeover of their airstrip in the Philippines, taking the lives of a Japanese officer and two of his men in his escape. The man hid in the jungle until the US gained control again. He was lucky, for sure. And he reminded everyone who ever met him of John Wayne. It was cancer that eventually took his life.
Every Memorial Day, I drive out to see him and put a flag on his grave. I miss him dearly!
Thanks, Jenn, for posting that fascinating brief story about your grandfather. I hope somebody in the family has more of his war-time recollections … somewhere. The generations which follow you need to know of the dangers he faced and the sacrifices he made.
Thank you so much for your service to the USA! I salute you.
My own paternal grandfather is a veteran of WWII. He served as an MP in several locations (Italy being one of them). He’s thankfully still alive.
One of my cousins on my mom’s side recently (I think last year?) got an HONORABLE Discharge from the Marines. He served in Iraq and was nearly missed by a sniper. I’m grateful to his service and that his life was spared. He’s thankfully alive and well.
I think on a daily basis of my nephew serving as a Marine in a very dangerous area (he’s almost been hit numerous times). Hopefully he and his unit get to come home safely and alive later this year.
My thoughts and prayers are with people like Lance Cpl. David (don’t know his last name off the top of my head) who was just 19–a fellow Marine to my nephew. His mother had to go and receive his body and bring it home for burial. Nobody thought he would die. I read an article on him by my sister (my nephew’s mother wrote it–she has a column in a local newspaper about being a mother of someone in the military).
I also remember the people who died in “friendly fire” out there where my nephew is. There was a training exercise of some sort and some of the Marines got hit and died from the “friendly fire”. It’s very sad. God bless them and their families and friends.
God bless our troops, their families and their friends. I pray for them on a daily basis.
Thanks for posting, Bethany. Yes, the poorly-named ‘friendly fire’ is a tragic reality of so many battles and other actions. Sometimes because of poor ‘intelligence’ about enemy locations, or confused coordinates, or other miscalculations. Sometimes much more personal: like a sentry mistakenly shooting a comrade in the dark.
There were also many lives lost in ordinary training exercises … but those don’t get talked about much (except the Slapton Sands episode on the coast of England when they were practicing for D-Day).
Day late and dollar short! Sorry, I’m at a conference and down time is so hard to find.
We always visit family graves and especially my uncle who is buried in a veteran cemetary. We love going there on Memorial day. All the beautiful flags, and men in uniform brings a tear to my eyes each time. I love that my children get to witness such a wonderful sense of patriotism! I love it! I love that we honor our military. Plus I have a couple cousins in our current war, over seas, and they are always in my prayers.
Thanks for stoppping by, Tonya … and any time is fine with me.
I’m very glad to hear that your kids are experiencing this and that they see how much it means to you. It will be in their blood.
Hope everything’s fine with you.
For me, retirement is everything it’s cracked up to be.
I too don’t celebrate Memorial Day,but venerate it, and remember.
Having been a naval petty officer at about the same time as your service, I also remember
the shabby treatment we all received at the hands of many of our fellow Americans.
And, like you, it pleases me to see our young men and women (my son and my son-in-law among them)
recognized for the sacrifices they have made.
I remember my dad on Memorial Day, surviving the war in the Pacific as an army mortarman (!).
I remember him not for his prowess as a gunner or his rise to NCOIC of the mortar section,
but for his part in three episodes occurring on Luzon in the Philippines in the first week of February 1945,
during which he voluntarily engaged in what the citation calls “front-line recovery of the wounded while under fire.”
The first time, he went with a group.
The second time, he went with one comrade
The third time, he went alone.
Have a good summer, Jeff.
Fellow retired bibliofile (Is that spelled right? It’s hard to keep up!)
Thanks for visiting, Mel …and great to hear from you.
I’m moved by what your father did on Luzon.
And thanks for your military service to our nation, Mel. As I recall you and were the only veterans in that class … besides the Dean. Right?
Well, Dr. Patterson was an Army vet from the Korean Conflict. Don’t recall if Dean Foos was a vet or not.
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