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Memorial Day: A Time of Remembering

This weekend, we mark the annual celebration of Memorial Day.  Officially first recognized in 1868, it originally was referred to as Decoration Day (those of a certain age might remember their parents or grandparents making this reference) in honor of those souls who fell in battle during the Civil War. At that time, General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11, which designated May 30, 1868, as a day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” 

In the aftermath of World War I, the nature of the holiday expanded to become a day of remembrance honoring Americans who have died in all wars. The current three-day weekend, with Memorial Day falling on the last Monday in May, is the result of the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90-363) which ensured a three-day weekend for Federal holidays.

The downside to extended holiday weekends, like this, is the risk of diminishing the significance of the events being honored and the sacrifice of those who lost their lives defending our great country. Add to shopping the official kickoff of the summer season, and with it, the barbecues and other gatherings of families and friends, the sacredness of the holiday can fade into the background.

Perhaps we should take a moment to read of the experiences[1] of those who served in World War I, the war that ushered in the era of modern warfare, found on the site of The Western Front Association (WFA).  One story comes from Edward Lukens’ experience in the Argonne set forth in his Blue Ridge Memoir and recounted on the WFA site:

A kilometer of open field lay in front of us, the next ridge being crowned by the Bois des Ogons. We advanced at a steady walk… Boche plains [stet] circled over our heads … shells tore holes in the earth … time after time a big one would come tearing through the air, a dozen men nearest it would drop, a cloud of earth and smoke would appear and one would wonder whether of any of them had escaped. In an instant one would get up and then another … sometimes one or two would lie still.

We reached the edge of the Bois des Ogons … the planes had seen us … a perfect hail of shells landed among the trees ahead of us… we jumped up out of our scanty protection and plunged into the forest … going single file at five pace intervals so that a direct hit on one man would perhaps spare the man next to them.

I was leading the way with my runner Pvt. Symington about five paces behind me when a shell burst in the soft soil between Symington and me … only the interval and the softness of the soil saved us …. it was ten minutes before my ears stopped ringing.

Another story comes from a World War I soldier who was instrumental to ending the Second World War, President Harry Truman:

There is an old battery of 155 long guns across the road … I have a very large arched room which contains the battery kitchen. On one side I have a small room with a lot of maps and firing tables and other necessary Battery commander junk. On the other I have a sleeping apartment … I have a telephone right at my bedside so… I can be immediately informed. I have all the comforts of home except that I’ll have a habit sleeping underground that I’ll have to go to the cellar to sleep when I get home.

It is clear, whether fighting as an ally or as an enemy, the prosecution of war reduces to a very personal experience, one bringing immediate death or lifelong scars to the soul.

Unquestionably, our men and women in service died to preserve our way of life, which, in addition to our faith, law, history, culture, and values, includes our traditions, from baseball to barbecues and from rodeos to racing.  In enjoying those traditions, however, never let us forget that they came at a price: the ultimate sacrifice by those who fought for our nation. May those who died to keep us free be blessed.

[1] Stories recounted here are from “The Stories that Men Tell,” on the site of The Western Front Association located here:

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