This past week began with the last Monday of May and consequently people throughout the United States observed Memorial Day. Ask friends, family and neighbors what they did over the weekend. Most will speak of cookouts, trips to the beach, or visiting their favorite summer time haunts for the first time this season. Local municipalities in all likelihood held a parade or other public event to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. But, this national holiday like many others has essentially devolved into another long-weekend allowing for rest, relaxation and partying. Traditional outdoor fun is expected and a poor weather forecast causes much consternation. The nation has in many ways strayed far from the original intent of the holiday. Some wonder why we memorialize those who died in military service at the end of May. Veteran’s Day is attached to the anniversary of the ending of World War One. I confess being under the illusion that Memorial Day must similarly coincide with the anniversary of the Second World War’s final resolution. Yet, surprisingly, the chosen date was selected for purely botanical reasons.
Memorial Day as a national day of mourning has its roots farther back than the wars of the early Twentieth Century. Growing up I remember my father staying up late watching old black and white John Wayne war movies. The mythos of the greatest struggle the world has ever seen reigned supreme. Most kids had toy army soldiers made of green plastic for the good guys and grey plastic for the bad guys. In college I was shocked to learn World War Two was not responsible for claiming the most American lives. Such dubious honor falls to a conflict entirely of our own making. The American Civil War is estimated to have claimed upwards of three-quarters of a million people. Considering the population of the country at the time was only around 35 million the number of lives claimed was staggering and far-reaching. I pause to consider this may have been the first time in the nation’s history war cemeteries of great magnitude were created. Even before the war ended communities on both sides were decorating the graves with flowers in May. The debate still rages amongst a score or more American towns and cities in regards to who started this practice. But, it is established that on May 5, 1868, General of the Grand Army of the Republic John A. Logan designated May 30 as Decoration Day. As to the earlier mention of botany, it is reported he chose the date because it would be a time of year when most flowers would be in bloom. It seems our general was a practical man who knew a thing or two about gardening. Not until 1938 was Decoration Day designated a national holiday and it was in the 1960’s when the name changed officially to Memorial Day. This made sense given much of the public already called the holiday by that name after 1945. A long weekend break was next guaranteed with the date of observance moved to the last Monday of May. Finally, President Johnson in 1966 waded into the controversy over the exact origins of the holiday by signing a proclamation recognizing Waterloo, NY as the birthday place of Memorial Day.
Now is it a bad thing to hold cookouts to mark the start of summer? I suspect not. Your average astronomer will surely point out, summer doesn’t commence astronomically until June 21. That’s a debate for another time. Memorial Day can be flexible enough to include a whole host of events serving a variety of purposes. We should remember until modern times summer was for humanity celebrated as a period of easy living. It was an age old symbol of health, happiness and abundance. If our ancestors fought to protect this boon for future generations then feasting and celebrating the advent of summer rightly aligns with remembering the debt we owe to those who died safeguarding it. Thankfully most labored throughout World War Two without sacrificing their life. My grandfather served during the war and survived to enjoy a long life passing in his sleep at the age of 80. I am grateful he was spared dying in battle. I like to think he would have risked his life if asked to. Yet, none of us know how we would react in eminent danger. I suspect there are a myriad of ways to show bravery. Placing the needs of others before yourself is probably key.
I have a keen interest in history. I enjoy learning about how I am connected to the past. With the advent of genealogical websites hosting vast databases of information more people are seeking to delve back in time to recover details of their ancestry. I applaud this. But, to truly connect with the names of past relatives one must understand how life was for them. I place my trust in the family stories, the details passed on, the facts that paint a more colorful portrait of the individual. Unfortunately, as in the same way the origins for celebrating Memorial Day have receded into obscurity, all too often the stories of our elders are forgotten. I find myself returning to what I know about my grandfather’s time of service in the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Air Forces. I cherish having the old photos in his scrapbook to peruse through. I can only wonder who exactly are all these people he knew. I am hoping one day to write a story loosely based on his experiences. Perhaps if I cast the net wide enough I will snare a few truths with good old fashion luck. I’ll never know in this lifetime if I hit the mark. To start this project I first endeavor to simply narrator what I know. With a bit of research I think I can reconstruct the circumstances of his life during the war.
Click the link below to read about my grandfathers experience during World War Two.