A veteran's tribute — Remember why we have Memorial Day
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This tribute is from a veteran who lives in Peachtree City.]
Memorial Day is upon us once again. It’s a national holiday which serves to memorialize and honor those who died in military service or service to their country. To most Americans it’s a three-day weekend which kicks off the beginning of summer with family barbecues, neighborhood picnics, trips to the beach, or just time spent at home relaxing.
The origin of Memorial Day is not quite as idyllic. It came about as a result of the horrific losses suffered during the Civil War. Although the war was fought almost 150 years ago, and we have fought many other conflicts including two World Wars since, its 620,000 dead makes it the costliest war the United States has ever fought.
The fallen soldiers of the Civil War were scattered throughout the country. There were Union soldiers interred throughout the South as well as Confederate soldiers buried as far north as Gettysburg. Once the war ended many families were unable to discover the time and place of their loved ones’ death let alone where they might be buried. Fallen soldiers were usually buried where they fell and the graves may or may not have been marked.
Once the war ended the country was trying to move forward and put the last five years of bloodshed and heartache behind it. There were no graves registration personnel skilled in search, recovery, and identification of remains. It was not uncommon to find Union soldiers buried in hometown Confederate cemeteries and vice versa.
This is where the story of Memorial Day begins. One of the most common accounts starts with a group of grieving women adorning the graves of some fallen Confederate soldiers with flowers – “decorating the graves” — in the spring of 1866.
Located in the same small cemetery were the graves of several unknown Union soldiers. Their plots were in disrepair and neglected. Knowing that these young men were somebody’s father, brother, or son, the women decided to care for and decorate the graves of these fallen soldiers as a small step towards restoring normalcy. This idea slowly caught on and began to spread across both the North and South.
In 1868 General John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Union Forces, issued a proclamation declaring the first national Decoration Day. On that day he directed that all the graves of the fallen were to be decorated with the flowers of springtime. In 1882, the name was changed to Memorial Day. Eventually Memorial Day became a national holiday celebrated on the last weekend in May.
Many communities have memorial services and parades on this day. There are service organizations that decorate all the graves in our national cemeteries with flags or flowers. Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., has a weekend full of ceremonies.
However, unbeknownst to most Americans, there are 24 American military cemeteries scattered throughout the world. These cemeteries contain the graves of almost 125,000 fallen Americans. These fallen Americans, who as Lincoln said at Gettysburg “... gave the last full measure of devotion,” eternally rest far from home and their families.
During the First World War the United States suffered about 70,000 killed. These men and women were buried overseas on foreign soil. After the armistice was signed, the U.S. was faced with the task of locating, identifying, disinterring and returning all the war dead. This appeared to be a rather straightforward task until former President Teddy Roosevelt made an unusual request.
His son Quentin, a pilot, was killed in France and the Roosevelt family wanted him to remain buried where he died. The intent of the War Department back then was to bring everyone home no matter the cost or effort. As the Roosevelt story grew, the War Department started to hear from more and more families also wishing for their family members to remain where they had fallen.
Eventually, about 65 percent of families wanted the remains returned while 35 percent chose to leave their loved ones buried where they had fallen. This amounted to about 30,000 dead.
The process of collecting and returning the remains soon began. At the same time a decision was made to establish eight overseas cemeteries located primarily in France to bury the dead. Congress created the American Battlefield Monuments Commission (ABMC) in 1923 to administer and manage these cemeteries.
The ABMC chose none other than General Black Jack Pershing, the Commander of American Expeditionary Forces in France during WWI as its administrator. Ironically, the man whose orders and decisions resulted in many of these deaths was now responsible for the eternal care of their remains.
The smallest of these cemeteries has only 368 graves and is located near Flanders Field, made famous by the poem of the same name. It contains 10 graves of men who were actually killed on the very last morning of the war. The Meuse Argonne American Cemetery is the largest American Military Cemetery in Europe with 14,246 graves, including nine Medal of Honor (MOH) winners.
One of these MOH winners was Corporal Freddy Stores, who was awarded the medal posthumously. He is the only African-American MOH recipient of WWI. American poet Joyce Kilmer was a doughboy killed in action and is buried at the nearby Oise-Aisne cemetery. The first lines of his most famous poem begins,”I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.”
During the years between the wars the ABMC worked diligently to establish and maintain the eight overseas cemeteries. Many Americans traveled abroad for the first time in order to visit their fallen sons and daughters. The cemeteries were immaculately maintained and became a tourist site for not only Americans but many Europeans as well.
Unfortunately, world events about this time began to evolve and eventually we were going to need many more overseas American military cemeteries; 14 more to be exact, and this time they were going to be needed throughout the world.
America’s involvement in World War II lasted about four years during which time approximately 16 million Americans served in the armed forces, roughly one out of every 10 people. The death toll at war’s end was 400,000.
Just about everyone in the country knew somebody who was killed during the war. When the war ended the U.S. was faced with the same decision it had faced at the end of WWI: Do we repatriate the war dead or leave them were they had fallen?
Most of our Allied partners, the United Kingdom for one, had a long-standing policy of not returning war dead. The families were asked to express their wishes.
Interestingly, once again, about 65 percent of the families wanted their loved ones returned while 35 percent wanted them to lie where they had fallen.
However, the problem of collecting, identifying, and returning the war dead this time was was far more complicated and presented many more difficulties. The number of dead was more than four times greater than the number of WWI dead and they were spread around the world. The Graves Registration Service (GRS) had a monumental task in front of them.
It took GRS personnel over two years of exhausting, tedious, and sometimes morbid work before the first Liberty ship, SS Connolly, sailed home in October 1947 with 6,248 fallen aboard. The process of repatriation would last years. However, the ABMC still faced many years of unfinished work. They had commissioned 14 cemeteries in eight different counties; the smallest in Rhone, France with just 861 graves and the largest in the Philippines with 17,206 graves.
The war in the Pacific spanned thousands of miles with countless battlefields, sunken ships, aircraft wreckage, and the accompanying temporary cemeteries and graves. The ABMC decided to move all the Pacific war dead to Manila. The Manila American Cemetery is the largest of all the overseas American cemeteries.
In addition to the over 17,000 dead the cemetery features a Wall of the Missing which contains 36,282 names, two-thirds of all the missing Americans of WWII. Five of the names on the wall belong to the Sullivan brothers, all lost on the same day when the USS Juneau was sunk in battle.
Western Europe has the most number of cemeteries and perhaps the best known, the Normandy American Cemetery. The cemetery has over one million visitors a year. There are 9,387 graves and a Wall of the Missing with 1,557 names.
I have visited here many times and it is a truly remarkable place. One visit during a cold, windy day in November, I arrived and began walking among the graves. The flag was snapping sharply in the breeze as if to get my attention. I stopped for a moment, looked around, and suddenly realized I was the only person there; the only American standing amongst the 9,387 of my fallen countrymen and women. I stood there for a minute or two wondering how many stories this field of honor held. It was then I decided I would visit each and every grave in the cemetery before I left that day, all 9,387. What an incredible journey I was about to undertake.
The cemetery is laid out so that all the graves face west – towards home. It was one of the first temporary cemeteries laid out just days after June 6. Each grave is marked with a white marble headstone, a Star of David for those of the Jewish faith, a Latin cross for all others.
Each stone is is etched with the name, rank, date of death, military unit, and state. Of the 9,387 graves there are 149 Stars of David and 307 graves with no names, the graves of the unknown. Etched upon their headstones is the inscription: Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.
There are 41 sets of brothers buried here. Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, a WWI pilot is buried next to his brother, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt. Quentin is the only non-WWII era casualty interned here. He was the youngest son of former President Teddy Roosevelt while Theodore was his oldest brother. The former President’s family asked for a special accommodation – that Quentin’s body be moved so that the two brothers might rest together. The ABMC agreed.
General Roosevelt is also one of three Medal of Honor recipients buried here. The other two are Lt. Jimmy Monteith, KIA on D-Day and Sgt. Frank Peregory of the 29th Infantry Division. The Niland brothers are buried here too. These are the brothers upon which the movie, “Saving Private Ryan” was loosely based.
They were both directly involved in D-Day and were killed within a day of each other. A third brother was missing and presumed dead in the Pacific. The family was notified of the loss of all three brothers almost simultaneously. This prompted the Army to send the remaining brother home. Fortunately, when the war ended the missing brother was discovered in a Japanese POW camp alive and came home.
There is a father and son buried here too. Colonel Ollie Reed was killed in July 1944 in Normandy. His son, Lieutenant Ollie Reed, Jr., was killed in the same month in Italy but was moved to join his father after the war upon the request of his mother.
The most senior ranking officer is four-star General Lesley McNair, killed by friendly fire in July 1944.
There are 14 civilian Merchant Mariners buried here. Able Bodied Seaman Paul Oscar Hilden was killed aboard the Liberty ship SS Charles Morgan, sunk by an aircraft bomb right after D-Day off Utah beach.
Interestingly, there are four women buried in the cemetery, and three of them happen to be African-American soldiers: Army Sgt. Dolores M. Browne, PFC Mary J. Barlow, and PFC Mary H. Bankston. They were members of the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion, killed in a jeep accident.
Their unit was the only all-black female unit (about 800 women) stationed outside the U.S. The other woman is Elizabeth Richardson. She was college educated and worked for the USO driving a USO Clubmobile, a mobile canteen, which served soldiers hot coffee and doughnuts. She was killed near Rouen, France in a 2-seat aircraft accident piloted by Sgt. William R Miller. Sgt. Miller is buried in the row directly behind her.
On June 6th there were 19 soldiers killed storming the beaches all from the same, small, rural hometown of Bedford, Virginia. Its population in 1944 was about 3,200. Bedford suffered the greatest per capita loss of any town in America on that day. Eleven of the 19 dead soldiers are buried here.
Whenever somebody I know plans on visiting this cemetery I always ask them to do me a personal favor. I ask them to visit and place a small bouquet on the grave of Tech 4 Donald J. Knapp. No, he’s not a relative or friend, just a fallen soldier who never made it home. He happens to be buried in the most remote corner of the cemetery, probably the least visited grave of all.
I get teary-eyed and choked up every time I visit that hallowed place. Standing there far from home among the dead and missing makes me realize how fortunate I am. My family made it through the war successfully.
I, too, am a veteran. We were all just one step away from joining these honored dead and resting in a cemetery just like this. The lives of those soldiers were cut way too short and I, for one, cannot forget their sacrifice.
Please remember on this Memorial Day we are still engaged in fighting in the Middle East, and unfortunately, the list of the fallen is still growing.
But, you don’t have to travel afar to honor the fallen. If you can’t make it to a national cemetery, the next time you are at the Atlanta airport, take the train from the main terminal to Concourse A, and ride the up escalator. Once you get off the escalator take a moment to glance overhead at the ceiling.
There you will see a rotor blade from a Vietnam-era helicopter. Next to it is a picture of Warrant Officer Francis McDowall, Jr., an Army pilot, from Lawrenceville, Georgia. He didn’t make it home either.
Freedom isn’t free. I wish you well this Memorial Day.
Peachtree City, Ga.