Monday, May 27, 2013

Celebrating Memorial Day

by Nancy McCammon-Hansen

Whether by the grace of God or the luck of the Irish, my father was on deck the morning the U.S.S. Lexington was torpedoed and sunk in the Coral Sea by the Japanese on May 8, 1942. As a shipfitter, he often worked far below the aircraft carrier’s flight deck, but that day he’d been summoned “up top”. He never forgot it.

Over the years, this Navy veteran changed his opinions on the nature of war. At one time he was a “love it or leave it” kind of guy. But then the baby of one of his employees was born with massive disfigurement and the doctors said it was because of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Then there was Tailhook, which brought about a disgraceful piece of history to the Navy. So his views changed with the times and events but he never forgot the sacrifices of many of his friends.

In 1984, he and my mother started the Avenue of Flags at the Kearney (NE) Cemetery and for this they received a Freedom Award from the Kearney Hub in 2002. The project is a reminder of what Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, is really about. Families donate casket flags from military funerals of veterans in the area and these flags are placed on tall poles throughout the cemetery from Saturday morning through the early evening of Memorial Day. Smaller flags and markers are placed at graves of those who served in the military, the auxiliaries of military organizations and the local volunteer fire department.

This year, for the first time, my father’s flag flew at the cemetery. His was the first one hoisted onto the flagpole to begin the weekend.

Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War where it is now estimated our nation lost about 750,000 soldiers, more than all of the other wars we have fought combined. In 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), established “Decoration Day” to honor the Civil War dead. The date May 30 was chosen, it is believed, because flowers would be in bloom throughout the country.

This national celebration was inspired by local celebrations and several cities have taken credit for having the first Decoration Day events. “….several cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, including Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois. In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo--which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866--because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.”
On that first official “Decoration Day”, many met at Arlington National Cemetery near the veranda of what had been the home of General Robert E. Lee. Arlington is just across the Potomac River from our nation’s capital and one of the most impressive cemeteries you will ever see, only eclipsed by the cemetery at Normandy in France.

“Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. James Garfield, then a general, spoke and “5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.”
Gen. Logan had declared earlier, “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
In the early 1900s, Memorial Day was established as an ongoing tradition. After World War I, the intent of the day was expanded upon to include anyone who had died in an American war. Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971 and placed it the last Monday of May.
“Many Southern states also have their own days for honoring the Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe it on May 10, Louisiana on June 3 and Tennessee calls that date Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January 19 and Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day.”
Each Memorial Day, Americans are encouraged to “pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time” for a minute of silence to remember the fallen who died in service to our country. The National Moment of Remembrance Act, P.L. 106-579, was established in December, 2000 and signed into law to create the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance.

In the Parade article “War and Remembrance”, Drew Gilpin Faust is quoted as saying, “What’s striking is how everybody everywhere felt the need for a moment of reflection, so I like to think of Memorial Day as being created together by a nation rather than a single town or individual. You have to remember that probably half the Civil War dead were never identified because there were no dog tags or official next-of-kin notifications. It was a shared loss in the sense that so many dead belonged to everyone because they weren’t identified as belonging to any single one. These were also not the kinds of deaths that society believed were appropriate at the time. They were gruesome and happened far from home. Death without dignity imperiled the meaning of the life that proceeded it, so a day for memorial was meant to restore the dignity of those lives, underscore the contributions that had been made, and in some way ratify how important the courage and sacrifice had been. It was an important part of the nation’s mourning.”

My thanks to Lori McCammon-O'Brien for her photographs.

Sources for this article:

Drew Gilpin Faust is a historian and Harvard president and the author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Thorndike Press, 2008

“War and Remembrance”, Parade Magazine, May 26, 2013, page 14

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