By Tom Lockie, updated 5-27-23
So, the grill is going, friends and family are gathered, and a good time is being had by all. As it should be. Through the smoke of that charred burger on the grill (lol), the more subtle but ever-so-important scent lingering is the smell of freedom. Take a quiet moment to savor it. Purchased by the very lives of people each of us know, it’s the real reason you’re standing here today with those who matter most gathered around you. It’s a day steeped in ultimate personal sacrifice and gratitude.
A history of Memorial Day (https://www.usmemorialday.org): Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of our country. It’s difficult to prove the origins of this day, as over two dozen cities lay claim to being the birthplace. In May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson stepped in and officially declared Waterloo N.Y. the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Regardless of the location of origin, or the exact date, one thing is crystal clear—Memorial Day was born of the Civil War (which ended in 1865) and a desire to honor our dead. On the 5th of May in 1868, General John Logan, who was the national commander of the Grand Army of the republic, officially proclaimed it in his General Order No. 11.
The General proclaimed, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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.” Because the day wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle, the General called it Decoration Day.
On the first Decoration Day, 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington Cemetery while General James Garfield made a historic speech.
New York was the first state to officially recognize the holiday in 1873. It was recognized by all northern states by 1890. The South refused to acknowledge the day and honored their dead separately on different days. This went on until after World War I, when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.
With the Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363), it is now observed on the last Monday in May by almost every state.
In 1915, John McCrae, an Army physician, felt compelled to pen the poem “In Flanders Fields” following the second Battle of Ypres, in response to his walk through a French cemetery filled with the white crosses of the countless fallen.
In Flanders Fields
John McCrae – 1872-1918
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In 1915, inspired by the poem, Moina Michael replied with her own poem:
We cherish too, the Poppy red,
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies,
That blood of heroes never dies.
Ms. Michael then conceived the idea to wear red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers, with the money going to benefit servicemen in need (Red Poppy).
Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms. Michael. When she returned to France, she made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphans and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. In 1921, the Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later, and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help.
Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later, their “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.
Memorial day history couldn’t be complete without the birth of the “National Moment of Remembrance”. The resolution, passed on Dec 2000, asks that at 3 p.m. local time, all Americans “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps’.”
As I personally reflect on the significance of Memorial Day, I’m reminded of many memories close to home. On the night of May 3rd, 1945 my Dad (1924-1996) arrived back at his parents’ home after surviving as the Aircraft Commander (Captain) and Flight Leader of a B-17 with a crew of 10. He had just completed 35 missions over Germany while based in England.
He brought everyone home alive and against all odds, since the B-17 suffered extremely high casualties during WWII. While reading his logbook, it became apparent his “plane did not fare as well”, as he noted in typical understatement for his personality and generation. The next day after returning home, May 4th of 1945, he celebrated his 21st birthday.
It wasn’t until a weekend visit and dinner with a small group of soon-to-graduate USAF Academy Cadets in the Spring of 1979 that my father began to tell stories for the first time of his days in the Army Air Corps and the B-17 missions he flew. The stories were harrowing and at times funny. I think we closed the place down that night—a night I’ll never forget. From two grandfathers serving in WWI—the war to end all wars—to uncles in WWII and Korea, to cousins in Vietnam, and to a sister and brother-in-law in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with two nephews currently serving, our family has served this country in peacetime and war, doing so in the spirit of selfless service exemplified by those who’ve gone before us.
Ours is not an unusual story; in fact it’s one of many woven together to form the fabric of this great nation. So, as the smoke clears from that BBQ this weekend, let’s not forget to take a moment to remember the fallen. Thank you for “keeping the blue side up”, “keeping your powder dry”, and “never ringing the bell”. We shall never forget. For giving your last full measure of devotion, we are indeed a grateful nation.
Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”
Tom Lockie is the Transportation and Travel Editor for the Citizens Journal Florida. A veteran and recently retired airline Captain, Tom considers aviation and travel his ongoing passions . Tom is a published author, featured in the USA Today for his children’s book “Come Fly with Me“.