Memorial Day Reflections

A field of poppies.

This coming Monday is Memorial Day, the holiday established after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers. It expanded to include the fatalities from World War I, and now honors the dead of all wars.

Memorial Day is different than Veterans Day, the November 11 holiday that honors all who served, living or dead.

Many people wear poppies on Memorial Day, a custom going back to World War I, as poppies were among the first plants to grow and blossom on the bloody European battlefields. Poppies were the inspiration for a poem by Canadian soldier, John McCrae, “In Flanders Field.” The poem begins, “In Flanders Field, the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row…”

Memorial Day is always a day I remember in connection with being in the high school band in my Minnesota hometown. We were always a part of the parade going down Main Street, on our way to the city cemetery, the final resting place of many Civil War veterans, as well as just about all adults from my childhood, and everybody in-between.

The parade included Scouts (both girls and boys), veterans groups, Gold Star mothers, and a convertible or two carrying the community’s oldest veterans. When I was a kid that meant Spanish-American War veterans.

At the cemetery, the standard routine had high school students reciting “In Flanders Field,” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Some politician, sometimes our congressman, would give an address. The ceremony ended with trumpeters playing Taps.

The weather, more often than not, was hot and steamy, and it was a relief to get back to school where we could peel off our heavy all-wool uniforms. Typically, we’d already had high school graduation by then, so that when we were done, we were done for the school year and could begin summer vacation.

While Memorial Day officially honors those who died on our battlefields or from injuries incurred in battle, in recent years I’ve been tracking the dwindling numbers of the 16 million men and women who went to war during World War II.

Now, all those veterans are in their 90s or are centenarians. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were around 558,000 still living as of September 2017, and they’re dying at the rate of about 362 every day.

Of the 464 military personnel awarded the Medal of Honor, 266 posthumously, there are just four survivors, including Douglas Munro, the only member of the Coast Guard to ever receive the honor.

While Memorial Day honors the fallen from our wars, I note some notable World War II veterans, the last of that Greatest Generation, who are still with us. That list includes a few surprises, such as Moshe Arens, Israeli politician and diplomat, and Prince Michel of Bourbon-Parma, a French businessman and part of the long-deposed French royal family, both of whom served in the U.S. Army.

Other notable survivors include columnist Russell Baker, entertainer/civil rights leader Harry Belafonte, actor and comedian Mel Brooks, lawyer Benjamin Ferencz, who served in the Army, and became a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Trials. He’s the last living Nuremberg prosecutor.

There are women in the ranks, including Rosemary Kuhlmann, an opera singer and Broadway actress, who served in the Navy, and Rosemary Rodgers, who was a WASP pilot for the Air Force.

Among athletes are baseball players, Red Schoendienst and Dodgers pitcher, Carl Erskine. Johnny Lujack, the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner and NFL coach, Marv Levy are among football players who served.

Leaders in public life include President Jimmy Carter, Senator Bob Dole, South Carolina governor and Senator Ernest Hollings, Minnesota congressman and governor Al Quie, and Secretary of State and Nobel Laureate Henry Kissinger.

Among the oldest survivors are Internal Revenue Commissioner under President Kennedy, Mortimer Caplan, and actor Kirk Douglas, both 101.

As we enjoy this first holiday weekend of summer, or the last holiday weekend of winter, as it often is here in Montana, take time to remember the sacrifices of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in wartime, as well as those who survived and excelled in civilian life.

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