Memorial Day weekend is coming up; the weekend most people across the country generally regard as the first holiday of the summer season. Here in southwest Montana, we’ve learned that, often as not, it’s the last holiday of the winter season.
So, if you’re planning on an outing this weekend, my advice is make sure to pack cold weather clothing, rain jackets, cocoa mix and makings for a big pot of chile, because the biggest challenge for the weekend will be keeping warm and dry.
Let’s hope I’m wrong.
And let’s not forget that a weekend of camping and fishing is not what Memorial Day is all about. Decoration Day, the forerunner of Memorial Day, was, in 1868, set aside to place flowers on graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1873, New York was the first state to recognize the holiday and by 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. Southern states refused to acknowledge the day until after World War I, when the holiday changed from honoring Civil War dead to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.
Traditionally, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. In 1971, the last Monday in May became the date for the observance.
A couple weeks ago we attended the funeral for a member of our church, a World War II veteran who survived 165 consecutive days of combat in the Philippines and lived to the age of 87, long enough to become a great-grandfather, something he likely didn’t even dare to dream about during those long-ago days when he was under fire.
During the service my mind wandered to those last survivors of the First World War. Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of the Great War died this past February.
Just this month, Claude Choules, the last surviving combat veteran of the Great War died at age 110 on May 5. Mr. Choules was a seaman in the Royal Navy and witnessed the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow in Scotland. He stayed in the Royal Navy after the war and after a training assignment in Australia he transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and continued to serve until age 55.
In his 80s, Mr. Choules took a creative writing course with the plan to write family memoirs. He established some sort of record by publishing his autobiography at age 108. Despite a long record of naval service, in his later years he declared himself to be a pacifist and refused to participate in any events glorifying war.
While Claude Choules was the last surviving combat veteran, another Briton, Florence Green, also age 110, is the last service member of that war. Ms. Green was a waitress in the Women’s Royal Air Corps.
April marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, and I have to confess it made me feel old. I remember, during my high school years, the death of the last Civil War veteran, Albert Woolson, a drummer boy in that bloody conflict. I was a senior in college when the nation observed the centennial of the beginning of the war and the college orchestra did a concert of music from that era.
In the late 1960s, I had the opportunity to interview a centenarian who was a veteran of the Spanish-American War. He was a feisty old man who recalled military training camp, “We marched around a lot, but never went to Cuba; the war ended and they sent us home.” He was incensed because his auto insurance was canceled when he reached 100. “I’ve got a brand new Cadillac sitting in my garage and can’t use it,” he complained.
Now, we’re saying farewells to the heroes of my childhood, the veterans of World War II. Of the over 16 million Americans who answered the call, there are less than two million still living, survivors in their late 80s or early 90s.
While Memorial Day is set aside to honor the fallen, we honor those living veterans while we still can.