Thoughts on Memorial Day

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.

The Last of the Doughboys – Memorial Day 2010

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row…

This weekend we will again observe Memorial Day; a holiday first set aside to honor the fallen soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War, and which has since become a day to recognize all those who died in military service. Unofficially, the day is an occasion to honor all our nation’s veterans, especially those who have died, either in service or later in life.

Every Memorial Day I take a mental trip back to my hometown in southern Minnesota, where they have a community observance rooted in decades-long tradition, and of which, playing in the high school band, I always had a ringside view.

The day started in the cool of the morning with a parade forming for a march down Main Street. There would be a veteran’s organization color guard, followed by the band, scout troops, veterans groups, and Gold Star Mothers. After reaching the edge of town we’d hop in a bus for a short ride to the city cemetery a mile out of town. At the cemetery there would be a program which always included recitations of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” a speech by some area politician, and concluding with a firing squad’s salute and, of course, the poignant tones of Taps.

The elder statesmen of the veterans groups marching on those humid Memorial Day mornings were the World War I veterans, the Doughboys who went to France and added the needed surge of military energy to finally end the war on November 11, 1918. They were, in my youth, the civic leaders and established businessmen of our community. One of them operated the local theater where he sat in a tiny ticket booth, and inside, where his wife, my mother’s cousin, took our tickets and sold popcorn. Another of those veterans was the city manager and one of my first bosses when I had a summer job in 1959 digging ditches (really).

The last time I was back home over Memorial Day was over 30 years ago and the last few local veterans of the Great War rode down Main Street in the back of a convertible.
Those old veterans are now all gone, having taken their last rides down Main Street years ago.

In fact, of the 65 million or so soldiers, sailors and marines from around the globe who fought in that terrible war there are just, at last count, three veterans whose service is verifiable, all age 109, still living. Claude Choules, the last surviving seaman, joined the Royal Navy at age 15 in 1916. He moved to Australia after the war and later served in the Royal Australian Navy in WWII. Florence Green is the last female veteran and the last veteran living in the U.K. Frank Buckles is the last American veteran. Buckles served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front. He was held as a prisoner in WWII as a civilian. He lives in West Virginia. The last known person who fought for Germany in the war died January 1, 2008 at age 107. Canada’s last veteran, who lived in the U.S. after the war, died last year.

The poem, “In Flanders Fields,” was written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian Army physician who witnessed at first hand the horrors of war in the Ypres sector of the war. He wrote the poem the day after he personally conducted the funeral for a friend, a Canadian lieutenant killed in a bomb burst. Col. McCrae, himself, didn’t survive the war, dying of pneumonia in 1918.

Traditionally, we observed Memorial Day on May 30, but that changed to the last Monday of May in 1971, following passage of the Uniform Holidays Bill in 1968. Whether this holiday is the first holiday weekend of summer or the last holiday of winter, as it often is in Montana, let’s not forget those whom we honor this weekend.

…if ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.