When I was a kid we called it Decoration Day, so named because it was the custom on May 30 to decorate the graves of Union Army soldiers. Some of those veterans were still alive in the 1930s and I can remember seeing these old men in their Grand Army of the Republic uniforms sitting in the back of open limousines duriing Decoration Day parades.
The Civil War had been over for 55 or 60 years, but the memory was still fresh in the minds of many. My maternal grandmother, for example, remembered sitting on the front porch when a neighbor boy ran across the lawn shouting the shocking news: "Lincoln’s been shot!"
Her father, Patrick Carlin, was so badly wounded at Bull Run that he never fully recovered from the saber wound in his shoulder. He spent his final years in the veterans hospital in Taugus, Maine, and died in 1875.
He was a home builder and had built one of the first houses on historic Brooklyn Heights, where George Washington had evacuated his defeated troops in the Revolutionary War, saving them to fight another eight years.
When the war started, he enlisted in what became the famous Irish Brigade. He had the material to build a house piled up in his back yard and fully expected to finish it as soon as he got back from what he thought would be a quick victory.
He told my great-grandmother when he left that he’d be back as soon as the army went down to Richmond and put an end to secession – a misjudgment shared by many of those who went off to a war they had no idea would last four terrible years and cost 600,000 lives – both Blue and Gray.
These were the men whose graves we decorated on May 30. Today we honor the memory of those Americans who fought and died in all our wars.
Many of the men who fought in that war had fathers and grandfathers who had served in the nation’s first great war – an eight-year-long conflict where raw, untrained, ill-equipped Colonial soldiers took on the mightiest army on the face of the earth, suffering defeat after defeat and enduring the most incredible hardships. They suffered for most of a decade and, to the astonishment of the world, emerged victorious.
Nowadays, these courageous men are scorned. Their commander, the Father of our Country, is derided as nothing but a slave owner and an aristocrat – one of those dead white Europeans who just happened to create a new nation, as Lincoln put it, "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," a nation unlike any other in the history of mankind. A nation whose people, the founders believed, were capable of self-government – a completely radical idea in the 18th century.
The debt we owe these men is beyond calculation. All that we have become since 1783 and all that we are today is due to their sacrifices and their faith that men deserved to be free and that that idea was worth dying for.
Four score years later, the nation tore itself apart in one of the most horrendous conflicts the world has ever seen, where brother fought brother in a bloody fratricidal war. We honor not only those who fell wearing blue, but also those who died wearing Confederate gray.
In the North, some towns lost an entire generation of young men, more than once in a single battle. It wasn’t all that long ago that names like Cold Harbor and the Wilderness made people’s blood run cold.
In 1918, Americans once again went off to war, this time in Europe. Few recall the horror of that conflict, forgetting that 136,516 Americans lost their lives during World War I, with another 4,452 missing in action.
Those of us who once wore Marine green recall with pride the men the Germans called Devil Dogs. We honor men like Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daley, who stood on a parapet above the trenches urging his Marines forward into a deadly no-man’s-land, shouting, "Cmon, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?" – a cry that typified the attitude of America’s fighting men at their best.
In World War II, 405,399 Americans lost their lives and another 78,976 were missing in action. The storied courage of America’s fighting men shone forth at the Battle of the Bulge, where our soldiers were surrounded, short of equipment and arms, without winter clothing and shivering in subzero weather, yet refused to budge an inch against the best the German Wehrmacht could throw at them.
It was seen at Tarawa and Iwo Jima, where thousands of Marines died fighting to take ground inch by bloody inch. Among them was Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who won the Medal of Honor for heroism on Guadalcanal for holding off hundreds of attacking Japanese with his machine gun, allowing his fellow outnumbered Marines to escape the onslaught.
On Feb. 19, 1945, after he volunteered to return to combat even though he was exempt from further front-line duty, he was killed by a Japanese artillery shell on Iwo Jima. Hours earlier, under heavy enemy fire, he had single-handedly destroyed an enemy blockhouse, earning him a posthumous Navy Cross.
Many call the Korean War the forgotten war, but the men who served in that bitter conflict will never forget the horrors of the frozen retreat from the Changjin Reservoir, where 20,000 beleaguered troops of the First Marine and U.S. Army Seventh Infantry divisions fought their way south for 80 miles constantly under attack by Chinese forces in late 1950.
Far from allied lines, cut off from land supply and suffering terribly from bitter cold, these divisions constantly faced annihilation by overwhelmingly superior numbers of Chinese. By the time they reached the evacuation port of Hungnam, they had suffered over 5,000 combat casualties and many thousands more from frostbite and illness.
In the Vietnam War some 58,000 Americans died fighting a war they were not allowed to win. Year after year, American soldiers, sailors and Marines endured some of the worst fighting ever experienced by U.S. armed forces, often against an unseen but deadly enemy.
They never wavered, fought with great courage and endurance, and were rewarded for their bravery by being scorned and even spat upon when they came home. As Michael Reagan once wrote, the next time you see a Vietnam veteran, go up to him and say "Thank You."
Americans died in Panama, on Grenada, during the first Gulf War, in Afghanistan and, most recently, in Iraq. Even today, our men are being shot at and killed.
That’s what Memorial Day is all about, and we must never forget it. We owe all of those who have died wearing the uniforms of the armed forces of the United States a debt we can only begin to repay by honoring them today and every day.
That’s the least we can do.
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