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Here’s an Idea…Visit a Memorial or Monument for Memorial Day This Year!


One of the most shocking areas to visit in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is the memorial to those who were missing in action or were lost in naval battles and were either buried at sea or went down with their ships or aircraft. “In these gardens are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and whose earthly resting place is known only to God. | * indicates Medal of Honor award.”

Historically, when I wrote an article regarding Memorial Day, I would publish it during that weekend or as close to the actual day as possible. I chose to take a slightly different approach with today’s post as I am hopeful that I can perhaps influence one or more readers to depart from the weekend getaway plans for camping, fishing, boating, hiking, etc. altering them to include an activity that would cause them to remember and reflect upon their own freedom and that for some American families, this particular holiday is but a painful reminder of the cost of freedom.

An airman poses next to a wrecked American Sherman tank on the shore of Saipan in 1944. This tank remains in place, nearly 75 years later.

When the guns fall silent and the now grizzled and weary combat veterans return home from war, time begins to erode the harsh realities the combatants lived and breathed on the field of battle. As the memories become distorted and faded, faces of those lost in combat are difficult to recall. Though, for many the scars never heal. The battle remains as vivid and crisp throughout the decades. But for the citizens who remained on the home-front, all is easily forgotten.

On the now-silent battlefields of the world wars, reminders can still be found even as the surrounding environment engulfs and enshrouds them. On land and in the surrounding waters of some South Pacific islands, visitors can still locate relics of war. Artillery shells and plane crash sites dot the landscape in places like Guadalcanal and Peleliu. Carcasses and hulks of tanks and AMTRACs (amphibious armored tracked vehicles or LVTs) remain partially or entirely submerged in the reefs of Saipan and Tarawa. But these are far from permanent or honoring remembrances.

The Guadalcanal American Memorial was dedicated in 1992 as a tribute to American and Allied troops who lost their lives in the Guadalcanal Campaign. (Image courtesy of Solomons Scouts and Coastwatchers Trust)

Throughout the many years and decades following the American Civil War, veterans were drawn, compelled by lingering painful memories, returning to the battlefields to retrace their bloody footprints and to reunite with others from their units who were following their own compulsions. By the early 1900s, full-blown reunions were happening in places like Gettysburg as once youthful, sworn enemies came together as aged friends. These old veterans, motivated by their efforts decades earlier, began raising funds with the idea to erect monuments and memorials to commemorate their units’ deeds and to remember those lost during the conflict. Today, there are countless monuments located at the various battlefield sites as well as spread throughout the nation, particularly within the participating states.

The final resting place for the majority of the men who were killed at the Little Big Horn battlefield site is marked with this granite obelisk which contains the names of the men who are interred beneath it.

As the United States has sent men (and women) off to war throughout the last century, the tradition of erecting memorials and monuments has continued both on foreign soil (with local consent and cooperation) and domestically. With the assistance of the military, the American Battle Monuments Commission, state and local governments,  and various veteran service organizations, monuments have been erected in all fifty states as well as within several U.S. territories. 

I make a point of locating local monuments to remind myself that the statistics that are easily found on the internet are more than that to the people of their hometowns. Names etched in stone or cast in bronze are reminders of the very personal cost of war. Sons (and now daughters) who will never return home to their families and loved ones – their names are displayed that we will never forget.

Some local monuments have national significance as they are symbols of the rally-cries – “Remember the Alamo!” “Remember the Arizona!” – that took us to war. In San Antonio, the Alamo mission is faithfully preserved. At Pearl Harbor, the Arizona Memorial sits astride the sunken ship, recalling the Day of Infamy. In my hometown, a small, nearly forgotten memorial stands as a reminder of war that most of my generation have no knowledge of.

“Remember the Maine!”
In a local park, there stands a small pedestal holding a ten-inch naval gun shell that was removed from the sunken armored cruiser, USS Maine (ACR-1).  The sinking of the ship was an impetus that vaulted the United States into a war with Spain, two months later (though the cataclysmic explosion that that destroyed the Maine remains a mystery that some experts believe could have been merely a crew-caused mishap or accident).

At my city’s War Memorial Park (interestingly, the Maine monument is not located here), a large bell hangs with the name of a navy ship and the date of which the ship was commissioned, cast into its face. Very few details are known about this ship, only that it was a protected cruiser and that it was lost when it became entrapped on a reef near Vera Cruz, Mexico, breaking apart in a heavy storm. The ship, named for this city, was commissioned in 1903 and served in World War I, ran aground lodging herself on a reef as it approached the port in 1924. Some suspect that the navigation aids marking the channel had been moved by Mexican revolutionaries. The commanding officer of the ship, Captain Herbert G. Sparrow, gave his life, refusing to leave the ship, hopeful that the USS Tacoma could be saved. Along with the captain, four radiomen lost their lives while the rest of the crew had been evacuated under the orders of the captain.

Some collectors I know, spend lifetimes attempting to bring home the uniforms, medals and other militaria items as they assemble displays to honor their hometown heroes, utilizing the names etched on their local monuments.

This memorial Day, along with paying respects to those lives who were lost in service to our nation, I encourage you to locate the monuments and memorials in your local areas and pay a visit to at least one:

As you will note, the above list has nothing from the Korean or Vietnam wars as there are only a handful that exist throughout our country. As the planning for the Iraq and Afghanistan War memorial is planning and development (it was approved by Congress a few years ago), it seems that our nation is truly forgetting about those from the most recent conflicts and becoming increasingly indifferent towards service men and women and our veterans. Apathy and complacency becomes animosity and sadly our nation is already in the early stages of that transition.

Viewing the original mooring quay that the USS Arizona was tied to (when she was attacked) from within the memorial.

Collecting, preserving, researching and documenting military artifacts is another vehicle by which a small segment of the population honors those who served. This passion can serve to maintain the face of the veteran in conjunction with the sacrifice and service. Monuments and memorials provide communities with a focal point with which to assemble and remember the many generations of our fellow citizens who never returned home to their families. Memorial Day serving as a vehicle with which to re-center our citizens’ understanding of service and self-sacrifice and the very real cost of freedom.

I emphatically encourage Americans (natural born, naturalized and would-be citizens) to embrace this nation’s history. One of the best ways with which to learn about the sacrifices that were made throughout our nation’s founding and preservation is to visit the monuments and memorials dedicated to those who gave their last full measure of devotion that we all would live and cherish our freedom.

The USS Arizona Memorial is lighted at dusk with the USS Vincennes (CG-49) moored across the South Channel at Hotel Pier.

The original source of the cliche’ that is often repeated on Memorial and Veteran’s Day, “Freedom is not free,” seems to be author-less. However, it is my belief that the origins of that thought stem from yet another oft-recycled excerpt from a letter penned by Thomas Jefferson (on November 13, 1787 to William S. Smith):

“..what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Granted, Jefferson was referring to rebellion and revolution, however the sentiment applies to the restoration of freedom in foreign lands and the preservation of it for our own. The blood of patriots has been spilled since our nation was founded recommencing with the War of 1812 on through to present day. Standing on the hallowed battlefield grounds within our shores, once can gain a sense for the horrors of war an the sacrifices made by our great grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.  This heritage belongs to all Americans, despite their nation of origin. Along with their freedom, they also inherit the history and legacy that is represented by the memorials and monuments found within our nation’s cemeteries, battlefields and public spaces, located domestically and abroad: American Battlefields and Monuments Commission: Cemeteries and Memorials.


Other related Veteran’s Collection articles:

Memorials and monuments references and resources:

“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

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Decorating Sacrifice: Honoring Our Fallen


Most Americans have no connection Memorial Day, their heritage or to the legacy left behind by those who gave their lives in service to this country.

Most Americans have no connection Memorial Day, their heritage or to the legacy left behind by those who gave their lives in service to this country.

This weekend, we Americans are being inundated with myriad auditory treats, such as the sound of burgers and hot dogs sizzling on the barbecue grill, the roar of the ski boats tearing across the lake, the rapid-clicking of fishing reels spinning, or the din of children playing in the backyard. All of this points to the commencement of summer and the excitement-filled season of outdoor activities, vacations and fun. The bonus is that we get to extend this weekend by a day and play a little harder as that’s what this weekend is all about!

With the opening volleys of artillery (the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter) in the early morning hours of Friday, April 12, 1861, a war of the bloodiest nature commenced within the confines of what was known as the United States of America, but which was anything but united. The division of the states had been years in the making as the founding fathers could hardly agree on the slavery issue when trying to establish a single Constitution that would bind the individual states together as one unified nation. The division led to an all-out conflict—a war that would pit brother against brother and father against son—that wouldn’t cease until almost exactly four years later (at Appomattox on April 10, 1865) and three-quarters of a million Americans were dead (the number was recently revised, up from 618,000, by demographic historians).

A 1911 reunion pamphlet for the United Confederate Veterans organization.

A 1911 reunion pamphlet for the United Confederate Veterans organization.

In the days, weeks, months and years that followed, the sting of the Civil War would linger as families suffered the loss of generations of men. The Southern States where battles took place had cities that were obliterated. The agricultural Industry was devastated. The business operation surrounding the king crop of the south, cotton, heavily dependent upon slave labor, had to be completely revamped. Many plantations never returned to operation. The Northern industries that had grown extremely profitable and dependent upon the war, churning out uniforms, accouterments, artillery pieces and ammunition, no longer had a customer.

 

Although the South was undergoing reconstruction and the nation was moving to put the war in the past, and some Americans who lost everything were seeking to start afresh in the West. Like the servicemen and women of the current conflicts, Union and Confederate veterans alike were dealing with the same lingering effects of the combat trauma they had endured. While life for them was moving on, they were drawn to their comrades-in-arms seeking the friendship they shared while in uniform. In 1866, Union veterans began reuniting, forming a long-standing veterans organization (which would last until 1956 when the last veteran died) that would be known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Similarly, Confederate troops would reunite, but wouldn’t formally organize until 1889 with the United Confederate Veterans.

While the country was still engaged in the war, the spouses and mothers of troops, along with their local communities, honored those killed in the war—the scant few that were returned home for burial—by decorating their graves. Freed slaves (known as Freedmen) from Charleston, South Carolina, knew of a tragedy that took place at a prisoner of war (POW) camp where there were more than 250 Union soldiers who had died in captivity and had been buried in unmarked graves. The Freedmen, knowing about the graves, organized and gathered at the burial site to beautify the grounds in recognition of the sacrifices made by the soldiers on their behalf. On May 1, 1865, nearly 10,000 Freedmen, Union veterans, school children and missionaries and black ministers, gathered to honor the dead at the site on what would come to be recognized as the first Memorial Day.

“This was the first Memorial Day. African-Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” – historian David W. Blight

The largest gathering of Civil War veterans took place in 1913 at the Gettysburg battlefield, marking the 50th anniversary of this monumental battle. Soldiers from all of the participating units converged on the various sites to recount their actions, conduct reenactments, and to simply reconnect with their comrades. Heavily documented by photographers and newsmen alike, the gathering gave twentieth century Americans a glimpse into the past and the personal aspects of the battles and the lifelong impact they had on these men. By the 1930s, the aged veterans numbers had dwindled considerably yet they still continued to reunite. In one of these last gatherings, Confederate veterans recreated their battle cry, the Rebel Yell, for in this short film (digitized by the Smithsonian Institute).

The Militaria Collecting Connection

GAR Membership medals are very collectible and are reasonably priced.

GAR Membership medals are very collectible and are reasonably priced.

While collecting Civil War militaria can be quite an expensive venture, items related to these veterans organizations and reunions are a great alternative. One item that is particularly interesting, the GAR membership medal, was authorized for veterans to wear on military uniforms by Congressional action. The medals or badges were used to indicate membership within the organization or to commemorate one of its annual reunions or gatherings.

Over the years following the 1913 reunion, veterans and their families increasingly honored those killed during the war around the same time each year. As early as 1882, the day to honor the Civil War dead (traditionally, May 30) was also known as Memorial Day. After gaining popularity in the years following World War II, Memorial Day became official as congress passed a law in 1967, recognizing Memorial Day as a federal holiday. The following year, on June 28, the holiday was moved to the last Monday of May, creating a three-day weekend.

A woman walks the cemetery grounds on Memorial Day.

A woman walks the cemetery grounds on Memorial Day.

The grave of Union Veteran and GAR member, Omar Cheney.

The grave of Union Veteran and GAR member, Omar Cheney.

This Memorial Day, rather than committing the day to squeezing in one last waterskiing pass on the lake or grilling up a slab of ribs, head out to a cemetery (preferably a National Cemetery if you are in close enough proximity) and decorate a veteran’s grave with a flag and spend time in reflection of the price paid by all service members who laid down their lives for this nation. Note the stark contrast to the violence experienced on the field of battle as you take in the stillness and quiet peace of the surroundings, observing the gentleness of the billowing flags.

Decoration Day: Survivors Honor Fallen Brothers-in-Arms


Marine Corps photo

A U.S. Marine with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 8, pays his final respects to U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Kyle R. Schneider during a memorial ceremony held at Patrol Base Hanjar, Sangin, Afghanistan July 7. Schneider was killed in action while conducting combat operations in the district on June 30, 2011(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Corporal Logan W. Pierce).

Over the past few weeks, I have taken a little time to focus on other priorities such as my primary job (I don’t write on a full-time basis), my family and my fitness (not necessarily in that order). In response to that focus, my attention had shifted away from militaria and the various aspects of collecting during that period of time. Now that we are in the latter half of May, I need to bring my thoughts back to my passion for military history as one of the most important holidays (in my opinion) draws near.

Turning on the news this morning, my interest in the weekend forecast is piqued as the meteorologist begins to discuss the cooler than normal temperatures, the risk of rainfall and how these conditions will impact camping, boating and backyard barbecue plans. The statement really struck me as my only considerations for this weekend surrounded spending time at the various cemeteries and placing flags on fallen veterans’ graves and those of my veteran ancestors and relatives. This activity is something my wife and I have been doing dating back to my time in uniform. Making alternative plans is never a consideration and now my children are so accustomed to this practice, they look forward to Memorial Day.

WWII Navy Veteran Frank Yanick Wreath 2012

WWII Navy Veteran Frank Yanick honors fallen comrades by placing a wreath at a WWII memorial in 2012 (source: U.S. Navy photo )

As our culture continues to morph and shift with each passing year, the gap of time expands and the meaning and origins of Memorial Day fade from the American population’s conscience. In a time where less than half of one percent of Americans are serving in uniform, there is virtually no understanding of the personal sacrifices (that are routinely paid by those on active duty). When someone falls on the battlefield, that societal understanding of the price paid  just isn’t there. I increasingly wonder how it is that we arrived at this point.

Americans’ Participation in War

  • 1860 US Population (North + South): 29 million | 3.2 million served (10.35% of population)
  • WWII era (avg. 1941-45): 136.7 million | 16.1 million served (11.8 %)

  • Vietnam era (avg. 1964-74) 203 million | 9 million served (4.5%)
  • Current population: 314 million | 1.4 million serving (0.46%)

 With fewer Americans serving in uniform, particularly during the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, general population is disconnected from the costly nature of service. It is no wonder that our culture tends to be more self-focused as they spend Memorial Day without considering the sacrifices that afforded them the freedom to enjoy a three-day weekend.

MACKAY-DECK LST 342 #2.jpg

World War II Veteran Mac MacKay pauses for reflection after placing a wreath aboard his former ship, the LST 342, during a trip that several veterans made to Guadalcanal and Tulagi in 2009 (Photo courtesy of Anderson Giles).

Through my quest to understand the origins of this particular holiday, I have been led to be more forgiving of people who choose outdoor activities over trips to cemeteries. Considering that the present-day Memorial Day federal recognition was born from Decoration Day – a tradition started following the end of the American Civil War as surviving veterans began to deal with the battlefield losses of their comrades. Over the passing years, these veterans formed various veterans organizations (ranging from unit-specific to the enormous such as the GAR and UCV) and took the lead on preserving the legacy of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Because of the efforts of these groups, battlefield and cemetery preservation and monument construction efforts were undertaken along with ceremonial gatherings for commemorative dedications.

Cavalry Veteran Places Wreath

Decked in his cavalry uniform, this old veteran places a wreath among the graves of veterans on Decoration Day.

Throughout our nation’s history, it has been the veterans who have taken the lead on honoring the war dead. Mourning the loss of a brother (or sister) who fell on the field of battle is something a surviving veteran never forgets. That moment isn’t simply a memory etched into their minds but rather akin to a remaining scar in place of a missing limb. It cannot be forgotten or, as some civilians would suggest, something to “get over.”

Civil War Navy Veteran

In this postcard, an old Navy veteran donned his uniform before carrying his anchor-shaped flower arrangement to the monument to render honors to the dead of the Civil War.

A few years ago, I started taking notice of various references to Decoration Day and antique items that make mention of it. One of those items that caught my attention was a postcard (from the early 20th Century) depicting an elderly Civil War veteran placing a wreath of flowers at a grave. The image, an illustration, was so moving that I was overwhelmed with emotions. The postcard evoked more recent memories of World War II veterans (at D-Day celebrations) paying respects to their fallen comrades some 70 years hence and the fresh, vivid memories painted across their faces.

Comrades

This Decoration Day postcard depicts two elderly veterans of the Civil War assisting each other as they honor their comrades who fell in battle.

Over the course of the past century, it seems that nothing has changed. Veterans still ache for their lost buddies and they are compelled to continue to honor them as long as they are physically able to do so. As a veteran, I am committed to continuing the tradition of honoring and remembering those who gave their last full measure protecting and ensuring freedom for future generations.