This coming weekend in the U.S. marks the traditional start of the summer season, and typically is filled with beach visits, barbeques and baseball. It can be easy, amid anticipation of the coming months' fresh air and freedom, to overlook the occasion for this holiday: Memorial Day.
Since a congressional edict took effect in 1971, Memorial Day has given Americans a three-day weekend at the tail end of May. The roots of this day of remembrance run deeper, back to the 1860s and the American Civil War.
Hundreds of thousands of citizens died in that conflict, and survivors in individual communities throughout the divided nation set aside time in warmer months to honor the dead by visiting and decorating their graves. Commemoration sites ranged from Warrenton, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia, to Gettysburg and Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.
The commemorations included one on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina. That city’s Hampton Park Race Course became the final resting place of more than 250 Union prisoners of war, who were buried in unmarked graves.
Charlestonians led by their African American neighbors — many of whom were freed former slaves — had cleaned and landscaped the grave site, and on that May Day nearly 10,000 people brought flowers to honor the dead and decorate their graves.
The first Decoration Day was observed formally on May 30, 1868. “Memorial Day” came into use in the 1880s and became the official name in 1967.
May 30 was chosen in 1868 as an optimal date for flowers to be in bloom. Among the commemorations that day was one at Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia across the Potomac River from Washington. James A. Garfield addressed 5,000 people who gathered there.
A former Union general and future U.S. president, Garfield told the gathering that he was intimidated by the task of speaking of those buried there.
“With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue,” he said. “Promises may not be kept, plighted faith may be broken, and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke: but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
A year ago, Arlington became the final resting place of four U.S. Army crewmembers whose Bell Helicopter UH-1C was shot down on Jan. 9, 1968 over Vietnam. The photo above shows the burial ceremony for CWO3 James L. Phipps of Mattoon, Illinois, and CW03 Rainer S. Ramos of Wiesbaden, Germany (the Huey’s pilots) and the door gunners, Staff Sgt. Warren Newton of Eugene, Oregon, and Spec. Fred J. Secrist of Eugene, Oregon. They had been assigned to Troop C, 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 14th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade.
A U.S.-led team recovered Secrist’s body on Jan. 20, 1968, and he was returned to his family for burial. Forty-three years later, U.S. and Vietnamese specialists recovered additional remains from the crash site in Quang Nam Province. Some were identified as having DNA matching Secrist’s. The remains that could not be identified individually were deemed to represent the entire crew and were buried as a group in Arlington’s Section 60.
Today, more than 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. The U.S. government continues to work closely with the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to recover Americans lost during the Vietnam War.
This Memorial Day, we remember all the men and women who have been killed in military service to America, as well as all the loved ones who survive them.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army