Two Days to Remember
Memorial Day 2007 was a special time when Americans joined together in towns and cities to honor the veterans of all wars fought by this nation. Some fought on the banks of the Delaware, on San Juan Hill, in the Argonne Forest in 1918, Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 or the islands of the Pacific, in Italy, in the Falaise Gap, in Burma or Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. A significant number of American servicemen and women have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Here are some numbers to ponder:
4,000 died serving in the Revolutionary War, 2,000 in the War of 1812, and 13,000 in the Mexican War of 1846-1848.
In the Civil War, the Union lost approximately 364,000 in action and from disease and the Confederacy nearly 258,000. (1)
Losses in the Spanish-American War were 11,000.
In World War I, 4,272,500 were mobilized, 117,000 killed and 204,000 wounded.
During the Second World War over 16,000,000 men and women served in the Armed Forces of the United States. At the end of the war, the U.S. had a force of 12,354,000 men and women on active duty. 292,131 were killed in action, 671,278 wounded and 11,324 Merchant mariners were also killed. According to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) there are still 78,000 Americans unaccounted for from World War II. (2)
During the Korean War 54,229 died in combat, over 103,000 were wounded and over 8,000 missing in action.
In Vietnam, 58,226 Americans were killed or MIA.
The Department of Veterans Affairs cites 41,790,000 participants in America’s wars from the Revolution to 1998, with 1,090,200 listed as having died in the service of the nation. (3) Losses in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are approaching 4,000 killed.
For too many in America, Memorial Day is just another holiday, a long weekend in May to get away and relax. Thankfully, there are a great many people across this vast land of ours that never forget. An example is Vietnam veteran Sid Chase, the director of veteran’s affairs for fourteen towns in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. For thirty-eight years he has seen to it that the grave of each of the approximately 3,600 veterans who are buried in the county’s many local cemeteries has a small, new American flag placed by it on Memorial Day. These include the graves of Revolutionary War and Civil War soldiers. Sid could delegate the job to others but he deems it an honor to carry out most of the task himself. The weather has been fine this year, but “Some years it pours,” he recalls. “I just get my golf wet suit out and my mukluks and go at it.” Some of them he knew personally: the principal of his high school and his hockey coach, both World War II veterans. Even with the help of a local Girl Scout troop that places over 1,000 flags in one the largest of the cemeteries located in the village of Cotuit, it takes him about a week. “You get a bit of a history lesson on what they did for God and country,” he says. (4)
For living veterans, Memorial Day is very often a poignant moment. Perhaps the most unusual ceremony ever recorded occurred at the new American military cemetery at Anzio-Nettuno, Italy in 1945. The cemetery was still a raw, unfinished place with wooden grave markers. The principal speaker was Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, the U.S. Fifth Army commander who commanded Allied troops at Anzio the year before. The cemetery was filled with visitors and VIPs that included several American senators, and a military honor guard. Also present that day was famed GI cartoonist, Bill Mauldin and as he later related, there was a very different kind of ceremony held that day.
"When Truscott spoke, he turned away from the visitors and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded there. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics. The general’s remarks were brief and extemporaneous. He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart this is not altogether true. He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances. One of the Senators cigars went out; he bent over to relight it, then thought better of it. Truscott said he would not speak of the glorious dead because he didn’t see much glory in getting killed in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought that death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought it was the least he could do.” (5) Similar sentiments were expressed in 2007 during a ceremony in the town of Orleans, Massachusetts. The speaker was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Glen Beasley. Flags flapped in the breeze and some parents carried their children on their shoulders to better view the ceremony that was concluded by the ceremonial firing of rifles by members of the Marine Corps League in memory of three local veterans lost in Iraq. Beasley’s speech touched on the history of Memorial Day, “But then his speech turned more personal. He asked fallen soldiers to ‘know we feel the guilt of being so lucky to be standing here where you should be.’” (6)
Each of the thousands of such events held across America serve as both a civics lesson and a reminder that we as a nation have not forgotten those who have made the supreme sacrifice.
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