We tend to “thank” service men and women today and although our volunteer military deserves all respects, our reverence is reserved for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Most of us won’t visit cemeteries or ceremonies today. Swimming pools and barbecues make the agenda. Wreath laying gets caught on the news. American flags will grace our mailbox. It doesn’t mean we don’t remember. We honor their sacrifice and celebrate their memories by being with one another, living liberty.
Memorial Day originally was “Decoration Day”, started by Union soldier veterans to remember their comrades who fell in preservation of the Union. I’m proud to say I had two Union soldiers in my family: my great grandfather James Riley and my great uncle Otto Steinhart. James served with the 29th Pennsylvania Infantry while Otto was with the 54th New York Infantry. They didn’t know each other yet fought close to one another on Culp’s Hill at the battle of Gettysburg. Credited as the turning point of the Civil War, nearly 50,000 men were killed or wounded at Gettysburg over three days of fighting.
Memorial Day became “Memorial Day” after the first Great War, or World War I. Nearly 117,000 Americans lost their life in this conflict that involved every major world power. Arthur Riley, James’ son was one of them. Pictured here, Arthur was 27 and had been married one year when he died in France in 1918. Like many of my ancestors from Morgan County, Arthur was a carpenter and farmer. Only his maker knows what adventures he had in 1918.
I’m also mindful of the South Pacific sailors of WWII today. My grandfather, Tennis Russell served and was injured in 1944. Thanks to genealogy and the Internet I’ve learned more about the 7th Fleet, specifically the Battle of Leyte Gulf recently. Some consider this naval battle to be the largest in world history. Japan threw everything they had at the Allies including the introduction of the Kamikaze. The US lost 6 front-line vessels to Japan’s 26 in this battle. Approximately 2,800 US sailors lost their lives in the battle.
Speaking of the Kamikaze, did you know a Kamikaze had a higher chance of surviving World War II than did an American airman in the 8th Air Corps? We watched 12 O’clock High this morning on AMC and it reminded me of the courage and bravery of the 8th. 200,000 members of the 8th lost their lives in the fight for Europe. The early days of daylight bombing was pure terror. I can only imagine the mettle of the men that went up in those planes every day.
For the ordinary American today, we’re lucky we “can only imagine”. The heavy lifting of keeping our barbecues hot has been done by many who came before us. We tend to have short-term memories in this day and age. As the generations leave us, the memories fade away. Just take a moment to wonder, to ask yourself how you got here.
And thanks to all serving, who have served, and to your many comrades who didn’t make it home.
Happy Memorial Day.