Why do we celebrate it?
Some of my favorite stories to remind us why we should pause and think on Memorial Day.
Apology to the Dead
Memorial Day 1945 was a somber time for most Americans, and 70 years later it still carries with it a special poignancy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been dead just over a month, and while the war in Europe had concluded, it was too early to begin celebrating victory over the Axis powers. The fighting in the Pacific, where the battle for Okinawa had begun in April and would last through most of June, was still taking a heavy toll.
President Harry Truman, who was working on a speech for the final session of the United Nations conference in San Francisco, marked the day by sending a wreath to Hyde Park for the grave of President Roosevelt and another to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
At Normandy, following a brief military ceremony, work continued on the cemetery above the beaches where Allied troops had landed on D-Day. The paths between the blocks of graves were still uncompleted, and much of the labor on the new cemetery was now being done by German prisoners of war.
|Lucian Truscott Jr.|
No recording or transcript of Truscott's Memorial Day speech exists, even among his papers at the George C. Marshall Research Library in Virginia.
In Stars and Stripes, the military's newspaper, we have only excerpts of Truscott's remarks. "All over the world our soldiers sleep beneath the crosses," Stars and Stripes reported Truscott observing. "It is a challenge to us -- all allied nations-- to ensure that they do not and have not died in vain."
Missing from the Stars and Stripes story is what Truscott did in delivering his speech. For that account we are indebted to Bill Mauldin, best known for his World War II cartoons featuring the unshaven infantrymen, Willie and Joe. Mauldin was in the audience when Truscott spoke at Nettuno, and he never forgot the day.
"There were about twenty thousand American graves. Families hadn't started digging up the bodies and bringing them home," Mauldin recalled years later in his 1971 memoir, "The Brass Ring."
"Before the stand were spectator benches, with a number of camp chairs down front for VIPs, including several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"When Truscott spoke he turned away from the visitors and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded here. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics," Mauldin wrote.
"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. . . . he would not speak about the glorious dead because he didn't see much glory in getting killed if you were in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that was the least he could do."
Truscott's words echoed the reaction to the bitter fighting in Italy of others who had experienced it close up. "I had been feeling pretty much like a clay pigeon in a shooting gallery," Ernie Pyle, America's most widely read World War II correspondent, wrote after landing with American troops at Anzio.
But making Truscott different from Pyle and Mauldin, as well as everyone in attendance at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, was his belief that as a commander he bore a special responsibility for the dead lying before him in their fresh graves. He was unsure if apologizing to them was enough, but he could, he knew, guarantee that he would not romanticize their passing.
Memorial Day: A Time for Heroes
I leaned against an oak at the side of the road, wishing I were invisible, keeping my distance from my parents on their lawn chairs and my younger siblings scampering about.
I hoped none of my friends saw me there. God forbid they caught me waving one of the small American flags Mom bought at Ben Franklin for a dime. At 16, I was too old and definitely too cool for our small town's Memorial Day parade.
I ought to be at the lake, I brooded. But, no, the all-day festivities were mandatory in my family.
A high school band marched by, the girl in sequins missing her baton as it tumbled from the sky. Firemen blasted sirens in their polished red trucks. The uniforms on the troop of World War II veterans looked too snug on more than one member.
"Here comes Mema," my father shouted.
Five black convertibles lumbered down the boulevard. The mayor was in the first, handing out programs. I didn't need to look at one. I knew my uncle Bud's name was printed on it, as it had been every year since he was killed in Italy. Our family's war hero.
I hid behind the tree so I wouldn't have to meet her gaze. It wasn't because I didn't love her or appreciate her. She'd taught me how to sew, to call a strike in baseball. She made great cinnamon rolls, which we always ate after the parade.
What embarrassed me was all the attention she got for a son who had died 20 years earlier. With four other children and a dozen grandchildren, why linger over this one long-ago loss?
I peeked out from behind the oak just in time to see Mema wave and blow my family a kiss as the motorcade moved on. The purple ribbon on her hat fluttered in the breeze.
The rest of our Memorial Day ritual was equally scripted. No use trying to get out of it. I followed my family back to Mema's house, where there was the usual baseball game in the backyard and the same old reminiscing about Uncle Bud in the kitchen.
Helping myself to a cinnamon roll, I retreated to the living room and plopped down on an armchair.
There I found myself staring at the Army photo of Bud on the bookcase. The uncle I'd never known. I must have looked at him a thousand times—so proud in his crested cap and knotted tie. His uniform was decorated with military emblems that I could never decode.
Funny, he was starting to look younger to me as I got older. Who were you, Uncle Bud? I nearly asked aloud.
I picked up the photo and turned it over. Yellowing tape held a prayer card that read: "Lloyd 'Bud' Heitzman, 1925-1944. A Great Hero." Nineteen years old when he died, not much older than I was. But a great hero? How could you be a hero at 19?
The floorboards creaked behind me. I turned to see Mema coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.
I almost hid the photo because I didn't want to listen to the same stories I'd heard year after year: "Your uncle Bud had this little rat-terrier named Jiggs. Good old Jiggs. How he loved that mutt! He wouldn't go anywhere without Jiggs. He used to put him in the rumble seat of his Chevy coupe and drive all over town.
"Remember how hard Bud worked after we lost the farm? At haying season he worked all day, sunrise to sunset, baling for other farmers. Then he brought me all his wages. He'd say, 'Mama, someday I'm going to buy you a brand-new farm. I promise.' There wasn't a better boy in the world!"
Sometimes I wondered about that boy dying alone in a muddy ditch in a foreign country he'd only read about. I thought of the scared kid who jumped out of a foxhole in front of an advancing enemy, only to be downed by a sniper. I couldn't reconcile the image of the boy and his dog with that of the stalwart soldier.
Mema stood beside me for a while, looking at the photo. From outside came the sharp snap of an American flag flapping in the breeze and the voices of my cousins cheering my brother at bat.
"Mema," I asked, "what's a hero?" Without a word she turned and walked down the hall to the back bedroom. I followed.
"These are Bud's things," she said. "They sent them to us after he died." She opened the lid and handed me a telegram dated October 13, 1944. "The Secretary of State regrets to inform you that your son, Lloyd Heitzman, was killed in Italy."
Your son! I imagined Mema reading that sentence for the first time. I didn't know what I would have done if I'd gotten a telegram like that.
"Here's Bud's wallet," she continued. Even after all those years, it was caked with dried mud. Inside was Bud's driver's license with the date of his sixteenth birthday. I compared it with the driver's license I had just received.
A photo of Bud holding a little spotted dog fell out of the wallet. Jiggs. Bud looked so pleased with his mutt.
There were other photos in the wallet: a laughing Bud standing arm in arm with two buddies, photos of my mom and aunt and uncle, another of Mema waving. This was the home Uncle Bud took with him, I thought.
I could see him in a foxhole, taking out these snapshots to remind himself of how much he was loved and missed.
"Who's this?" I asked, pointing to a shot of a pretty dark-haired girl.
"Marie. Bud dated her in high school. He wanted to marry her when he came home." A girlfriend? Marriage? How heartbreaking to have a life, plans and hopes for the future, so brutally snuffed out.
Sitting on the bed, Mema and I sifted through the treasures in the box: a gold watch that had never been wound again. A sympathy letter from President Roosevelt, and one from Bud's commander. A medal shaped like a heart, trimmed with a purple ribbon. And at the very bottom, the deed to Mema's house.
"Why's this here?" I asked.
"Because Bud bought this house for me." She explained how after his death, the U.S. government gave her 10 thousand dollars, and with it she built the house she was still living in.
"He kept his promise all right," Mema said in a quiet voice I'd never heard before.
For a long while the two of us sat there on the bed. Then we put the wallet, the medal, the letters, the watch, the photos and the deed back into the metal box. I finally understood why it was so important for Mema—and me—to remember Uncle Bud on this day.
If he'd lived longer he might have built that house for Mema or married his high-school girlfriend. There might have been children and grandchildren to remember him by.
As it was, there was only that box, the name in the program and the reminiscing around the kitchen table.
"I guess he was a hero because he gave everything for what he believed," I said carefully.
"Yes, child," Mema replied, wiping a tear with the back of her hand. "Don't ever forget that."
I haven't. Even today with Mema gone, my husband and I take our lawn chairs to the tree-shaded boulevard on Memorial Day and give our three daughters small American flags that I buy for a quarter at Ben Franklin.
I want them to remember that life isn't just about getting what you want. Sometimes it involves giving up the things you love for what you love even more. That many men and women did the same for their country—that's what I think when I see the parade pass by now.
And if I close my eyes and imagine, I can still see Mema in her regal purple hat, honoring her son, a true American hero.
The Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863)
|Lincoln at Gettysburg the day he gave the speech|
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that 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.
Six videos to watch Memorial Day weekend (30 minute run-time)