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Memorial Day by Tom McCabe

To so many of us, Memorial Day marks the beginning of Summer. It’s a long weekend for cookouts, picnics and family, finally shaking off the yoke of Winter. Often times we forget what the holiday really means, and why it came to be.

Originally Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day. In 1868 General John C. Logan and a group of northern Civil War Veterans called for a National Day of Remembrance to take place during the month of May. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. May 30th was chosen because no battle of the Civil War took place on that date. On the first Decoration Day, more than 5000 participants decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Union Soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Most northern states held similar events, while southern states commemorated their dead on a different day. Until after World War 1.  After World War 1 Decoration Day evolved to commemorate the fallen in America’s conflicts beyond the Civil War.

Decoration Day gradually became known as Memorial Day and is now celebrated across the country. Many people visit local cemeteries while local Boy and Girl Scout Troops, as well as local veterans and Reserve and National Guard units place American Flags on each grave. The graves in Arlington National Cemetery are decorated with flags by The Old Guard, the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment. The Old Guard also guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.

The American Cemetery in Normandy

I try to get to the local National Cemetery here in New Bern on Memorial Day each year. Our local Vietnam Veterans Chapter places a wreath after the ceremony and I always participate. In years past I made it a point to photograph as much of the ceremony as I could and also photographed the Marine Color Guard and Firing Party. I photographed them as a group and individually. I would make individual prints and take them to Cherry Point and give them to the unit’s Sergeant Major to give to the Marines who participated.

Born right after World War II almost every adult I knew in my neighborhood in Chicago served in World War II. My father, most of my uncles and older cousins, neighbors, all served. Almost all are gone now. 

I am a Vietnam Veteran, as is my brother. We both know and served with a lot of those on the Wall in Washington. Memorial Day has a deeper meaning to us than perhaps to others. It is a day of reflection, of remembrance, and often of time alone with our own thoughts.

Lest we forget.

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