In 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, the leader of an organization of Union veterans established Decoration Day — as Memorial Day originally was known — as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. According to Utah’s Deseret News, one of the very first Memorial Day celebrations may have been even earlier, on May 1, 1865, when Black workmen gathered at a Charleston, South Carolina, racecourse and club that the Confederates had converted into an outdoor prison. That newspaper cited Yale University historian David W. Blight, who said the men reinterred the bodies of Union prisoners of war buried there and decorated their graves; later that day, a parade led by 3,000 Black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses was held. In 1971, Congress established that Memorial Day would be observed as a national holiday on the last Monday in May.
Two years ago, as we gathered for Memorial Day parades and family gatherings, we were oblivious to the threat that was heading our way in the form of COVID-19.
Last year, we were in the pandemic’s throes, marking a low-key national holiday without the patriotic parades, solemn cemetery ceremonies and other in-person events we’d grown accustomed to attending each Memorial Day.
Today, many of us are fully vaccinated and gathering once again with loved ones and friends; businesses have reopened; and COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations in Lancaster County, and across the United States, are declining.
Each Memorial Day differs from another, but they’re all devoted to honoring the courageous men and women who died in service to this nation.
They gave their lives for our democracy, trusting that it would be safe in our hands. We hope it is. We hope we’re worthy of their sacrifice. We must be. Because they and the families who loved them gave up everything for this nation.
If you haven’t yet had a chance, we urge you to read Jeffrey L. Hudson’s column in the Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline Perspective section about the men he calls the “Marietta Dozen” — Marietta’s 12 native sons who died during World War II.
As Hudson, a former Lampeter-Strasburg High School social studies teacher and Marietta Borough Council member writes, “These men — along with millions of other Americans — took part in the greatest armed conflict in human history. They fought, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his 1941 State of the Union address, for ‘a world founded upon four essential human freedoms’: freedom of speech and expression; freedom ‘of every person to worship God in his own way’; ‘freedom from want’; and ‘freedom from fear.’ ”
They also fought, he wrote, to come home to the small river town in Lancaster County that never would forget their sacrifice. Next to their names on a Marietta memorial plaque are stars, signifying that they were killed in action.
Staff Sgt. James Penwell’s plane collided with another and he was killed on March 27, 1944. “It was his 23rd mission — two shy of the number that would have allowed him to go home,” Hudson wrote.
Tech. Sgt. William Fuhrman was credited with shooting down two German planes before he was reported missing in action in November 1943. “Cpl. Walter Grubb’s bomber never came back from a raid over Tokyo,” Hudson noted. “John Buchanan was a salvage diver for the U.S. Army Engineer Corps and drowned in the Gulf of Mexico attempting to transfer between ships. Russell McKain was in an anti-aircraft battalion; he died in a truck accident on the way back from the rifle range.”
Sgt. Daniel Zink was killed in January 1944 as his unit crossed Italy’s Salerno River.
Not long after D-Day in June 1944, Ralph Gohn was killed in action near Cherbourg, France. “Charles Ressler — who served with the 82nd Airborne Division — died as his division consolidated its position after retreating” from a failed Allied operation in the Netherlands. “George Childs was killed while trying to resupply an attack on German fortifications” — in Germany. Sylvester Herchelroth died in Belgium, “gunned down in a series of slaughters of more than 80 unarmed American soldiers that collectively became known as the Malmedy massacre.”
Grant Billet Snyder “joined the Army two weeks after his 18th birthday,” Hudson recounted. “He fought in a tank battalion in North Africa and Italy and was only was 20 when he was killed during the Battle of Monte Cassino.”
And on Feb. 20, 1945, “Marine William Mayer became the last man from Marietta killed in action when he was struck by mortar fragments on Iwo Jima,” Hudson noted.
Members of the Greatest Generation, Hudson reminded us, “defeated fascism. In a world that was enveloped in darkness, they preserved the light and some — like Snyder and the rest of the Marietta Dozen — were willing to give up their lives to give us a chance at better ones.”
What could we possibly do to thank those who died for our country?
We can remember them, first and foremost.
Telling their stories, as Hudson so beautifully did in the Sunday Perspective section, seems to be a fitting tribute.
Honoring their families is important, too. As U.S. Army National Guard Brig. Gen. David E. Wood (now retired) wrote in this newspaper in 2019, “The families who have lost loved ones, our Gold Star families, continue to serve as a reminder that Memorial Day is not just a celebration of the past, but also of a very real present.”
And today at 3 p.m., wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, we can pause for the National Moment of Remembrance.
The moment was created by a Delaware County native and Penn State graduate named Carmella LaSpada, founder of a nonprofit called No Greater Love.
As that organization’s website tells the story, LaSpada met a group of schoolchildren touring Washington, D.C., a few days before Memorial Day in 1996, and asked them what Memorial Day meant to them.
“When they responded, ‘It’s the day the pools open,’ she became determined to reinforce the meaning of Memorial Day and ensure that those who died for our country would not be forgotten.” So she initiated the National Moment of Remembrance and worked to have it enshrined in law in 2000.
Let’s all mark this moment today. It’s the very least we can do.