Two Days to Remember:

Memorial Day:  (excerpt from Warrior Culture of the U.S. Marines, copyright 2001 Marion F. Sturkey) -- The first Decoration Day was 30 May 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War.  Gen. John A. Logan, U.S. Army, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, initiated the day of remembrance.  He ordered that all Army posts decorate the graves of fallen Civil War comrades with flowers and a "suitable ceremony," and that flags be flown at half mast until noon.

      Decoration Day later got a new name, Memorial Day.  On this day the nation now honors those killed-in-action from all branches of the armed forces.  This day of honor has been further expanded to include all wars and conflicts in which American servicemen have made the Supreme Sacrifice for their country.  And, in a solemn ceremony, a wreath is laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (more about that later).

      Since the late 1950s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the U.S. Army has placed small American flags at each of the quarter-million-plus graves in Arlington National Cemetery.  The Army also stands guard in the cemetery through Memorial Day to ensure that the flags remain in place.

      In 1968 (the height of the hippie and flower power generation), Congress changed the observance date from 30 May to the last Monday in May.  However, in 1999 bills were introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, proposing restoration of 30 May as the day of observance.

      According to tradition, Memorial Day is observed by placing flowers or small flags on the graves of American servicemen who have fallen in battle.  Americans are encouraged to visit military memorials and to fly flags at half mast until noon.  They also are asked to fly the relatively new "POW/MIA" flag, per the 1998 Defense Authorization Act.  Further, all Americans are asked to participate in a "Moment of Remembrance" at 3:00 pm and pledge to aid the families of the honored dead.

      In some of the southern states, in addition to the national Memorial Day, citizens also observe Confederate Memorial Day.  On this day they honor the Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Marines who died in battle during the Civil War, 1861-1865.  Since this is a state holiday, each state may select its day of observance.  Confederate Memorial Day is observed in Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi on April 26; in South Carolina and North Carolina on May 10; in Alabama on the last Monday in April; in Virginia on May 30; in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana on June 3 (the birthday of Jefferson Davis); and in Texas on January 19 (the birthday of Gen. Robert E. Lee). 

Veterans Day:  (excerpt from Warrior Culture of the U.S. Marines, copyright 2001 Marion F. Sturkey) -- After four years of carnage in Europe, the giant cannon finally fell silent.  At 11:00 am on 11 November 1918 (the eleventh hour, of the 11th day, of the eleventh month) the Allies and Germany signed an armistice.  The Great War, The World War, The War to End War mercifully ended.  The whole world rejoiced.  Thereafter the eleventh day of November became Armistice Day in most of the western world.  In Canada it became known as Remembrance Day.

      In the United States, Congress officially recognized Armistice Day in 1926.  Twelve years later it became a national holiday.  Unfortunately, three decades and two wars later America realized that world order had been equally preserved by veterans of World War II and the Korean War.  So, in 1954 Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. President, signed an act which changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day.

      In 1968 (the flower-power generation was hard at work again) Congress changed the day of observance to the fourth Monday in October.  Veterans Day had temporarily become just another long three-day weekend.  The reason for the holiday had been forgotten by many.  Fortunately, the public outcry rose steadily over the next ten years.  Finally bowing to public pressure, Congress reversed itself in 1978.  The eleventh day of November again became the day on which Americans observe Veterans Day.

      By law, Veterans Day is set aside to honor our nation's military veterans both living and dead, who served in time of war.  The focal point for national observance is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.  At 11:00 am on 11 November, a color guard that including all military services executes "Present Arms."  The President of the United States lays a wreath upon the tomb, steps back, and salutes.  A bugler plays Taps.  A grateful nation has not forgotten.

Home