Monday is Memorial Day, a day to decorate graves and honor those who have fallen in battle while preserving our freedom.
The tradition of remembering loved ones began in ancient Greece and Rome. An Athenian general and statesman, Pericles, praised those killed in the Peloponnesian War. The tone of Pericles’ speech has been compared to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Ancient Romans had annual remembrance days for their loved ones and soldiers.
Confederate soldiers’ graves were decorated as early as June 3, 1861 in Warrenton, Va., and Savannah, Ga., in 1862. In Boalsburg, Pa., near Penn State University, Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller and Elizabeth Myers decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864. I’ve visited Boalsburg. There’s a statue of the three women promoting Boalsburg as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Major General John Logan issued General Order 11 declaring Decoration Day, a day for the nation to use flowers to decorate the graves of our war dead. Legend has it May 30 was the only day in May that wasn’t the anniversary of a Civil War battle. Others suspect May 30 was selected because across our country flowers were blooming.
In 1968 (Pub L 90-363) was signed into law. Memorial Day became a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday of May. (Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day and Veterans’ Day became Monday holidays).
On April 10, 11 and 12 my wife recorded KNPB’s “The Great War: American Experience,” an excellent three-part series of America’s history including the suffragettes. I would suggest only watching a two-hour segment a day.
A member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae developed his gift to write poems. John was in Ypres which is in the Flanders region of Belgium. On May 2, 1915, John’s close friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed in action. McCrae buried his friend and noticed how quickly poppies grew at the new graves. He wrote the following poem.
In Flanders fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and new we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In 2011 my wife and I took a World War II memorial tour, 15 days through six countries. We visited four American Battle Monuments Cemeteries, three World War II and the World War I Meuse-Argonne Cemeteries. The Meuse-Argonne Cemetery was our first stop of the day. We were greeted with an azure sky and a solitary cumulous cloud as the dew on the verdant lawn glistened in bright sunlight. I was struck by 14,246 grave markers at attention ready for inspection. Nine Medal of Honor recipients are buried in Meuse-Argonne including Freddie Stowers, an African American soldier. He was awarded his medal posthumously in 1991.
Whenever I visit a cemetery, I read as many grave markers as possible before boarding the tour bus. Each grave marker has a story. At the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, two grave markers caught my attention. The first was a staff sergeant who was killed in action on Jan. 31, 1944. There was nothing unusual until I read his age, 17! He was either 14 or 15 when he lied about his age to enlist. He had the maturity to be promoted to staff sergeant. His youth ended abruptly more than 73 years ago.
The other grave marker was 2nd Lt. Ellen G. Ainsworth. She was one of 40,000 nurses who enlisted in the USA. Lt. Ainsworth was assigned to the 56th Evacuation Hospital near the front at Anzio. She was wounded by an artillery shell on Feb. 12, 1944, and died on Feb. 16. Ellen was awarded the Silver Star, posthumously, for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy ... (her) gallant action and dedicated devotion to duty, without regard for her own life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon herself, her unit and the United States Army.” She was the only woman from Wisconsin who died in World War II.
Sally Berkholder lives near Glenwood City, Wisc. Her dad was high school classmates with Ellen. Sally visited Ellen’s grave at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy. She returned to Wisconsin determined to keep Ellen’s memory alive and change the name of Glenwood City Post Office. Sally contacted her Congressman, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin’s 7th District. His bill became law on June 13, 2016. On Aug. 31, 2016 the 2nd Lt. Ellen Ainsworth Memorial Post Office was dedicated. Now, young females in Glenwood City have a role model.
I witnessed the dedication of the 2,500-square-foot visitors center with nine exhibits, one honoring 2nd Lt. Ellen G. Ainsworth on Memorial Day, May 26, 2014, at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery. I was with the First Special Service Force Association, “The Devil’s Brigade.” We had arrived in Rome the previous day. The Memorial Day ceremony was our second stop on an 11-day “Follow in Their Footsteps Tour.” After the ceremonies, we visited the graves of “Forcemen” buried in Nettuno.
As you read this I’m visiting family and friends in Massachusetts. Monday, I’ll visit Pine Grove Cemetery’s World War II veterans’ section. With some beach sand, water and a clean rag I’ll scrub clean my Uncle Richard’s grave marker. He was KIA on Dec. 3, 1943 at the Battle of Monte la Difensa, Italy. A picture of me was found in his helmet. I traveled through nine time zones to climb Monte la Difensa in 2008 and 2014 with some members of the FSSF Association. We visualized the battle, toasted 73 “Forcemen” KIA and shed some tears.
When a Blue Star is prominently displayed, the parents/spouse has a loved one serving our country. When a Gold Star replaces the Blue Star, the parents/spouse has lost their loved one while serving our country. A Gold Star is forever.
Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.