Occasionally, my father (now 92) still refers to Decoration Day — the name by which Memorial Day was known for generations. It all began in 1866 when a group of women gathered at a Mississippi cemetery to decorate the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers. Nearby they noticed the abandoned graves of Union soldiers. The bitter war was scarcely over and they had been the enemy. Yet, the compassionate women walked over and placed some of their flowers on the graves of those who had battled against the loved ones they had originally come to honor.
Similar ceremonies were held across the nation, united once more. On May 5, 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan designated May 30 to be Decoration Day. It was not until 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May.
Since the Civil War, over 640,000 Americans have given their lives defending freedom around the world. No other nation has been as willing as the U.S. to sacrifice blood and treasure to defend others.
During World War II, my father Harold in the Navy, his younger brother Vernon in the Army, and their slightly older uncle Irvin in the Air Force were eager to defend their families and country against the evil Axis of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. Proud, but frightened parents watched anxiously from home as 670,000 American soldiers were wounded and over 400,000 killed. Each one a human being with homes and families, aspirations and fears, who made the ultimate sacrifice battling tyranny and oppression. Harold and Vernon finally returned to loved ones after the enemies were defeated, but Irvin and his crew of five perished when the B-24 bomber he was piloting crashed in Australia.
I wish everyone could listen to my father tell of his experiences aboard the U.S.S. West Point. Less than 4 percent of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still living. But veterans of many other valiantly-fought wars are still among us. Most of us have a neighbor or friend who has served in the armed forces to defend our country. Few things will impress our children more than spending an evening listening to the experiences of a veteran. Learning why a dedicated soldier is willing to march into harm’s way to preserve our freedoms will inspire our children. They will learn that freedom is not free and liberty comes not without sacrifice.
War is ugly, destructive and deadly. It kills people and destroys human creation. But rising from the ashes of every war America has fought is the flag of freedom and the sacred remembrance of those who gave their lives raising that banner through the conflicts, that it may wave over us today.
Memorial Day has fittingly evolved into a day to honor all those who have passed away — a day to decorate graves, honor loved ones gone, and reflect on their contributions to our lives. For most of us, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer, fishing season, picnics and parades. This Memorial Day as we get a long weekend, a time with family, a good spot on the riverbank — in all our getting, may we get understanding of the love, sacrifice and devotion of those who left mortality ahead of us.
Brent Hill, of Rexburg, is the President Pro Tempore of the Idaho State Senate.