Opinion: Remembering Decoration Day

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Commentary by Ward Degler

The first time I remember Memorial Day it was still called Decoration Day. Folks in my hometown would go out to the cemetery on that day and put flowers on the graves of soldiers who died during World War I. Many of the fallen were fathers, brothers, even sons.

Actually, Decoration Day began in the spring of 1868 in Arlington National Cemetery. General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic made a speech about the loss of human life during the Civil War. After he spoke, a crowd of 5,000 decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

I recall Decoration Day as a somber affair. Folks went to the cemetery and then brought their memories home. There were no backyard barbecues, no swimming parties, and as far as I know, it wasn’t a three-day weekend.

New wars came along, of course, and more fallen soldiers. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson officially changed the name to Memorial Day. By then we were called on to remember and honor those who died during both World Wars, the Korean War and in Vietnam.

A special memorial wall now commemorates the thousands who died in Vietnam. It was formally dedicated in 1982 and folks bring flowers on Memorial Day.

A memorial to the Forgotten War – Korea – was dedicated in 1986 in Washington, and after many years of planning, a World War II memorial was finally completed in 2004.

The wars keep coming, of course, and so do the flag-draped caskets. There is much to remember. The graves at Arlington as well as every other national cemetery in the world are decorated each Memorial Day with flowers and an American flag.

Sure, it’s a three-day holiday now, and people everywhere fire up the backyard grills. The Greatest Spectacle in Racing dominates Indianapolis for the entire month of May.

But we still go to the cemetery with flowers and flags. Race fans stand in quiet remembrance as the somber strains of Taps echo through the festive air at the track.

And in the hearts of each of us there remains the eternal flame of someone we knew and loved who fought for our freedom and who never came home. And for those it will always be Decoration Day.


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