For more than 150 years, Memorial Day has been a day for the nation to commemorate our American service members who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the freedoms that we enjoy today. The holiday started as Decoration Day, and it was first observed at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on May 30, 1868, three years after the Civil War reached its bloody conclusion.
The first service was a procession through the graves, in which people placed flowers and American flags on each one to remember the fallen soldiers. Ninety-nine years later, in 1967, Congress officially changed the name of the holiday from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, and it was scheduled for the last Monday of May.
Today, the true meaning of Memorial Day is often lost during a three-day weekend full of barbecues, picnics, getaways, trips to the beach and shopping at stores offering holiday deals. Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of summer. Yes, we should take this time to enjoy life and savor the freedoms that were won for us by our armed forces. We mustn’t lose the essence of the holiday, however. We should take the time to honor those who sacrificed their lives for us. At the same time, we can use the occasion to remember the veterans among us who came back from war. Many suffered physical wounds. All will feel their psychic scars throughout their lives.
Thursday, June 6, will mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces, among other Allies, stormed five beaches in Normandy, France, as Nazi troops rained machine-gun and mortar fire down on them. More than 10,000 Allied forces, including 6,600 Americans, died on that single day. By June 11, 326,000 Allied troops had come ashore in Normandy. It was the largest amphibious assault during war in history.
In all, more than 400,000 Americans died in combat during the Second World War.
Today, an average of 348 American World War II veterans die every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, the department reported last year that of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, just 496,000 — or 3 percent — are alive today.
Now is the time to record the personal histories of our World War II veterans. They best remember the heroism and sacrifice of their fallen brothers in arms. With each death of a veteran, we have one fewer witness to history.
In two weeks, President Trump and leaders from throughout the world will gather in France to pay homage to the servicemen from the U.S. and other Allied forces involved in D-Day. It’s uncertain precisely how many survivors of that day are alive today, but they are all over age 90.
In the hours leading up to the invasion, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, and later our 34th president, spoke to the troops. “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months,” he told them. “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
“In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other fronts,” Eisenhower continued, “you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe and security for ourselves in a free world.
“Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.”
Indeed, the German war machine fought savagely until the bitter end. The Allies never gave up, however, until victory was achieved in Europe on May 8, 1945.
Many North and South Shore communities will host Memorial Day parades and ceremonies this weekend. We urge people to attend them to remember the dead and, with our living veterans, recall the horrors of war in the solemn hope that we may one day find world peace.