Memorial Day

You probably know that Memorial Day began after the Civil War, evolving from local “decoration day” observances. After World War I it expanded to a day of remembrance for soldiers in all American wars.

War has been part of our national experience from the birth of the nation. Some of these wars were necessary; some of them weren’t. Some of our wars are glorified in countless books and movies (e.g., World War II), but there are other wars we try hard to forget (e.g., Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam). Wars both justified and unjustified shaped history and steered national politics. They also affected ordinary citizens, personally and intimately. The soldiers, their families, their communities, went through gut-wrenching change, often terrible and tragic, but sometimes joyous. It’s important, I think, to remember these individuals and these experiences. It’s part of who we are.

Personal remembrances: Among my ancestors were two great-times-four grandfathers in the Revolution (I know only their names — William Gillihan and “Big John” Fronebarger) and three great great grandfathers who fought for the Union in the Civil War (another William Gillihan, a volunteer from Indiana who died in Arkansas in 1865, probably from disease; Ephraim Senter, volunteer from Missouri who was wounded somewhere in the western theater and who died shortly after the war; and Fielding King, Missouri volunteer and quartermaster who served under Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman). My grandfather, Robert John Thomas, was a veteran of the Western Front, World War I. My father, Robert Thomas, was born while Grandpa was in France. (Grandpa didn’t like his middle name, John, and he and Grandma never settled on another middle name, so my dad never got one.) Before World War II my dad was in the horse cavalry at Ft. Riley, Kansas, but when war preparations began the Army realized that the days of mounted saber charges were over, and they sent my Dad to airplane mechanics school. My dad’s younger brother, Harold Thomas, was a U.S. Marine embassy guard in Peking and taken prisoner by the Japanese the day after Pearl Harbor. He and the other North China Marines were POWs through the entire war. (After he was rescued he called home; when Grandma heard his voice, she fainted.) Of my Ma’s three brothers, Marion and Harold Gillihan were WWII vets, I believe, and Donald Gillihan is a veteran of Korea. My bro Robert Wayne Thomas (Grandpa wouldn’t let my folks name my brother “Robert John”) was in Vietnam ca. 1969-1970, as I remember. (Nephew Ian might help me out with that.) And my other nephew, Maj. Robert John Thomas (Grandpa wasn’t around to nix the “John”) is in the Army now, but I’m not sure what he’s doing right this minute. (Ian?)

I’m feeling a bit inarticulate today, so instead of writing something inane about What Memorial Day Means to Me I thought I’d just link to some photos from the Library of Congress and National Archives of veterans and the people who remembered them. Enjoy.

Daisies gathered for Decoration Day, May 30, 1899.

Soldiers observe Decoration Day, Manilla, Philippines, ca. 1900.

President Theodore Roosevelt reviews a Memorial Day parade in Canton, Ohio, 1907.

President Taft at Grand Army of the Republic convention, Rochester NY, 1911.

Confederate and Union veterans at Gettysburg reunion, 1913.

Decoration Day, 1917, location not specified.

Portrait of American soldier of World War I, ca. 1918.

U.S. soldier eating, ca. 1918.

124th Infantry (formerly Second Florida), Col. Walter S. McBroom, commanding, Camp Wheeler, Ga., Jan. 16th, 1918.

Sailors work to salvage the U.S.S. Arizona, 1942.

Salvaging the U.S.S. Oklahoma, 1942.

M-4 Tank crew, Fort Knox KY, 1942.

Memorial Day at Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1942.

Herbert Kondo, an American of Japanese Ancestry volunteer, is photographed with his parents in Kauai District, Territory of Hawaii, 1943. The elder Mr. Kondo is a veteran of World War I.

Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery, 1943.

Private Margaret Fukuoka, Women’s Army Corps, portrait by Ansel Adams, 1943.

Decorating a grave at Arlington, 1943.

Elizabeth L. Gardner of Rockford, Illinois, WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilot), 1947.

“A fond farewell from his family, sends Capt. Johnnie Gosnell of Borger, Texas, off on another mission over Korea.” 1950.

“Wolfpack pilots of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing sweep Colonel Robin Olds away from his F-4 Phantom II aircraft following his return from his 100th combat mission over North Vietnam.” 1967

Private First Class Russell R. Widdifield in Vietnam, 1969.

11 thoughts on “Memorial Day

  1. A “bit inarticulate” or not, thank you for this posting. It certainly honors your ancestors and the men they fought along side of. And that is what the day should be about.

    I have two uncles on my mother’s side who were in the Navy in WWII; one uncle was at Pearl during the attack and saved some Navy brass. My brother was in the Air Force during Viet Nam, and two cousins were also Air Force members. Not quite as many military members as in your family, but both sides of my family only arrived around 1910.

  2. I didn’t know Memorial Day began with the Civil War. I sometimes wondered why we observe it and Canadians don’t. Now I know. The elders in my family still called it “Decoration Day” well into the 1970s, and acknowledged its connection to our war dead, but also used it as a day to decorate the graves of all lost loved ones (e.g. my mother, who died of cancer when I was six).

    On this day I tend to think of both my parents, now gone. On November 11 I tend to reflect more on my father’s service in Mark Clark’s Fifth Army, in Italy in World War II, and my great-uncle’s service as a telegrapher in France in World War I. And to feel so sorry that I never learned much about their experiences, when I had the chance.

  3. Thanks for your wonderful Memorial day posting — for telling the stories of your family’s abiding service to the contry, going back to the Revolution. And thank you for the very moving pictures; your selection is inspired!

  4. your selection is inspired!

    Thank you. The National Archives online photo database has a wealth of World War II photos, but most of them are of planes and guns and boats. It’s hard to find photos that include soldiers’ faces. The Library of Congress has great photos of GIs in World War II but for most of them only thumbnails are online.

  5. Thanks to the Maha family for their sacrifices, and thanks to all the men and women past and present who have served and to their families who wait back home , trying to be brave.

    I grew up with no family…so I have no one to remember….but Andy Rooney from 60 minutes said something about this day that I could really relate to(he first said it last year and it was repeated this year)…basically he talked about his war buddies ,killed in service..and he pointed out he remembers them everyday, not just today..He thought instead we should spend this day reflecting on the children and try to figure out a way to make sure no one has to remember them after they are killed in wars too…I don’t have kids either but the thought just rang so true…..

    Part of remembering should be trying to avoid repeating the event that took so many lives…part of remembering should be trying to find solutions that don’t end in death.Part of remembering should be a hope that our leaders understand the lives that they hold in their hands have value as human beings, beyond their use a troops.

    IF we remembered…IF we took it seriously we would have never allowed the current war to happen.We don’t need new people to remember.What we need is a leader who understands we don’t make new people to remember based on “wars of choice”…they should only be used as a last resort as a means to defend ourselves.

    As for your Nephew..Maj.Robert John Thomas and all those serving now or in the past , THANK YOU…my thoughts and prayers are with you.

  6. Pictures are indeed worth a thousand words (although your words are gems, too, Maha). Thank you for this lovely post. I love your essays on history and you anchor it in time and place when you write about your ancestors. You bring it to life and I, for one, can never get enough of it in this “here and now” culture we live in. I saved the last one you wrote on the immigration issue into our inbox and my oldest son was quite taken with it. He asked, “Who wrote that?” I said, “Maha. Isn’t it lovely?”

    My dad’s side has a couple of Civil War ancestors. There are two Hezikiah’s from Ohio in there somewhere. My mom’s mother’s side leaned toward the ministry – two of her uncles were ministers and two aunts married ministers. One uncle, Congregational minister Robert Bartlett, lived in Plymouth House (the tenth generation of Bartletts since it was built in 1660). He wrote “The Pilgrim Way” and “The Faith Of The Pilgrims,” among 25 or so others.

    Both my dad and my husband were in the Navy. My dad and his twin brother (just barely 18) hovered off the coast of Japan at the end of WWII, waiting to go in if necessary. My husband’s service was during the Vietnam era (he lost his mom to cancer during boot camp). He was on the aircraft carriers, USS Bennington and USS Ticonderoga.

    My busy husband is at the town’s Memorial Day service at this very moment, playing violin for the veterans. I can picture them all standing there, wearing their American Legion hats, tearfully stoic for another good buddy they lost a month ago. The WWII vets are leaving us. The Vietnam vets have not felt the desire to step up into their place (it was a different war, a different time and their bonding is of a different sort). My husband is the exception because he’s an artistic and loving people person in a small town. I’ve been to a few of the American Legion “soirees” and I enjoy their company. They’re straight out of the 40’s and I cherish every one of them with potential tears in my eyes – for the day will come, sooner than I’m ready for, when they’ll fade into our past as well. Like all of us, they have their good sides and their not so good sides; their angel hearts and their stubborn blind spots. We’re human beings after all. We honor those in the past, recognizing the humanity in us all. We’ll be in the past one day, too, and who knows what they’ll say about us?

    “All flesh is grass. All generations, at heaven’s hidden motivation, arises, blooms and falls from grace. Another quickly takes its place.” (Pushkin)

    Thanks for your lovely link, too, Daniel. I felt like I was there with you. The past is humbling.

  7. What a lovely post and comments.

    My dad was a Marine serving mostly in the Phillipines during WWII. Sometime in the months after dad’s death in 2000, the local VFW created a wall hanging glass display containing Dad’s military items and the folded flag that had covered his casket. That wall hanging is on the wall at my brother’s home.

    I have wondered if I was conceived at Camp Pendleton, when my mom took a bus cross country for a last visit with my father before he shipped overseas. My older brother was 14 months old when I was born in 1943. My younger brother was born in 1946 and my ‘little’ sister in 1952.

    Maha, my dad had two middle names! Only his mom ever called him by his real first name, while in the community he was called by his first middle name, which most folks assumed was his first name. But most of the family just called him by his nickname, ‘Bud’.

    Here’s a salute to you, G.F.E.B….. aka ‘Bud’.

  8. Thanks for this thoughtful remembrance of the service and sacrifice of our soldiers and veterans. It is so important, no matter what your position on the Iraq war, that we are thankful for those who raised their hands when our country called and said, “Here am I, send me.” As a veteran of the Vietnam War it is my firm belief that the best way to support our troops is to work for peace and bring them home. And to add a bit to the family history, our Uncle Harold Thomas died in his early 50’s from heart disease due to the effects of starvation while a prisoner of war. I did serve in Vietnam from June 1969 to May 1970 as a medical platoon leader in the First Cavalry Division and your nephew, MAJ Robert John Thomas, is an armor officer in the acquisition corps. Our family has a proud tradition of military service but would all agree that war is a horrible thing. On this day, however, let us give thanks for those who gave everything to us. I am very proud of what you wrote here. Your brother, Robert W Thomas, Colonel (Retired), US Army.

  9. I just found this blog. Very well written and I love the pictures. I am fascinted by history and how it shapes us today. One of your forefathers fought with Sherman, my great grandfather fought against Sherman and was wounded and captured in 1863.

    I wonder how they would feel today to see how the country has changed.


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