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.
“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