Memorial Day is now a three-day holiday for most Americans. We don’t have to go to work and the airwaves are filled with "Memorial Day specials." It is an opportunity to get good prices on local car sales where the tents are decorated with American flags. And, since it is a day we don’t have to go to work, merchants offer the opportunity to pick up a recliner at a local furniture store at reduced prices or we can go to the beach to go swimming and celebrate the start of the summer season.
While it is difficult to recognize without looking for it, car sales and furniture discounts were not the original reason for the holiday. Changing Memorial Day to a three-day holiday may fit our national mood though. Politicians can take credit for giving us more time off from work and economists will point out that we can go shopping to support the economy.
But young men and women dying in a war zone isn’t pleasant for discussion at the dinner table. The ambivalence of Korea, the acrimony of Vietnam, the political debates over our mission in Iraq, and the hypocritical messages of our national politicians from both parties striving to use our armed forces for personal political gains all work to blur the original purpose of Memorial Day–to remember those who died in service to our country.
I resent the changes. It’s personal. It reflects an attitude in our country that denigrates the sacrifices made by those who have fought in our Armed Forces. Here’s one example.
Marine Lieutenant Ralph A. Russell was officially listed as missing in action on March 19,1945. He was 22 years old and killed over the Sea of Japan in the waning days of World War II. According to the official military dispatch, his squadron was intercepted by the Japanese Air Force during a strike deep within the enemy’s inland sea area. He turned his plane in a counter-attack and his flying skills in combat contributed to destroying nine enemy planes and damaging seven others, helping others in his squadron to survive while he was forced down.
The commanding officer who was with him on his mission sent a hand-written note to Ralph’s parents describing Ralph’s last moments. When last seen, his engine was smoking badly, he had opened his cockpit canopy and was preparing to jump as his plane headed for the sea. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism and flying ability in combat. He was never seen or heard from again.
Some 60 years are now gone since he died—one young man out of 400,000 who died in World War II.
I never knew Ralph. My image of him is formed by fading photographs of a young man standing proudly in the uniform of a Marine with the rural Vermont family farm he was leaving behind forming the backdrop of the black and white photographs.
While it seems strange to mourn the loss of a man I never knew, I learned a great deal about him, in part because I was born shortly after he was killed and given his name. I saw that the grief of losing a son doesn’t ever go away. My mother and grandmother would try not to cry when speaking of him; my grandfather preferred not to display his emotions and just didn’t talk much about him other than to express the unfathomable loss he felt for not being able to see his son grow up to be the man he would have become had he survived the last weeks of the war.
In retrospect, World War II was a simpler time. Most young men served in the military, some of them eagerly and with confidence they were doing so in the service of a country grateful for their efforts and their sacrifice. We are a more cynical country today.
Some of our leading colleges and universities won’t allow military recruiters on campus–allegedly based on their allegiance to higher principles. And with the smug arrogance of the self-righteous who have lived and breathed on an ivy league campus, the graduates of these institutions rarely serve in the military.
There is an arrogance filtering down from some leaders that roughly translates into class distinction where the best and brightest are too good to serve our country by entering military service. For those Americans who have lost a son, daughter, relative or friend serving in our armed forces, Memorial Day is still a time to recall the memory of those who died in the defense of our country. For those who are fortunate not to have lived through such a loss, I hope they will take some time from shopping or swimming to recall the sacrifice others have made to allow us to enjoy our freedom and prosperity.