Memorial Day is now a three-day holiday. Many of us think of it as a three-day holiday without much thought to why we have set aside this day as a holiday.
Memorial Day is personal with me and should be for most Americans. Here is one example.
Marine Lieutenant Ralph A. Russell was officially listed as missing in action on March 19, 1945. He was 22 years old and presumed to have been 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.
When last seen, his engine was smoking badly, he had opened his cockpit canopy and was preparing to jump. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism and flying ability in combat. He was never seen or heard from again.
Some 68 years are now gone since he died—one young man out of 400,000 who died in World War II.
I never knew Ralph. I was born a short time after he died and was given his name. My mental image of him is formed by fading photographs of a young man with a big smile standing proud in the uniform of a Marine with the family farm he was leaving behind forming the backdrop in 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 and saw the emotional reaction of his loss to his family. The grief of losing a young son never goes away. My grandmother would cry when speaking about him two decades after he was killed; my grandfather preferred not to display his emotions and just didn’t talk much about him; my mother still tears up when she talks about her brother who died so young.
I was named after a war hero who died fighting in America’s armed forces. I readily admit to being proud of that distinction. I proudly display Ralph’s posthumous purple heart and Distinguished Flying Cross in my office.
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 their country.
For those Americans who have lost a son, daughter, relative, or friend serving in our armed forces, it 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 those of us who have followed them to enjoy our freedom and prosperity.