Memorial Day 2019

Stephen DeAngelis

May 27, 2019

Summer is here — unofficially at least. It’s a bit ironic that Memorial Day, a solemn day dedicated to remembering those who have fallen fighting America’s wars, is more often celebrated as the start of the vacation season. Before beginning the celebrations, let’s pause to remember why most people get a day off from work. Memorial Day has its origins in America’s Civil War. In some communities, citizens began decorating the gravestones of their fallen loved ones. Former Union General John A. Logan, who led an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, was so touched by these scenes that he called for a nationwide day of remembrance. He issued a declaration that stated: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan didn’t call this day Memorial Day, he called it Decoration Day, as a reminder of the activities he wanted to see take place on that day (i.e., decorating graves with flowers).

In the Washington, D.C., area on that day in 1868, services were conducted at Arlington National Cemetery — which, until 1864, had been Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation. President Ulysses S. Grant presided over that first Memorial Day ceremony. David Holzel reports, “The principal speaker was James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, Republican congressman from Ohio and future president.”[1] According to Holzel, Garfield began his speech on this hot day by saying, “I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion.” He may have felt inadequate to speak, but, according to Holzel it didn’t stop Garfield speaking. He continued, “If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.” Apparently silence wasn’t golden and Garfield’s sense of impropriety was overcome. Holzel reports Garfield’s speech “went on like that for pages and pages.”

Although formal ceremonies honoring fallen heroes are still held, attendance is generally light — people are undoubtedly trying to avoid speeches like the one given by Garfield. Still, we should never forget the sacrifice made those who fought and died in America’s wars. One of the ways America has honored its fallen heroes is by erecting memorials. One of the most poignant memorials in the Washington, DC, area is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There is one group of fallen sailors, however, whose names have not been added to that wall. They are the 74 men who died while serving on the USS Frank E. Evans that was struck by the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne during exercises in the early morning hours of 3 June 1969. At the time, the Evans was participating in a SEATO exercise called Sea Spirit. Despite operating in Vietnamese waters immediately before participating in Exercise Sea Spirit, and being scheduled to return to activities supporting the war effort after the exercise, the Pentagon determined Exercise Sea Spirit took place outside the geographical limit for the combat zone and the crew was judged ineligible for inclusion on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Since the Evan’s primary purpose in the area was supporting the war, denying the fallen sailors a place on the wall appears callous at best and ignorant at worst. Sometimes rules need to be broken. Chris Carola (@ChrisCarola1) reports, “Survivors and relatives of those killed have been pushing the Department of Defense for years to add the 74 names to the wall.”[2] The pleas of friends and relatives have continued to be rebuffed. A bipartisan push by Congress could make this injustice right and make next Memorial Day brighter for those who remember the fallen 74 victims. Ironically, the ship was awarded a Vietnam Service Medal the day before the accident. To read a list of the Fallen 74, follow this link.

Today, many people take time on Memorial Day to remember loved ones whether they died in service to their country or not. There is certainly nothing wrong with that practice. Remembering loved ones and celebrating their lives can be cathartic; but, let’s not forget the original reason Memorial Day was created. Whether you’re out celebrating or honoring the dead, all of us at Enterra Solutions® hope have a safe and memorable day.

Footnotes
[1] David Holzel, “10 Things to Remember About Memorial Day,” Mental Floss, 27 May 2018.
[2] Chris Carola, “US refuses to add sailors’ names to Vietnam Memorial,” Navy Times, 21 May 2017.