For a nation with troops in harm’s way, Memorial Day takes on a special significance
Decoration Day. That’s what it was called until after World War II. It was the day graves of fallen servicemen were decorated, speeched were made and heads were bowed.
Its first recorded observance, according to Yale history professor David Blight, came as a result of freed slaves paying respects to fallen Union soldiers in Charleston in 1866.
The day became a different sort of cultural institution when Congress voted to change its traditional observance date from May 30 to the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend.
But Memorial Day is much, much more than the traditional beginning of summer to veterans who outlived their comrades in arms — and who sometimes owe their very lives to a buddy’s sacrifice. The day takes on a deeply personal and reverent purpose.
Karl Mueller is commander of American Legion Post 163 in Friday Harbor. He has presided over the Friday Harbor Memorial Day observance for each of the seven years he’s been commander, offering heartfelt remarks and introducing speakers who bring their own thoughts of loss and respect for those who paid to protect the public good with their lives.
For Mueller, as it is with most soldiers he knows, the day is intensely personal. Taking the time to honor those men who fell next to him, to bear witness to their sacrifice, is a most intense and important day for him.
“I lost several people I knew in my time in Vietnam,” Mueller said. “You know, if you’ve ever been in a combat unit, you know you’re not fighting for an idea or an allegiance or anything — you’re fighting for the guy next to you. You’re fighting for him and he’s fighting for you, you just want to get out of there alive and go home. It doesn’t come down to anything else.”
Veteran Mike Vouri understands completely. “For me, it’s deeply personal day. It’s a day that I remember some of the people I knew in Vietnam that didn’t come home.
“It’s not a time for a political agenda, but a time to pay respect for someone who paid the ultimate price. I’m always hopeful that when people get up to speak on Memorial Day, they won’t use it as a political forum. Nothing makes me angrier.”
This year’s speaker at the Memorial Day ceremony will be local pilot Richard Drury, who served in Vietnam.
“Karl asked me to do this and I thought, ‘Well, who am I to do this?,'” Drury said. ” ‘You were there,’ people say. Yeah, well. So were a lot of people.
“For those of us who have been in the military, Memorial Day is every day. People find out I served in Vietnam and they ask me, ‘When was that?’ I tell them, ‘Last night.’ I hear their voices all the time. It’s everyday for me.”
When this writer was stationed in Germany, I visited an office where there was a poster showing an infantryman walking in the snow, laden with gear along a road in the Ardennes.
The poster told of PFC Martin, an infantryman of the 325 Glider Infantry Regiment during the Battle of the Bulge. Americans were in full retreat. Getting out of his foxhole with his rifle, Martin tells a driver in a retreating tank destroyer, “Pull your vehicle in behind me … I’m the 82nd Airborne and this is as far as the bastards are going.”
The matter-of-fact aspect in young PFC Martin’s quip to the terrified driver has always stuck with me. It’s hard to explain and it’s always given me shivers when I think of it. Martin’s words are not so much bravado, but rather a clear-eyed, steel-cold matter-of-fact attitude of unquestionable resolve that says clearly: “This game is up. It’s over. This evil business ends here. Now. With me.”
At that moment, PFC Martin took responsibility for the war — all of it. For Martin, as an infantryman in late 1944, he’d faced the likelihood of his death long before. What he wasn’t comfortable with, and what he would never ever accept, was failure.
I think about Martin’s strength, shown at a moment of despair and I am … silenced. I don’t know if PFC Martin made it though that battle, for the 82nd, along with a lot of other units, got pretty chewed up in the most costly single battle of the war.
Martin’s 19 words illustrate a commitment shown by others to protect us. How alone servicemen and women must feel, so far from home, engaged in a conflict they neither created nor control.
“The people who serve are on the very spearpoint of our nation’s policies,” Vouri said. “It all ends with the guy in the Humvee on a unknown street in Iraq. He’s about as far out there as you’re going to get.”
The annual Memorial Day Parade starts at 10 a.m. at the American Legion Hall and proceeds up Court Street to Second Street to Spring Street to Memorial Park.
Speakers address the gathered public at Memorial Park and the streets will be filled. Flowers will be given to widows of servicemen. Flowers will be thrown into the harbor to acknowledge the sacrifices paid by shipborne personnel.
In the silence between the drumbeats, listen for the voices of those who paid the last full measure of devotion.
“Don’t forget me,” they say.