Memorial Day 2021 marks 50 years since the holiday first became federally recognized on the last Monday of May 1971. Before 1971, Memorial Day was officially celebrated by all states and territories on May 30 regardless of the day of the week May 30 fell upon. Previously called Decorations Day, Memorial Day is the youngest of our two Federal military holidays. Veterans Day, the other Federal military holiday, was previously called Armistice Day in 1938 to honor only World War I veterans. After World War II and the Korean War, the name Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day to honor all veterans of all American wars. The name change was approved by Congress authorizing the striking of the name “Armistice” from the original 1938 Armistice Day legislation and inserting the word “Veterans.” Both Federal military holidays have storied pasts, but aside from Memorial Day being the youngest, it is also the most solemnized of the two.
During and after the American Civil War, days were set aside to honor that war’s dead whose number exceeded 600,000. Though there were no set day, month, nor season, the overall objective remained-to honor, commemorate, memorialize, and mourn the war’s dead. It wasn’t until 1886 that Union Major General John A. Logan decreed a set day of May 30 as Decoration Day to honor all Civil War deaths. On that day (May 30), he suggested Americans lay flowers and decorate the graves of the then recent Civil War’s fallen. In his decree, he lamented the war’s dead as those “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church in the land.”
General Logan’s arbitrary selection of May 30 as Decoration Day caused historians to question his motives. Some suggested he may have chosen this date because it appeared somewhat apolitical. No symbolic events were commemorated on his selected date in southern or Northern states. Neither did it appear to be the beginning or ending of any major Civil War campaign. Still others feel certain Logan’s selected May 30 date was an undebatable seasonal choice. By May 30 being considered the “unofficial beginning of summer,” flowers would have been readied and available to lay upon the graves of the fallen. General Logan’s wife is said to have believed he may have gotten the “once a year commemoration” idea of the fallen from the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia. The Association resolved to commemorate the fallen Confederate soldiers yearly in 1886. Logan’s idea of a set day for Decoration Day took hold in America immediately. By 1900, all states and territories were celebrating Decoration Day on May 30 as an official holiday. As popular as the holiday was, it would not become federal until 1971 to conform with the Monday uniform holiday act.
Aside from General Logan’s military career spanning from the Mexican American War to the American Civil War, he also had a long and distinguished political career. In 1884, he was the Republican Party’s unsuccessful Vice Presidential candidate. During his early political career, Logan was known as a staunch racist, but after the Civil War, he became an advocate for African American Civil rights and Women’s suffrage. Despite his many accomplishments, historians generally agree his lasting legacy is that of tireless advocate for all Civil War veterans’ causes. After death the casketed remains of this “unofficial founder of Memorial Day” lay-in-state in the U. S. Capitol’s Rotunda, an honor only extended to seven others at that time. On this Memorial Day, it’s noteworthy that the casketed remains of the unknown soldiers of the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War I, and World War II have also been laid–in-state in the U. S. Capitol’s Rotunda.
On Memorial Day, we honor all American service persons who died while serving our country. As a grateful nation, we honor our war dead by offering speeches, parades, songs, and by displaying the American flag. We also honor our fallen by decorating their graves, by lowering and raising the American flag to half staff, and by observing a solemn national moment of silence for one minute (3 pm local time).
A general profile of the remains we honor on Memorial Day is that of the young. While some service persons who died in American wars were over 40 years of age, most were in their twenties and teens. At one period during the Vietnam War, teenage soldiers in combat were fairly common. I was reminded of the typical age of casualties and deaths of that war while doing research for this article in the Natchitoches Parish Library. In a conversation with library employees, the name Sam Cole Jr. was mentioned. I goggled Sam’s name and found Sam was killed in action (KIA) during the Vietnam war on May 9,1968. Sam and I served with the Marines in Vietnam but in different years.
A notable example of a teenager killed in action in Vietnam received national attention when his story was aired during an episode of the Sally Jessy Raphael talk show. The teenager, Pfc. Dan Bullock was 15-years-old, 5 months and 17 days, when his unit was attacked by units of the North Vietnamese regular Army (NVA) on June 6 1969. During the attack, Dan and three other members of his unit were killed instantly by enemy small arms fire. When interviewed by the New York Times, Dan’s father is quoted as saying, “My son had no business in that damn war.” Dan’s gravesite remained without a headstone for 31 years. Researchers have concluded Dan was the youngest KIA during the Vietnam War and possibly the youngest KIA since World War I. Dan and I also served with the Marines in Vietnam but in different years.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t freely admit a personal connection to the 50th anniversary of Memorial Day becoming a federal holiday. Also in May 1971, the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines departed what was then called Da Nang South Vietnam to return to Camp Pendleton, California. This Marine Corps Regiment was the last to conduct ground combat operations in Vietnam. As an 18 year old Lance Corporal (E-3), I was assigned to Foxtrot Company of this Battalion. For the Marine Corps, our departure was the end of an era. For me, May 1971 was the beginning of a military career that would last for another 21 years.
Most of my fellow “quonset hut” Marines have remained tight-lipped about Vietnam. However, an old buddy has opened up and written a paperback about our unit’s final days in Vietnam. The book is titled “Vietnam, The Last Combat Marines,” which is authored by David Gerhardt. After reading his book, I phoned David to confirm he was the same “SGT Gerhardt” I remembered. A couple of the incidents described in David’s book were as vivid as if they happened yesterday. I’m 68-years-old. I recommend this book to readers interested in the last days “TWO ONE” spent in a combat zone.
I ask readers to remember not only war deaths of the Vietnam War, but the deaths of all American Wars on this Memorial Day.
Willie M Calhoun