Memorial Day 2019…and D-Day 1944

Last year’s post about Memorial Day (“Honoring Those Who Gave Up Two Lives”) had some background as to the holiday’s origin and purpose. However, a disheartening new poll saying “Only 55% of Americans Know Why the Nation Marks Memorial Day” shows there’s still much work to be done.

It’s especially concerning because only “40% of those aged 18-34” were able to “describe the holiday correctly.”  We can’t let the memory of those who paid the ultimate price fade away.

(As a quick reminder, Memorial Day is intended to commemorate those who have died in the service, while Veterans Day (Nov 11) which is also a public holiday, is intended to honor all veterans.)

Memorial Day this year comes shortly before another important date: the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The U.S. Army succinctly describes this gargantuan effort: 

“On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which, “we will accept nothing less than full victory.”

More than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe. The cost in lives on D-Day was high. More than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded, but their sacrifice allowed more than 100,000 Soldiers to begin the slow, hard slog across Europe, to defeat Adolf Hitler’s crack troops.”

The operation was so risky that Eisenhower drafted a message in case it failed:

The never-sent message

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Of course, he never had to send it, but D-Day was such a gigantic and phenomenally dangerous undertaking it’s hard to grasp today. To get something of a sense of that terrible day, I’d suggest watching Saving Private Ryan, perhaps the greatest artistic depiction of combat of all time. (Here’s the trailer.)  I also highly recommend you take a look at Brazilian artist Marina Amaral’s colorization of the black and white photos taken in 1944; the effect is stunning, and some can be found here.

In his Proclamation for Memorial Day 2019, President Trump recalled the “thousands of selfless members of our Armed Forces perished on the beaches of Normandy” in order “to pave the way for the Allied liberation of Europe and ultimately victory over the forces of evil.”

It’s difficult to comprehend that 16 million people served in the armed forces during World War II. If the same percentage of Americans who were serving in 1945 (12,209,238) were serving today, the U.S. would have 28,700,000 troops (the actual number as of active duty uniformed personnel as of March 2019 is around 1.3 million).

U.S. Army photo

The melancholy fact is that only 496,777 of what once were millions of World War II vets were still alive in 2018, and the very last veteran of that conflict is expected to have passed away by 2044. Shortly after you finish reading this, statistics predict that another World War II vet who was alive when you started, will have died.

Memorial Day is also an opportunity to remember all those who served, but who are no longer with us.

Frank Buckles in WW I, and in 2008

President Trump and the First Lady made an unannounced visit to Arlington Cemetery last week where “the first couple laid flags in section 34 of the cemetery, placing flags on the headstones of Frank Buckles, who was the last living World War I veteran, among others.Buckles passed away on February 27, 2011.

On Memorial Day 2009 former President Barack Obama thoughtfully addressed the sacrifice of those who died in America’s more recent conflicts when he asked:

“What tugs at a person until he or she says “Send me”? Why, in an age when so many have acted only in pursuit of the narrowest self-interest, have the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of this generation volunteered all that they have on behalf of others? Why have they been willing to bear the heaviest burden?

“Whatever it is, they felt some tug; they answered a call; they said “I’ll go.” That is why they are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those of us who have not served in uniform — their extraordinary willingness to risk their lives for people they never met.” (Emphasis added.)

It isn’t especially well known, but the statute establishing Memorial Day (36 U.S. Code § 116) has a distinctly peaceful and prayerful orientation:

a) Designation.

—The last Monday in May is Memorial Day.

(b) Proclamation.—The President is requested to issue each year a proclamation—

(1) calling on the people of the United States to observe Memorial Day by praying, according to their individual religious faith, for permanent peace;

(2) designating a period of time on Memorial Day during which the people may unite in prayer for a permanent peace;

(3) calling on the people of the United States to unite in prayer at that time; and

(4) calling on the media to join in observing Memorial Day and the period of prayer.

I hope prayer is part of your plans for Memorial Day, and please don’t forget that there are many ways we can honor those who have fallen (my wife has suggestions on her blog). You may also want to look at this essay, A Life Too Short Leaves a Lesson and Legacyabout Rich Lin, one of Duke Law’s finest, who passed away while serving as a Navy JAG.

This year I particularly invite you to spend a few minutes of your time to watch the video found here and thinking about those who answered their nation’s call and gave their last full measure of devotion.  (And here’s a video that focuses on the women who have fallen in our recent wars, set to Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings.)

Perhaps even more importantly, try to persuade those “aged 18-34” who apparently weren’t able to “describe the holiday correctly” to watch as well. The next generation needs to know the enormous sacrifices that have been made for them, and that…

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