Private Dean Robertson of the 6th Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps, 2nd Division in the American Expeditionary Forces wrote home from his occupation duties in Germany on June 2, 1919:
“I have just returned last eve. from quite a trip into (Beaumont) France … for services on Decoration Day. Everything went off well. There was a detail of French soldiers & a band there. Also, several French officers with Gen. Pershing. Also, there were 2 or 3 hundred French civilians there — come to help us honor the American dead. The cemetery is beautiful for a new one. The graves are raised and leveled off, the crosses are all even and on every grave was a flag and wreath. In the center was a big American flag at half mast.”
In 1868, a half-century earlier after another bloody war, former Union General John A. Logan established official recognition of Decoration Day, which would officially become Memorial Day in 1967. He commanded the members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the association of veterans who had served the Union during the Civil War, to decorate with flowers the graves of fallen comrades.
The creation of the American Legion was inspired by the memory of the Grand Army of the Republic.
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After America’s entry into World War I in April 1917, families hung flags with blue stars in their windows as patriotic gestures to show that they had family members in the armed forces. These flags appeared in every city and town across the United States, expressing national unity and resolve and silently telling passersby of their contribution.
In 1918, the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense claimed that “the basic idea of the service flag is that there shall be a blue star used to represent each person, man or woman, in the military and naval service of the United States or (serving with) the allies. For a person killed in action, a gold star shall be placed over the blue star, entirely covering it.”
The American Expeditionary Forces returned to the United States over a period of months, as ships made the transatlantic journey several times to get all the troops home. Cities and towns across the nation organized huge parades to greet and honor their own. In New York, thousands of soldiers marched through the center of Manhattan, cheered by throngs of onlookers. Kansas Citians built a triumphal arch over Grand Avenue.
In September 1919, General John J. Pershing returned to an enthusiastic reception in New York City. Later, he reviewed a parade of former expeditionary troops in Washington, D.C. It took four hours for the tanks, planes and marching units to pass by.
The global war left deep wounds. In Europe, where the loss of human life was unprecedented, temporary graves were still scattered around the battlefields. A sad duty of the living was to record the dead and relocate their graves to vast cemeteries with endless rows of stone markers. There was a pervasive sense of loss. Millions of families learned to live without loved ones. Returning veterans tried to restart their lives, but some never found a place in civilian society.
The true meaning of Decoration Day or Memorial Day to those who served in World War I and every military action since then is best summed up by Florence Edith Hemphill of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps:
“October 24, ‘18, An American nurse died here the other day. She had just come over. Two of their number died in England and she out here. We went to the cemetery for the burial and there were two U.S. boys buried too at the same time, all in one grave. The ceremony was quite simple but very impressive. They had the firing of the guns and the last post.”
Memorial Day is still a time of reflection and remembrance. From the town greens of Lexington and Concord, to the deserts of the Middle East, those who gave their lives in defense of the country still shine forth. While traditions and observances have changed over the years, the true meaning of the day has not: to honor those women and men who have served our country beyond self.
Doran Cart is senior curator of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.