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For Americans at Home and Abroad, Summer Begins with Remembrance of War Dead

Posted 06.21.11 at 10:06 AM by Steve Boren

For Americans at Home and Abroad, Summer Begins with Remembrance of War Dead

By Dr. Thomas Conner
William P. Harris Professor of Military History
Hillsdale College

It has become an American habit to consider Memorial Day as the start of summer vacation season, and Labor Day as the end of it. By far the more poignant of the two bookends of America’s summer, Memorial Day has its origins in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when the commander of the leading Union Army veterans organization proclaimed that graves of the war dead nationwide should be decorated on May 30.

Over time, this date became an official national observance, although it was known as Decoration Day for close to a century before becoming Memorial Day about fifty years ago. However this holiday may have originated or evolved in different parts of the country, it is now recognized uniformly throughout the land as an occasion for remembering and honoring the dead from all of America’s wars.
Memorial Day is probably marked in as many ways as there are cities, towns, villages, and families, from sea to shining sea. Backyard barbeques, parades, and sporting events are standard fare, but so, too, are patriotic speeches and commemorative wreath-layings. As is customary for the Commander-in-Chief, President Obama spent the most recent Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the final resting place of tens of thousands of American dead from all of our wars since the Civil War. In his address, the President observed that while we can never repay the debt we owe to our “fallen heroes,” we can and must remember and honor their sacrifice.
The occasion was not forgotten overseas either. Our government, through the agency of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), maintains 24 military cemeteries in ten foreign countries, in which are buried over 125,000 of our war dead. Twenty-two of these cemeteries are memorials and burial grounds from the two World Wars. At each of them, Memorial Day ceremonies took place this year and have been taking place since the cemeteries were opened decades ago. The American Overseas Memorial Day Association, a private entity headquartered in Paris and dating from 1920, co-sponsored many of these events. Over the years, I have had the honor and privilege of attending a number of such ceremonies, including the one this year at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
To Americans at home, the Normandy cemetery is no doubt the best known of all our overseas military memorials. President Bush spent Memorial Day there in 2002, as well as the June 6 D-Day anniversary two years later, and President Obama visited in 2009. While there is no denying the special place Normandy commands in our national memory, it is worth knowing that there are many other ABMC sites around the world, each of which bears the same living witness to the blood and treasure generations of Americans have been willing to spend in the defense of freedom—our own, and that of other peoples as well.
It was especially powerful and moving to experience an American Memorial Day observance on foreign soil. Hundreds of Frenchmen were on hand for the Normandy ceremony, and no doubt similar numbers from host countries turned up elsewhere, too. Representatives from the U.S. diplomatic corps and the U.S. military command in Germany gave addresses. As an American military band played an assortment of religious and patriotic hymns, nearly 30 wreaths were laid, mostly by representatives of local French communities and associations dedicated to perpetuating Franco-American friendship and remembering the fallen soldiers.
An especially touching speech by the mayor of Colleville-sur-Mer, the nearest village to the Normandy cemetery, evoked friendship, remembrance, and gratitude, and paid homage to the “soldiers of liberty” resting more than 9,000 strong under beautiful marble headstones. “France will never forget them,” he vowed, as he urged upon all his hearers the duty of passing on to the next generation the memories of what the American soldiers had done. That same morning, by sheer coincidence, I had breakfast at my hotel with a French couple who belonged to an organization called Fleurs de Mémoire (Flowers of Remembrance) and had been coming to Normandy on Memorial Day for more than 30 years. Their chief purpose was to decorate the grave of a soldier from Wisconsin killed behind Utah Beach shortly after the D-Day landings whose own family was rarely able to get to his grave site.
By such individual and collective acts, at home and far from home, is the true significance of Memorial Day honored and kept alive. Let’s hope that as the newly-born summer progresses, we will continue to find ways to remind ourselves that Americans have been uniquely blessed with the fruits of freedom and with generations of countrymen willing to fight and die to preserve them.

Dr. Thomas Conner is William P. Harris Professor of Military History at Hillsdale College. Along with courses in Western Heritage and American Heritage as part of Hillsdale's rigorous core curriculum, Dr. Conner also teaches upper-level courses on European history and the Two World Wars. He is one of the College's longest-serving faculty members, and has several times been named Professor of the Year by the student body. Dr. Conner is currently working on a book about history of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Visit our website, www.hillsdale.edu, for more information about Hillsdale College.

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