Mayor gives 2017 Memorial Day address
This is my third Memorial Day address. On this special day in this special place it is a privilege to remember and honor those in our armed forces who perished in conflict in the service of our country. Our country has officially celebrated Memorial Day – originally Decoration Day – since 1868, nearly 150 years ago. It came into being as an annual and nationwide event through General Order No. 11 issued by General John A. Logan, the National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization for Union Army veterans of the Civil War. It was a day to decorate the graves of the fallen with flags and flowers, as we continue to do today.
One of the many touching stories coming out of the Civil War was that of Yankee private Henry Struble. He was thought a casualty at the horrific battle at Antietam, Maryland in September 1862. His canteen was found near a dead soldier he had stopped to help. Believing the dead soldier was Struble, the military assigned him a marked grave. Following the war, Struble sent flowers every Memorial Day to decorate the grave in his name that contained the remains of the soldier that he had sought to help. This story reminds us of the heartfelt empathy and heavy sadness we all feel for unrecovered and unknown soldiers and sailors.
One more touching story from the Civil War; the locale was Charleston, South Carolina. The date was May 1, 1865. By then, the last major Confederate Army had surrendered. Two hundred Union soldiers had died while confined at a makeshift Confederate prison at the city’s racecourse. The African American population of Charleston, protected by a brigade of Union infantry, which included three regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, honored the fallen captive Union soldiers with flowers and orations.
Why did these African American residents do so? This was their way of expressing profound thankfulness for the ultimate sacrifice of these Union dead. These Charleston African Americans fully understood they were no longer enduring the bondage of slavery. I would like to say they were rejoicing in their “freedom” but we all know that the racial caste system and Jim Crow laws lasted another 100 and more years.
This year, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of our entry into the Great War – now known as World War I. President Wilson’s goal in leading our nation into that conflict nearly three years after it began was to make the world “safe for democracy.” We all wish it had turned out that way. The Great War would endure another one and a half years after our country’s formal entry into the war, with our participation in significant combat occurring in less than the last six months. The number of American soldiers killed in those six months was about the same as the total killed during our entire involvement in Vietnam.
Today, World War I, though our involvement in it changed the course of world history, is largely forgotten – overshadowed by World War II and subsequent conflicts, especially the Korean and Vietnam Wars. There are magnificent monuments on the national Mall in Washington D.C. for World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. There is no national World War I monument on or near the Great Mall. Today, the Great War without doubt is the most important war fought by our country that Americans generally do not know about.
But I heard much about the Great War as a youngster. My paternal grandfather, a Canadian Scot, was a significant political leader in Elgin County, Ontario, above western Lake Eerie. He served on what today would be known as a local draft board. In my youth there was much discussion about the enormous slaughter of young Canadians in World War I. And so I learned at an early age of that magnificent Great War poem inspired by the fields of Belgium poppies that populated the battlefields. The poem was, of course, “In Flanders Fields.” The poet was Major John McCrae, a Canadian Scott.
Those of you here of a certain age surely know the poem almost by heart. Because of the poem, the poppy flower became the official flower of the American Legion family to memorialize the solders that fought and died in the Great War. It is also the Flower of Remembrance for the war dead of Britain, Canada, France, Australia, and other Commonwealth countries. The Belgium poppy is a red poppy –- as beautiful as our Napa orange poppies.
Here is the poem:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw the sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
On Memorial Day we recognize and honor all those who have served our country in our various military services, but we also keep in mind that Memorial Day is particularly dedicated to those who lost their lives – mostly young lives — in our too many wars. We especially salute them today, and also their families who for a lifetime suffered from their ultimate sacrifice.
Thank you American Legion Post 199 for allowing me the high honor of addressing you on this special day.