Memorial Day first became an American tradition as Decoration Day during the 1860s to memorialize those who died in battle during the American Civil War and place flowers at their graves. There is some debate about exactly when and where the observance was first proclaimed, but suffice it to say that Memorial Day was, and still is, meant to be a date set aside to render honors to those who have given their last full measure of devotion to this country. It’s not just a three-day weekend and it’s not just about barbecues and beer, parades and concerts, or the spectacle of the Indianapolis 500.
Memorial Day is a day to remember with respect and reverence those members of the military who laid down their lives for our freedom. Let that sink in. These days we are so distracted, so saturated by social media and fake news, so overwhelmingly desensitized to the true meaning of Memorial Day that a reminder seems called for. Summer in these United States of America actually starts in mid-June. May 28th is also International Hamburger Day, National Brisket Day, Whooping Crane Day, and even Slugs Return From Capistrano Day. Work with me here!
During the Revolutionary War approximately 8,000 patriots died in battle. During the War of 1812, 2,260 members of the military were lost. The Mexican-American War cost 1,733 lives lost in combat. The Civil War was the second-costliest in our nation’s history- in large part because the majority of the 214,940 combatants killed were American. The Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American Wars sent 385 and 1,020 members of the military to their graves respectively.
World War I, the “war to end all wars”, cost the lives of 53,402 American service personnel with a new category of statistic- the missing, of which 3,350 were found to be. World War II was astronomically costly. 291,580 American armed service personnel died fighting the Axis powers. More than a million were wounded and 30,315 were listed as missing. Korea resulted in another 33,684 combat deaths with 92,315 wounded and 4,761 missing in action.
Thankfully the Vietnam War was the last conflict to cost as many lives as it did. 47,423 service personnel died there. 211,455 were wounded and 1,602 were listed as missing. However, it should not be forgotten that one American (USAF Major Rudolf Anderson) was killed in combat and another 18 crew members were lost to operational accidents during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War would claim many more lives- perhaps the most overlooked of all those lost during their service to the country.
When the intelligence gathering ship USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was inexplicably attacked by Israel in 1967, 34 of her crew were killed and 171 wounded. When the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut was bombed in 1983, 241 US military peacekeepers were killed. During the Persian Gulf “Tanker War” the guided missile frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) was hit by an Exocet air-to-surface missile resulting in 39 crew members dead and 31 wounded. Operation Urgent Fury cost the lives of another 18 service members on the island of Grenada.
Operation Eldorado Canyon. Desert Shield. Desert Storm. Somalia. Afghanistan. Iraq, Iraq again. Operation Inherent Resolve. All have cost American lives- many of them known to us, our families, or our friends simply because we were directly affected by those lives. Those who gave their lives for their country more recently are no less worthy of our respect and remembrance than those who died at Bunker Hill, Belleau Wood, on the Arizona, turned the tide at Midway, fought kamikazes at Okinawa, tangled with German U-boats in the Atlantic, stormed the beaches at Normandy, struggled for Heartbreak Ridge, withstood the siege at Khe Sanh, or thousands of other nameless but no less important places.
During the ill-fated Iran hostage rescue attempt (Operation Eagle Claw), eight servicemen were killed at the Desert One rendezvous. Of the 16,000 submariners who crewed the Fleet Boats that took the fight back to Japan, 375 officers and 3,132 men are still on patrol. 15 American aircraft were shot down by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Memorial Day is about the crews. John J. Williams. Henry Gunther. The five Sullivan brothers. George A. Davis. Pat Tillman. Michael P. Murphy. Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge. Karl Richter. Jesse L. Brown. John Walmsley. Charley Havlat. Anthony J. Marchione. Remember them all and all the rest. Heroes and regular Joes. You can be sure their brothers in arms remember them.