Just West of Cambridge, England on an immaculate slope of deep green grass surrounded by sprawling woodlands lies a powerful reminder of the tragedy of war. The Cambridge American Cemetery sits on more than thirty acres. The land was donated to the U.S. by Cambridge University. It remains the only permanent American World War II military cemetery in the British Isles.
As an American graduate student at Cambridge University and a U.S. Navy Veteran, I was drawn to this sacred place. During my time in England, I made many trips here to walk among the 3,812 white grave markers neatly arranged in a 90-degree arc, each one facing a large American flag in the center.
Every white cross and star of David represented a young American who died in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the bombings of Northwest Europe. As I walked the rows, I found myself reading the names, calculating their ages, and thinking about these heroes. These were young men and women who left their country to defend a place far from their homes.
I was very close to my two grandfathers who both served in World War II. They each had a profound and powerful effect on who I am as a person. One served on a Navy Destroyer Escort in the Atlantic and the other was in the Army in the Pacific theatre. Both men survived the war, returned to their hometowns, and started families. They had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Each lived a long and happy life.
The heroes buried in Cambridge never had that chance. These brave Americans died young and never returned home. Their lives were cut short and they remain silent on that quiet slope of green grass in the British countryside. On Memorial Day, I always find myself thinking about those heroes on that hill.
As a veteran, I worry that Americans will forget about the men and women who paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we enjoy. The declining number of veterans is part of my concern. In 2016, only 7% of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18% in 1980. The gap between those who served and those who didn’t continues to grow. This could lead to Americans forgetting about those that sacrificed so much.
Today, Memorial Day has become a three-day weekend with sales, picnics, barbeques, vacations, and the unofficial start of the summer season but it didn’t start out this way. It was originally called Decoration Day and was dedicated to honoring those that died serving in the military.
After the Civil War, America was dealing with the loss of more than 620,000 soldiers. General John A. Logan, the leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for May 30th to be set aside “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” The date was chosen specifically because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular Civil War battle.
On the first Decoration Day on May 30, 1868, former Union General and Ohio Congressman James A. Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery. His words were clear and powerful. He proclaimed that “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For the love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
That day, more than 5,000 Americans showed up at Arlington to decorate the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. From that point forward, the tradition grew with similar celebrations throughout the country.
For more than 50 years, Decoration Day commemorated those killed in the Civil War only. It wasn’t until World War I that the tradition expanded to include American military personnel who died in all wars. Memorial Day, as we know it, became an official federal holiday in 1971 as Americans dealt with the effects of the Vietnam War.
Today, Memorial Day is an American federal holiday, observed on the last Monday of May. It’s set aside to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. It’s a tradition to fly the flag at half-staff from dawn until noon and Americans are encouraged to visit cemeteries and place flowers or flags on graves to honor those who have died in military service. It is celebrated each year at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which American flags are placed on each grave and the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the “National Moment of Remembrance Act” which designated 3:00 PM local time on Memorial Day each year as the National Moment of Remembrance. It is tradition to have either a moment of silence or to play “Taps” at 3:00 PM.
This Memorial Day, let’s remember these American heroes. Take time to find a local memorial service in your area. Visit a military cemetery or memorial. Watch the ceremony at Arlington. Share in a moment of silence at 3:00 PM. Spend time to think about the young men and women who left their country to defend our freedoms so far from their homes and let’s honor those that never came home.