Memorial Day 2014: A Time for All to Remember, but Especially Genealogy and Family History Lovers
Memorial Day Weekend. While June 21st may still be in the future, today marks the unofficial beginning of ‘Summer’. A nice, long, three-day weekend, family and friends gathering, and the grill fired up. All wonderful ways to start our summer, especially after the winter most of us had here in North America.
But let us not forget the reason for this holiday.
I am old enough to recall when this holiday was called ‘Decoration Day’, but as with all things, times change and so did the name of this day, but the purpose has remained the same: to honor and remember all those who gave their lives in service to our country and also those who served and serve in the military today.
So first, I’d like to simply say a huge THANK YOU to all the members of the military who protect our freedoms and our way of life.
Next I’d like to say a separate thank you to those who have given their lives in the service to our country and our ideals. As a genealogist and family historian I am acutely aware of how many of these individuals are in our own family tree. I am sure you are aware of them all in your family trees as well.
One of the most significant findings I have made in my genealogy work has been the fact that there are two ancestors in our family tree who, to this day, remain KIA/MIA (Killed in Action/Missing in Action). One from the Korean War and one from the war in Vietnam. One who lost his life in the brutal Battle of Chosen Reservoir and the other when he was shot down over the skies of Vietnam in his helicopter. Both of these men have yet to return ‘home’. These two relatives along with the facts that we have a Naval Officer in our family who is currently on active duty and my father was a decorated 1st Lt in the US Army in WWII is no longer alive makes Memorial Day all the more important to us.
Wile the first ‘official’ observance of Decoration/Memorial day was May 30, 1868 and held at Arlington National Cemetery, the true origins of this ‘holiday’ are, like so many of our own stories and lore in our genealogy and family history, lost in time.
Several towns claim to have observed the first Decoration Day. Among these towns are Columbus, Mississippi, Macon and Columbus, Georgia, Richmond, Virginia, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, Charleston, South Carolina, and Carbondale, Illinois. Then in 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York to be the ‘Official birthplace’ of Decoration/Memorial Day based on this community’s regular observance, which had begun on May 5, 1866.
It wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and moved to the last Monday in the month of May.
Then in 2000, Congress passed Public Law 106-579, “The National Moment of Remembrance Act”. This law asks all Americans, no matter where they are, or what they are doing, at 3:00 pm local time on Memorial Day to observe a minute of silence in honor and memory of all who have served America.
Today, much of Memorial Day has become focused on its being the unofficial start of summer and there certainly is nothing wrong with that. After all, as family historians and genealogists, we can fully appreciate the whole idea of family gatherings no matter what the purpose. Gathering together, enjoying the late spring weather, perhaps firing up the barbeque grill, and just being together with family and friends. And when better to gather our precious and wonderful family stories, memories, and legends than when everyone is together for this holiday or any other.
So this Memorial Day Weekend, I hope you not only get those stories, but have as an additional goal to get the stories from all the veterans in your family. They are precious and what better time to ask than on Memorial Day? Oh, and be certain to write down the details!
My father rarely spoke of his military service and when he did, I was not yet pursuing our family history. I missed the opportunity to ask him about the units he served in during World War II. I remembered that he said he was a member of the 83rd Infantry Division, commonly called the ‘Thunderbolt’ and/or the ‘Ohio’ Division. I thought that was enough. Only too late did I realize that a division in the U.S. Army consists of between 10,000 and 15,000 men. Plus each division made up of several regiments, which in turn are made up of multiple companies, followed by platoons. Only having the name of his division has made it very challenging to now document his moves within the European Theatre of Operations while his division fought for 244 days, saw 2,735 members killed, 11,678 injured, 547 missing, and 288 captured. So believe me when I say don’t be shy, ask those detailed questions, and write down all the answers!
On a final note, I’d like to suggest you take just a minute or two and watch this wonderful YouTube video posted by Arlington National Cemetery and produced by ‘The Old Guard’. It is a time-lapse of their 2014 ‘Flags In’ volunteer work at Arlington. ‘Flags In’ is a marvelous tradition and one that will, or has, taken place across America at our National Cemeteries and others.
To all the men and women who served, fought for our freedoms, and especially to those who gave their lives I close with a sincere and heartfelt thank you. All Americans owe you each an everlasting debt of gratitude.