The Memorial Day weekend is approaching — a time acknowledged as the unofficial start of summer. Most people are eager to think of how they can relax and enjoy the long weekend, often forgetting the purpose of the holiday.
No one could say it better than President Ronald Reagan did in a 1986 speech at Arlington National Cemetery. He said: “Today is the day we put aside to remember fallen heroes and to pray that no heroes will ever have to die for us again. It’s a day of thanks for the valor of others, a day to remember the splendor of America and those of her children who rest in this cemetery and others. It’s a day to be with the family and remember.”
It’s the “remember” that we must emphasize. Memorial Day honors the 1.3 million Americans who died while serving the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it’s a time when families and veterans organizations decorate the graves of fallen loved ones. We are among those who consider the holiday as “America’s most solemn occasion.”
In Reagan’s speech, he mentioned some familiar names who are buried at Arlington — heroes such as Bull Halsey and Admirals Leahy — father and son. Audie Murphy is buried there — the movie star who bounded to the top of a disabled tank, stopping the enemy from advancing and then radioing for artillery support. His reply when asked how close the enemy was to his position: “Wait a minute and I’ll let you speak to them.”
Reagan mentioned Joe Louis, the son of a sharecropper who emboldened this nation in the days after the Pearl Harbor attack. He joined the Army and said, “I know we’ll win because we’re on God’s side.” The acclaimed boxer plunged into service, traveling thousands of miles to lift spirits of American soldiers.
Louis’ love of country and concern for soldiers should be remembered in history. He donated the purses from two fights (almost $100,000 in 1942) to the Army and Navy relief societies. When he joined the Army later that year, he staged 96 boxing exhibitions during some four years of service. More than 2 million servicemen and women saw him and had their sense of purpose strengthened, according to a 2014 story on the U.S. Army website.
“Everyone relished meeting the heavyweight champion of the world,” said Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., “and they relished the fact that the heavyweight champion of the world was a soldier. Whether they were white or whether they were Black — it didn't matter in the sense that he was a soldier. They knew the indignities that soldiers had to endure, but he was a soldier and they loved that.”
The champ cultivated his image after crushing Max Schmeling in 1938 before 70,000 people at New York’s Yankee Stadium. The Brown Bomber knocked out the German in the first round, retaining his title and slapping down Aryan idealism in the process. “It brought the nation’s citizenry together like no other event and was the first time in history that white America had embraced a Black man,” the website noted.
Although Louis saw himself as a patriot and supported all the troops, he felt a special obligation to support the masses of Blacks like himself who had donned uniforms.
“He fought to make it better,” said Barrow. “He talked regularly to Truman Gibson (then assistant civilian aide to the Secretary of War) to make it better. He would go on to Black bases and see how Black troops were taken care of, or not being taken care of, and he would say, ‘You need to make it right for the Black troops down here.’”
At the conclusion of his military career in 1945, Louis was awarded the Legion of Merit for his service. His official military personnel file includes the fact that he boxed in exhibitions so frequently that he injured himself, putting his livelihood at risk “rather than disappoint soldiers who frantically stormed by thousands to the scene of his exhibitions.”
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It was 1864 when the first soldier was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The federal government opened Arlington because cemetery space in the Washington, D.C., area was filling up quickly, primarily as a result of the many Civil War casualties. Today, more than 400,000 people are buried, cremated or in caskets across the cemetery’s 639 acres.
There are service members buried there from every war in U.S. history, including re-located remains of casualties from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812.
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Final thought …
In 2014, I was privileged to hear Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell recall the events of 9/11 when he was severely burned after terrorists hijacked a plane and flew it into the Pentagon.
He made this comment which is appropriate for Memorial Day …
“The character of the nation is not defined by what you see in the checkout line (magazines) at Walmart, but the character of the nation is defined by those who, without notoriety, put on the uniform and deploy to far-distant lands and endure the harshest conditions. Character is defined by the 1 percent who put on that uniform.”