Memorial Day is traditionally considered to be the official opening of the summer season. People flock to the beaches, fire up the barbie for hot dogs and beer and say goodbye to the cold weather of months past. It is a day celebrated by the commercial community; for weeks they have been touting great summer sales for shoppers eager to sport the new summer fashions. However, this day is more special than that. It is a day in which one can see the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Wounded Warriors, and affiliated organizations, on street corners offering paper poppies dedicated to the memory of those who sacrificed their lives in service to their country. That is the true meaning of the day we have called Memorial Day since its proclamation in 1947.
Memorial Day was first celebrated in 1863 in the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg as citizens honored the fallen by placing flowers on the newly dug graves. May 30th had been officially designated as “Decoration Day” and was called Decoration Day for almost 100 years. I remember my parents always referred to it that way. Armistice Day celebrated the end of World War I. Today we call it “Veterans Day.” No matter what the day is called, flags fly on Armistice Day and services are held on Memorial Day. We owe these soldiers the honor due them for preserving the freedoms we enjoy today. Freedoms they paid for in full for us. The paper poppies we buy are traditional.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a physician in the Canadian Army. McCrae fought in the second battle of Ypres in the Flanders district of Belgium where the Germans unleashed one of the first chemical attacks in the history of the of the war. They attacked the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 15, 1915, but were unable to break the badly battered Canadian line as other lines retreated in panic. Alexis Helmer, McCrae’s close friend, was killed during the battle. McCrae, himself, performed the burial service for his friend and noticed how quickly poppies grew around the newly dug graves. The next day he composed his poem, “In Flanders Fields” while sitting in an advanced dressing station on Ypres. It should be familiar to all.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row by row,
That mark our place; And in the sky
The Larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard among the guns below
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling 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
A short 20 years later the Nazi fascism of Adolph Hitler convinced most Germans the time was ripe to avenge the loss he claimed they suffered earlier. On September 1st, 1939 (three months before I was born), his army invaded Poland and World War began. Once again young men were called to defend the right battles. Once again, another soldier “known only to God” rests in Arlington National Cemetery. Another fallen soldier now rests with his comrades in the honored cemetery at Normandy. Pvt. Thomas Sullivan, you should remember his name, never made it off Omaha beach that fateful day of June 6th, 1944. Two thousand five hundred American soldiers died on what is forever remembered as D Day. He was my friend’s uncle.
Chuck Matthias, a good friend, and deacon of our church, wrote “Reflections on Omaha Beach.” I copied it, word for word, because, as with ‘In Flanders Fields,” I am unqualified to edit any part of it. It speaks for itself and for the meaning of the Day.
Reflections on Omaha Beach
Peaceful waves gently lap against the sands of Omaha Beach. The tides of seasons past have returned it to its pristine smoothness. Undetected are the tracks of armored tanks, the shallow trenches of unexploded shells from yesteryear.
The cacophony of artillery bursts, the staccato of machine gun fire, the roaring engines of overhead planes punctuating the stillness of that early dawn of June 6th have long since faded into the ether of endless time.
Todays silence is only broken by the hushed murmur of prayerful pilgrims and the wind whispering softly through the tees guarding the ground beyond.
Fresh cleansing ocean breezes have swept away the acrid smoke and putrid stench of war.
Many of the brave young men who stormed this beach in ’44 were later solemnly carried to the patch of grass at the crest of the hill, to rest side by side with their comrades in arms, not separated by rank, religion, or renown.
In life they fought side by side for liberty and freedom to crush the dictator’s nightmare of world domination.
Here they rest under the coverlet of fresh cut grass, united forever... a statement to generations to come of the cruel folly of war.
Row upon row, column upon column, brilliant white crosses and, Stars of David, in military precision following their final command of “Dress Right Dress!”
We come as pilgrims to this holy Consecrated by their supreme sacrifice.
We come from their homeland to give homage, to acknowledge them as heroes — our fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, and friends.
We gather to join our voices in prayer and song. With thewords of “America the Beautiful” resounding in the breeze we sing: To serenade the fallen, to comfort the living, To give hope to the future.
Let not their sacrifice be in vain.
The torch is passed to us, the living.
To uphold the banner of peace
To make the world safe for all.