Memories of Memorial Day

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Memorial Day was once referred to as “Decoration Day,” and dates back to the late 1860s when communities across the country, North and South, began honoring deceased Civil War soldiers. The first officially recorded such day took place in Decatur, Illinois, in 1868.

With the passing of time, those who were killed in that depressing conflict were honored on separate days until the 20th century when the last Monday in May became the day for honoring not only those who lost their lives in the Civil War but all wars.

My maternal grandmother never got over losing her youngest son during naval training exercises near Pensacola during World War II. Families still grieve over losing family members during that war although it ended nearly three-quarters of a century ago.

On Memorial Day, there is recall of many vignettes about World War II which has mesmerized many historians and writers over the years — along with countless individuals who are curious about the second global conflict.

I often think of the farmer in Tennessee whose three sons are buried in a cemetery in Belgium.

Three times he had to drive his mule and wagon into the town of New Victory to pick up a telegram from the War Department, telling him he had lost another son.

I stood at their gravesites two summers ago and tried to imagine the emotions that farmer and his family went through. They lived a hardscrabble life and lost three sons who helped the Allies successfully thwart Nazi Germany.

At the German cemetery, La Cambe, France, a note was left at the grave of a German soldier which read, “On my third trip here, I still cannot meet you. How many more daughters will never know their fathers because of war.”

The story was easy to figure. Her father returned home on leave, and her mother became pregnant. He was then killed in battle.

Lee Wright of Athens can relate to the German daughter’s story in that she was 16 months old when her father lost his life at the battle of Market Garden. He had jumped with the 82nd Airborne at Normandy and survived but suffered a different fate in the next battle.

Lee grew up never knowing her father, James Lee Cole, but proudly carries his name, which is spelled the same way he spelled his given name. His grave, as have all graves at Margraten, has been adopted by locals.

Luc Amkeutz and his family care for James Cole’s grave annually, a touching story in itself. Luc keeps in touch with Lee and Bill Wright on an ongoing basis, always honoring her father’s life on special days such as Memorial Day. This past week, an American flag which waved over the cemetery at Margraten, a couple of years ago, was flown over Sanford Stadium in honor of Lee’s father.

I remember a tour of France one summer when a man in the group wanted to take a side trip one day to a nearby cemetery where his younger brother was buried.

He had promised his mother, he would someday visit his brother’s grave. It was an act of closure for the family although his mother passed away before it happened.

“She died with a broken heart,” he said over lunch at a small French Cafe. Tears streamed down his face as he questioned the vicissitudes of fate. “Why was he the one who had to give his life to his country? Why did he not survive? Why was he not allowed to return home and raise a family and enjoy the good life?”

An obelisk in the town of Goutrens, France, has etched in stone the names of sons of two families who gave up four brothers each in World War I. It was said of this conflict that it was the war to end all wars. Within two decades, the most hated man in history, Adolph Hitler, had the world in an all out war to stop his madness.

Archibald Rutledge, the poet laureate of South Carolina, once wrote an interesting story about a widow from the Civil War wanting to visit the grave of her late husband, a Confederate officer, at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.

She was apprehensive, naturally, not being sure how she would be received if she made her way to the town to visit the cemetery to say goodbye to her husband.

The result became an illuminating story in which the town, forgetting the past, turned out to greet her warmly. Union Army veterans, flower girls, citizens of the town and, of course, a band. Widow Quaintance was the guest of honor and a musical tribute ensued, following her laying of a wreath on her late husband’s grave.

“That,” Rutledge wrote in his book, “Life’s Extras,” “was when the Yankee Band played Dixie.”

[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]