SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany – Memorial Day is a young holiday, peculiarly observed. If you have not served on a detail, volunteered for Honor Guard, or flown a missing man formation over a military ceremony on Memorial Day, you may primarily associate this holiday with the running the Indianapolis 500, the beginning of our 101 Critical Days of Summer, or just a glorious three-day weekend at the end of May.
The official function of Memorial Day is to honor the men and women of the United States who have died in while serving our nation’s military service. It is an American holiday, with obscure origins even though it is less than 150 years old, and claimed by many as their own patriotic invention. Officially proclaimed in 1868, Memorial Day became widespread by 1902, and was named a federal holiday in 1971.
Originally known as Decoration Day, the holiday began as the organized honoring of the fallen from the American Civil War by decorating their graves with flowers, candles and prayer. After the First World War, the separate Union and Confederate Decoration Days combined as Memorial Day and recognized those who have died in military service during any war.
During the years, traditional observances of Memorial Day diminished. Many Americans forgot the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day, and at many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are untended. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. Some people think the day is for honoring all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country. Memorial Day used to be a solemn day of mourning. With the memory of the lost still fresh, it was a sacred day of remembrance to honor those who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms. Businesses closed for the day, and towns held parades honoring the fallen, often ending at a local cemeteries. People took the day to clean and decorate graves of those who fell in service to their country with flowers and flags the graves. As the decades passed those observances faded.
“There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 50s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (Regiment) place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights,” according to www.usmemorialday.org/backgrnd.html.
Within a few hours’ drive from Spangdahlem Air Base, there are 55,586 reasons to observe this Memorial Day. They are the graves of our military dead, including at least 14 recipients of the Medal of Honor. Many of the graves are marked with “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Each of the seven nearest American military cemeteries also records the missing. They are American Battle Monuments Cemeteries and Memorials. The graves are well cared for by the U.S. government. Many of the cemeteries in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have local nationals who have adopted American graves as individuals, groups and families. It is common for them to honor our dead on our Memorial Day by decorating the graves as an expression of appreciation for their freedom and the sacrifices made by Americans on their behalf.
In 1923 Congress established the American Battle Monuments Commission. This was done largely to “commemorate the service, achievements, and sacrifice of U.S. armed forces where they have served overseas since 1917,” according to www.abmc.gov/home.php.
There are seven ABMC cemeteries located in Eastern France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg relatively close to Spangdahlem AB by car. They are the Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium, the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium, the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in Eastern France, the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial in Luxembourg, the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery in France, the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in the Netherlands and the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial in France. There are an additional 13 ABMC cemeteries in Belgium, France,and Italy.
So, this Memorial Day you might consider a short drive to one of our nearby ABMC Cemetery and Memorial locations to decorate a grave and meet some appreciative locals, or drive by our own Spangdahlem Airmen’s Memorial, perhaps take a moment of silence to reflect on the sacrifices made by our fellow Americans or even just share this article.