By Ninth District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith
On Memorial Day, we remember those whom we see no more.
They are the men and women who died in war while serving our country. As our fellow citizens, they were family, friends, neighbors, members of the community. When our country called, they answered, and they number over a million in all from 1775 to today.
Memorial Day was officially declared a national holiday in 1971 by Congress, which designated the last Monday in May for this purpose. But honoring our war dead by setting aside a day in spring, when the flowers that could decorate their graves were in bloom, had been going on for more than a century.
Of course, countries and citizens remembered their fallen warriors long before that. As Abraham Lincoln said when dedicating Gettysburg National Cemetery, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
This year’s observance of Memorial Day comes during a milestone anniversary year of the end of World War II. By this time 75 years ago, the war in Europe had ended. Nazi Germany had finally surrendered on May 8.
It was a time for celebration, but also a time for remembrance. As President Harry S. Truman noted in his broadcast announcing Germany’s surrender:
Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band. Let us not forget, my fellow Americans, the sorrow and the heartache which today abide in the homes of so many of our neighbors-neighbors whose most priceless possession has been rendered as a sacrifice to redeem our liberty.
In less than a year, from the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 to Victory in Europe (VE) Day on May 8, 1945, 104,812 Americans had been killed in the European theater. As you likely know, that total included many from western Virginia who had been among the first on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
Thousands more had died in other operations, including the invasion of Italy, air raids over occupied Europe, and the long-running Battle of the Atlantic to defeat the U-boat menace.
Their legacy, however, would be a continent and its millions free from the murderous grip of Nazi tyranny.
They left other legacies, too. Behind the soldiers, sailors, and airmen were spouses, children, and parents. They would not see their loved ones again, but the memory of the fallen would be honored and treasured by those who remained.
The Statler Brothers’ song “Silver Medals and Sweet Memories,” sung from the perspective of a child whose father died in the war, poignantly captured this heartache mingled with pride and love:
And the war still ain’t over for Mama
Every night in her dreams she still sees
The young face of someone who brought her
Silver medals and sweet memories.
The celebration of VE Day was tempered by the great task still before the Allies. Hitler had fallen, but Imperial Japan had not. Even as General Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the surrender of Germany on May 8, soldiers, sailors, and Marines continued the bloody battle on Okinawa in the Pacific. It had begun on April 1 and would not end until June 22.
The war would finally end with the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.
Not only our country, but the world was fortunate that Americans were ready to serve and sacrifice. In World War II, the United States suffered 291,557 battle deaths and another 113,842 service deaths. It was a frightful toll, but also one with a great purpose. The tyrannical Axis powers were defeated and their ideologies discredited.
Much has changed in the 75 years since the end of World War II, but some things remain true. Brave American men and women are still willing to serve, even to the point of making the ultimate sacrifice. Let us honor them all, from the Revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan, on Memorial Day.