Memorial Day – a day when the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces are remembered. The holiday, which is celebrated every year on the final Monday of May, was formerly known as Decoration Day and originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service.
Americans gather to honor the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in service to their country. What began with dozens of informal commemorations of those killed in the Civil War has grown to become one of the nation’s most solemn and hallowed holidays.
U.S. Merchant Marine Steps Up in Wartimes
The progress and commercial success of the United States closely parallels the historic greatness of the American Merchant Marine. It is the same Merchant Marine who supplied our first Navy, manned by John Paul Jones, John Barry and many others, who played a significant role in the American Revolution. History records that many merchantmen, commissioned as privateers and naval vessels, were instrumental in defeating the British at their own game. Many of our early leaders were from American shipping families. The contributions of the American Merchant Mariner during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, World Wars I and II, Korean War, Vietnam War and other conflicts, should be made known to all Americans. The casualty percentage of the U.S. Merchant Mariner during World War II was higher than any of the U.S. Armed forces.
American Merchant Mariners have faithfully served their country in times of war and peace, transporting life and cargo to every corner of the world. They have helped to win wars and to maintain peace by providing necessary materials, food and supplies to assist many nations in rebuilding their countries and economies.
During the Second World War, submarine duty was the riskiest of all the branches of military service. Nearly 18 percent of U.S. submarines never returned. The sacrifices made by these men and their families were well know at the time, but knowledge of them is fading with the years and the passing of older veterans. More than 3,000 U.S. Sailors remain on “Eternal Patrol” in their submarines in the Pacific Ocean.
These are the names of the 52 U.S. submarines from World War II that remain on “Eternal Patrol”: USS Sealion, USS S-36, USS S-26, USS Shark, USS Perch, USS S-27, USS Grunion, USS S-39, USS Argonaut, USS Amberjack, USS Grampus, USS Triton, USS Pickerel, USS Grenadier, USS Runner, USS R-12, USS Grayling, USS Pompano, USS Cisco, USS S-44, USS Wahoo, USS Dorado, USS Corvina, USS Sculpin, USS Capelin, USS Scorpion, USS Grayback, USS Trout, USS Tullibee, USS Gudgeon, USS Herring, USS Golet, USS S-28, USS Robalo, USS Flier, USS Harder, USS Seawolf, USS Darter, USS Shark II, USS Tang, USS Escolar, USS Albacore, USS Growler, USS Scamp, USS Swordfish, USS Barbel, USS Kete, USS Trigger, USS Snook, USS Lagarto, USS Bonefish, USS Bullhead.
Did You Know?
Memorial Day didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971. American’s embraced the notion of “Decoration Day” immediately. By 1890, every former state of the Union had adopted it as an official holiday. But for more than 50 years, the holiday was used to commemorate those killed just in the Civil War, not in any other American conflict. It wasn’t until America’s entry into World War I that the tradition was expanded to include those killed in all wars, and Memorial Day was not officially recognized nationwide until the 1970s, with America deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War.
One of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organized by recently freed slaves. As the Civil War neared its end, thousands of Union soldiers, held as prisoners of war, were herded into a series of hastily assembled camps in Charleston, South Carolina. Conditions at one camp, a former racetrack near the city’s Citadel, were so bad that more than 250 prisoners died from disease or exposure, and were buried in a mass grave behind the track’s grandstand. Three weeks after the Confederate surrender, an unusual procession entered the former camp: On May 1, 1865, more than 1,000 recently freed slaves, accompanied by regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry) and a handful of white Charlestonians, gathered in the camp to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union dead. The group sang hymns, gave readings and distributed flowers around the cemetery, which they dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
The holiday’s “founder” had a long and distinguished career. In May 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War. On Decoration Day, as Logan dubbed it, Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” According to legend, Logan chose May 30 because it was a rare day that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle, though some historians believe the date was selected to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom. After the war Logan, who had served as a U.S. congressman before resigning to rejoin the army, returned to his political career, eventually serving in both the House and Senate and was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for vice president in 1884. When he died two years later, Logan’s body laid in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol, making him one of just 33 people to have received the honor. Today, Washington, D.C.’s Logan Circle and several townships across the country are named in honor of this champion of veterans and those killed in battle.
More than 20 towns claim to be the holiday’s “birthplace”—but only one has federal recognition. For almost as long as there’s been a holiday, there’s been a rivalry about who celebrated it first. Only one town, however, has received the official seal of approval from the U.S. government. In 1966, 100 years after the town of Waterloo, New York, shuttered its businesses and took to the streets for the first of many continuous, community-wide celebrations, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation, recently passed by the U.S. Congress, declaring the tiny upstate village the “official” birthplace of Memorial Day.