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America Remembers the Fallen on Memorial Day

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Coastguardsmen help place flags at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day (USCG)

Published May 30, 2022 7:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

On the last Monday in May, the U.S. pauses to honor those who have given their lives for their country. Memorial Day has its roots in the post-Civil War era, when it served as a day of remembrance for the soldiers who lost their lives in America's costliest war. It took on a broader meaning after the First World War, and it has evolved into a day of recognition for the fallen from all American conflicts. 

At a Memorial Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted that this Memorial Day is the first since the end of America's longest war - the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan. He suggested that this year's day of remembrance is dedicated to the sacrifice of the servicemembers who gave their lives in a battle against extremism.

"Today, we remember the 2,461 American service members and personnel who fell in Afghanistan. And we remember all those who still carry the wounds of that war to body and to soul. We hold them in our hearts alongside the patriots across generations who gave their lives to defend us all," Austin said. "The heroes here are joined together — united not just by their final resting place, but by their devotion to the values that gave life to our democracy,"

At the ceremony, President Joe Biden pointed to the special obligation that America has to its servicemembers, its wounded veterans and its fallen. He noted the progress of long-sought, bipartisan legislation to care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits at base installations.

"I've often said that, as a nation, we have many obligations," Biden said . "The only one that is truly sacred, the only truly sacred obligation we have is to prepare and equip those women and men we send into harm's way and care for them and their families when they return home . . . and when they don't."

USS Indianapolis war dead given formal recognition

The U.S. Navy has helped fulfill this sacred obligation in a small but significant way by recognizing the combat deaths of more crewmembers of the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945. 

Of the ship's 1,195 sailors, only 316 survived the sinking and the four-day ordeal that followed. The majority perished while adrift and waiting for rescue. Based on research by Naval History and Heritage Command, Navy Casualty Office, the USS Indianapolis Survivors Association, the USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization, and the Chief Rick Stone and Family Charitable Foundation, 13 lost Indianapolis crewmembers were reclassified last week as "buried at sea" instead of "unaccounted for." 

The deceased heroes of USS Indianapolis recognized last week include:

Seaman 1st Class George Stanley Abbott
Seaman 2nd Class Eugene Clifford Batson
Gunner’s Mate 1st Class William Alexander Haynes
Seaman 2nd Class Albert Raymond Kelly
Seaman 1st Class Albert Davis Lundgren
Fireman 1st Class Ollie McHone
Seaman 2nd Class George David Payne
Storekeeper 3rd Class Alvin Wilder Rahn
Ship’s Cook 3rd Class Jose Antonio Saenz
Coxswain Charles Byrd Sparks
Radioman 2nd Class Joseph Mason Strain
Ship's Service Man Laundryman 3rd Class Angelo Anthony Sudano
Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Floyd Ralph Wolf

WWII merchant mariners honored

This year's Memorial Day holds special significance for the merchant mariners of World War II, who have finally been awarded Congress' highest honor this year after decades of advocacy. 243,000 American mariners served during WWII, and 9,521 perished – four percent, a higher fatality rate than that of any U.S. armed services branch during the war. They faced the threat of attack from German U-boats and aircraft, as well as the maritime hazards of the North Atlantic and the Arctic. Despite their sacrifice, they were not formally recognized as war veterans until 1988. 

In 2020, Congress voted to award the surviving members of the WWII merchant marine the Congressional Gold Medal, its highest honor. The award ceremony was delayed for two years because of COVID-19, and 10 merchant marine veterans accepted the long-awaited medals in a ceremony May 18.