Monday, May 27, 2013
Following is the text of today’s 2013 Memorial Day address by Leonard Everett Fisher:
Mr. Vornkahl, Mr. Joseloff, Rep. Steinberg, distinguished guests, family friends. It has been 67 years since I last wore this uniform officially. It still fits and I am proud to wear it again. I am honored to be Westport’s 2013 Memorial Day Parade’s Grand Marshal. Thank you Mr. Vornkahl and Westport’s Veterans Council for this most unforgettable and humbling moment.
Before I launch my comments on this day in which we remember those who gave their lives in the military service of our country, let me briefly describe my military history: I enlisted in the United States Army in 1942 during World War II and served at home and abroad with the 30th Topographic Engineers.
I was a photogrammetrist—one who makes maps from aerial photographs. During two years of deployments overseas in cooperation with the British Survey Directorate and the Joint Intelligence Command Pacific Ocean Area, our missions, secret and invisible, were creating the vital ground, sea and navigational maps in support of the 5th, 3rd, and 7th Army invasions and ensuing campaigns in Italy and France; the 15th Air Force final raids on the Ploesti oil fields of Romania; the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Division assault of Iwo Jima; the 10th Army invasion of Okinawa, and 7th Fleet operations in conjunction with that invasion; the aborted invasion and occupation of Japan.
In late 1944, the 30th Engineers—1,200 strong—was the first United States Army group to be redeployed from the European-Mediterranean war theater to the Pacific. The word “IMPRIMIS—“among the first”—is etched into the insignia pins I wear on this uniform. Some of what I experienced was beyond my imagination. I was honorably discharged in 1946 and returned home a very lucky G.I. I was not a hero.
In a speech at Harvard University in 1895, Oliver Wendell Holmes, three times wounded during our Civil War, soon to become an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and later the Chief Justice, made this remark: “Out of heroism grows faith in the work of heroism.”
The heroes—the true heroes we recall today—are those who never came back from the wars, and those who returned broken only to live out their lives with the ever present nightmare of their wounds.
“Memorial Day,” as we moderns call it, was once “Decoration Day.” No one has a clear idea of how, when, and where it began. Most everyone agrees that the graves of both Union and Confederate fallen were ceremoniously “decorated” at the end of the Civil War during the month of May with flags and flowers.
There is disagreement as to whether this event occurred first in the South or in the North. Decoration Day was officially proclaimed by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic and first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors at Arlington National Cemetery.
The first state to officially recognize the event as a “holiday” was New York in 1873. It was ￼not until after World War I that our dead of all wars was to be so recognized. The designion “Memorial Day” was first used unofficially in 1882 and came into popular use after World War II. It was then that the designation stuck.
“Memorial Day” became a federal holiday by an Act of Congress in 1967 during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
It isn’t clear when and where parades to honor those who gave their lives in the military service of our country began. One of he earliest parades was a march of federal troops and civilians in the ruins of Charleston, S.C. in May 1865, one month following the end of the Civil War.
It was a parade to honor Union prisoners of war dead who were reburied in a new cemetery. In that march were three African-American Union infantry regiments—3,000 in all—including the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteers whose sergeant major was Lewis Douglass, the 21-year-old son of former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
The 54th lost half of the regiment—500 soldiers—in their heroic but failed attempt two years before to take Fort Wagner at the entrance of Charleston Harbor. Sergeant Major Douglass was wounded in that battle.
When I was a very small boy, my father took me to Decoration Day parades on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx, N.Y. These parades took hours to pass. The years were 1928 thru 1932. Leading the parade were ancient warriors in blue—Union veterans of the Civil War—the very soldiers who saved the Union!
They were in their 90s, and early 100s by then. These proud men were followed by Teddy Roosevelt’s Spanish American War Rough Riders ￼on horses they never rode in Cuba. Behind them came the veterans of World War I; the Gold Star Mothers; Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard regulars of our armed forces; West Point and Annapolis Cadets; Sea Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts.
The flags flew. John Philip Sousa’s martial music was triumphant from one end of the parade to the other. It was an astonishing display of American patriotic remembrance. It stirred the soul of this small boy.
Now, as my 89th birthday approaches, I recall those Civil War veterans I saw so long ago leading the great Decoration Day parades on the Grand Concourse. Today, my generation—and our ranks are thinning—have become them, leading the parade, a living link between present and past.
By the tens of thousands, beginning with our War for Independence, a reminder of which stares us in the face here in Westport: the Colonial Burial Ground near Compo Beach, and right up to today, young American lives were and are being terminated and violated by the agonies of war unimaginable.
And the parade of our dead marches on in precise military order in our peaceful manicured national cemeteries: Arlington National, Arlington, Virginia; The Mound, Marietta, Ohio; Cemetary Hill, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; The Punch Bowl, Oahu, Hawaii; Long Island National, Farmingdale, New York; Jefferson Barracks National, St. Louis, Missouri; St. Laurent and Epinal, France; Nettuno, Italy; Margraten, Holland; Luxembourg where 50 acres of gravestones cover a large part of the United States Third Army of World War II.
There seems to be no end to it. And those of us who returned alive with indelible memories of what we lived through want no more of it for our sons, daughters, grandchildren, and ￼￼￼￼￼beyond. And to those whose responsibility it is to commit our young—our national treasure—to warfare. let them be wary of the anguish.
Having said all that, “well regulated” military service is an honorable profession as it “provides for the common defense” given the unregulated bewildering blanket of firearms that covers humanity. Lawful soldiering in a just war is a noble enterprise when it defeats tyranny and “secures the blessings of liberty.”
But the ugliness and brutality of war can never be adequately described. There is no glory in war. There never was. Only madness and sadness. And the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Conquest, War, Famine, and Death—continue to gallop among us. In hot pursuit is Ignorance, the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse; Distress and Despair not far behind.
In a pointed reference to war, while seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower remarked: “This is not a way of life.”
Here, on Westport’s Veterans Green, in sight of J. Clinton Shepherd’s iconic World War I “Doughboy” statue, what we must remember as we enjoy our fanciful family picnics, ball games, romps through the holiday sales, and showing the flag, are those men and women who never had a chance at an American future—their promise unfulfilled. They died for our great republic, for our essential freedoms and values, for us.
Finally, as we memorialize these heroes, let us know—because of them—how fortunate we are on this Memorial Day, 2013.
Thank you. And God bless the United States of America.
Posted 05/27/13 at 04:20 PM Permalink