Memorial Day, The Misunderstood Holiday

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger

Easter Dogwood
View from Tim’s grave at the National Cemetery
Photo by Charlton Stanley (his father)

Friday I was reading another blog, and was stunned and appalled to read this opening line in a post (emphasis mine):

“For most of us, Memorial Day is a joyous occasion. We may think of idyllic, lazy summer days of childhood, whole months away from school. Our greatest concern might well be the inevitable traffic jams created when large groups of people head for the same destination at the same time.”

Many, including the person who wrote the statement above, mistake Veteran’s Day for Memorial Day. The day does not celebrate the veteran. It is a day of remembrance for those who never had a chance to become a veteran. Veteran’s Day is November 11, formerly called Armistice Day.

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day. The exact origin of the custom of decorating the graves of those who gave all in service to the country is shrouded by the mists of time and folklore. Memorial Day became official when General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued his General Order No. 11 on 5 May 1868. The first official Memorial Day observance was 30 May 1868. On that day, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.  Every year until 1971, Memorial Day was observed on May 30. In 1971, the National Holiday Act of 1971 was passed, making Memorial Day part of a three-day weekend.  When Memorial Day became just another long weekend with a day off from work, it began to lose its meaning as a day of remembrance and reflection. The VFW’s official proclamation in 2002 stated in part,

“Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

In 1999, Senator Dan Inouye introduced a bill to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30 instead of “the last Monday in May”. The same year, Representative Gibbons introduced a bill in the house saying the same thing. Both bills were referred to Committee. Every year until his death, Senator Inouye re-introduced the bill. If anyone had the credentials to speak for veterans everywhere, it was Senator Inouye; one of the few members of Congress awarded the Medal of Honor. I hope that one day, Memorial Day will return to the original May 30. Every year that passes, a bit more of the real meaning of the day is lost.

IGTNTLogoRevised-1-2We owe it to the dead to honor their memory. It does not matter the war, the cause, or the politics.  For every one of those marble slabs in the Gardens of Stone, some parent or loved one got that terrible, awful knock on the door.  When I was young, it seemed as if every other house had a gold star in the front window. Those memories are still fresh, even after all those decades. A series has been running on the Daily Kos blog called IGTNT (I Got The News Today). The series honors and remembers those Americans who lost their lives in combat or military operations in the war zone. Their names and pictures are there. Read them and weep for the loved ones left only with memories.

Flowres of the Forrest
From the Skene Manuscripts

Shortly after the bloody battle at Flodden Field in 1513, one of the members of Clan Skene composed Flowers of the Forest as a lament for the Scots who perished in that terrible battle. It was probably composed originally for the harp, however; it was quickly adapted for the bagpipes. It was lost for about a century, until it was found in the Skene Manuscripts as “Flowres of the Forrest.” The original pipe tune did not have lyrics. In 1756, Jean Elliot wrote lyrics for the tune.  Piping Flowers of the Forest has become traditional in the UK for military memorial services. The custom has spread to the US, and is often requested. Flowers of the Forest was piped for my son at his service in the National Cemetery. Because of the somber meaning of the lyrics and tune, pipers will not play or practice Flowers of the Forest in public. Public airing of the ancient tune is reserved for remembrance of the dead.

Flowers of the Forest refers to the soldiers. “The flowers of the forest are all wede away,” means they are all withered away, dead. Centuries later, the flowers theme would be reprised when Roy Williamson composed Flower of Scotland, which has become the National Anthem. This is Ronnie Browne singing Jean Elliot’s lyrics on the actual battlefield at Flodden, now peaceful meadowland.

Flowers of the Forest

By Jean Elliot, (1727 – 1805)

I’ve heard them liltin’, at the ewe milkin,’
Lasses a-liltin’ before dawn of day.
Now there’s a moanin’, on ilka green loanin’.
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.

As boughts in the mornin’, nae blithe lads are scornin’,
Lasses are lonely and dowie and wae.
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighin’ and sobbin’,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.

At e’en in the gloamin’, nae swankies are roamin’,
‘Mang stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin’ her dearie,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.

In har’st at the shearin’ nae youths now are jeerin’
Bandsters are runkled, and lyart, or grey.
At fair or at preachin’, nae wooin’, nae fleecin’,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.

Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
the English for ance by guile wan the day.
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.

We’ll hae nae mair liltin’, at the ewe milkin’,
Women and bairns are dowie and wae.
Sighin’ and moanin’ on ilka green loanin’,
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.

Major Michael Davis O'Donnell
Major Michael O’Donnell

Vietnam had its iconic poems, tunes and laments as well. One of the more famous poems was by a helicopter pilot; Major Michael Davis O’Donnell.  This was written on New Year’s Day, 1970 at Dak To. Major O’Donnell was killed three months later when his helicopter was shot down with twelve souls aboard. His helicopter was hit by ground fire while rescuing troops who had come under heavy fire.

By Major Michael Davis O’Donnell

If you are able, save them a place inside you,
And save one backward glance when you are leaving,
for the places they can no longer go.

Be not ashamed to say you loved them,
though you may, or may not have always.
Take what they have left, and what they have
taught you with their dying, and keep it as your own.

And in that time that when men decide, and feel safe,
to call the war insane, take one moment,
to embrace these gentle heroes you left behind.

There are many poems, essays and songs appropriate for Memorial Day, and for Memorial Day weekend. Some have special meaning for me. Joe Kilna MacKenzie wrote Sgt. MacKenzie in memory of his grandfather, Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie of the Seaforth Highlanders. Joe lost his own battle with cancer in 2009.

About his grandfather, Joe wrote:

“To the best of my knowledge, and taken from reports of the returning soldiers, one of his close friends fell, badly wounded. Charles stood his ground and fought until he was overcome and died from bayonet wounds. On that day, my great grandmother and my grandmother were sitting at the fire when the picture fell from the wall. My great grandmother looked, and said to my grandmother “Oh, my bonnie Charlie’s dead”. Sure enough, a few days passed, and the local policeman brought the news – that Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie had been killed in action. This same picture now hangs above my fireplace. A few years back my wife Christine died of cancer, and in my grief, I looked at his picture to ask what gave him the strength to go on. It was then, in my mind, that I saw him lying on the field and wondered what his final thoughts were. The words and music just appeared into my head. I believe the men and woman like yourself who are prepared to stand their ground for their family – for their friends – and for their country; deserve to be remembered, respected and honoured. “Sgt. MacKenzie”, is my very small tribute to them.”

Sgt. MacKenzie was featured in the soundtrack of the movie, We Were Soldiers. The cover photo in the video is Sergeant MacKenzie.

Eric Bogle wrote several songs about the futility and waste of war, two of the most famous being Green Fields of France, and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.  Lesser known is My Youngest Son Came Home Today. Eric says Mary Black, as a woman and mother, sings it far better than he ever could. Here is Mary Black with My Youngest Son Came Home Today.

Memorial Day is for remembering and honoring those who died in the service of their country. Please share your own special remembrances, poems or songs.

175 thoughts on “Memorial Day, The Misunderstood Holiday”

  1. Great song OS!
    Michael Murry,
    Great posts. I especially like the “leaving by staying” phrase!

  2. Addnote: The black and white portion of the video shows Ronnie Browne and Roy Williamson walking in the village of Killiecrankie, and along the road which runs through the ancient battlefield.

  3. Mike & Michael,
    War is always the culmination of failures by old men, most of whom will not have to fight them. There is an adage that no one hates war more than the warrior; however, there are a few who have a personality quirk that causes them to relish the adrenaline rush of it.

    Most soldiers just do the best they can. I have said this before. In the end, it is not about flags, or patriotism, or glory. It is about the buddies, and about surviving.

    Poets seem to be able to grasp the reality, and express it in a way no ordinary prose can. Robert Burns wrote a song about the battle of Killiecrankie which took place on 27 July 1689 as part of the Jacobite Rebellion.

    Robert Burn’s great insight was his understanding of PTSD. His song, Killiecrankie, describes the lasting horror of PTSD. The lyrics of the chorus means, “Handsome lad, If you had been where I have been, and seen what I have seen, you would not be so cheerful.”

    Sung here by The Corries:

    Whaur hae ye been sae braw lad?
    Whaur hae ye been sae brankie-o?
    Whaur hae ye been sae braw lad?
    Cam’ ye by Killiecrankie-o?

    And ye had been whaur I hae been
    Ye wadna been sae cantie-o
    And ye had seen what I hae seen
    On the braes o’ Killiecrankie-o

    I fought at land, I fought at sea
    At hame I fought my auntie-o
    But I met the Devil, and Dundee
    On the braes o’ Killiecrankie-o

    The bold Pitcur fell wi’ a fur
    And Clavers gat a clankie-o
    And I had fed an Atholl gled
    On the braes o’ Killiecrankie-o

    Oh fie, McKay, what gart ye lie
    In the bush ayont the brankie-o?
    Ye’d better kissed King Willie’s loof
    Than come by Killiecrankie-o

    There’s nae shame, there’s nae shame
    There’s nae shame tae swankie-o
    There’s soor slaes on Atholl’s braes
    And the De’il’s at Killiecrankie-o

    You can see the English translation of the song here:

  4. “George W. Bush has admitted the US failed to plan for a speedy victory in Iraq, describing the sudden collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime as a “catastrophic success.” — the Australian, August 30, 2004

    “There is a theory which has not yet been accurately formulated or given a name, but which is very widely accepted and is brought forward whenever it is necessary to justify some action which conflicts with the sense of decency of the average human being. It might be called, until some better name is found, the Theory of Catastrophic Gradualism…. The formula usually employed is ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.’ And if one replies, ‘Yes, but where is the omelet?’ the answer is likely to be: ‘Oh, well, you can’t expect everything to happen all in a moment.'” — George Orwell, “Catastrophic Gradualism” (1946)

    Now, as President Obama announces that the United States intends to “leave” Afghanistan in 2014 by staying there until at least 2024 — “leaving by staying” — we can clearly discern and celebrate:

    Another Catastrophic Success

    With their tails tucked proudly ‘tween their legs
    Advancing towards the exit march the dregs
    Of empire, whose retreat this question begs:
    No promised omelet, just the broken eggs?

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2011

  5. The Lost-From-Day-One Interminable American War (1945-2013) continues on its lunatic trajectory because:

    “… war-linked leaders continue to exert enormous influence on the American people precisely by helping them avoid confronting the war’s unpleasant truths. … And the difficulty of that psychic task is further aggravated by the strange American situation of being able to annihilate but not defeat a tiny enemy.” — Robert Jay Lifton, Home from the War: Vietnam veterans, neither victims nor executioners (1973)


    Yes, the mighty American military machine can annihilate tiny enemies. It just can’t defeat them. How so? Howard Zinn explains these unpleasant truths in A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (2005):

    “From 1964 to 1972, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country – and failed. When the United States fought in Vietnam, it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won.”

    “In fact, the United States lost the war in both the Mekong Valley and the Mississippi Valley. It was the first defeat to the global American empire formed after World War II. It was administered by revolutionary peasants abroad, and by an astonishing movement of protest at home.”

    Actually, the American empire had already experienced defeat in its failed attempt to intervene in China and its stalemated cease-fire in Korea and in the First Indochina War (supporting the French attempted reconquest of their former colonies). What Americans prefer to call the Vietnam War, represented to the Vietnamese only their Second Indochina War, or their second post-WWII struggle for national independence, while for the American empire, it represented the fourth in a series of defeats – until Iraq and Afghanistan which mark at least the fifth and sixth such defeats.

    All this annihilating tiny enemies just so they can defeat us has definitely become a dreary pattern. As King Pyrrhus (the Fool of Hope) once lamented: “One more victory like this and we are undone.” Come to think of it, I suggest that we start referring to The Interminable American Pyrrhic War (1945-until further notice). An unpleasant truth, certainly. But one well worth confronting.

  6. Mike Appleton,

    As psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton notes in Home from the War: Vietnam veterans, neither victims nor executioners (1973):

    “[For Vietnam veterans] World War I writings come closest [to their own experiences] especially the battlefield recollections by Europeans of their responses to that war’s dreadful combination of slaughter and meaningless.”

    The key phrase here: “that war’s dreadful combination of slaughter and meaninglessness.

    I can certainly identify with that characterization of America’s War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). Almost unimaginable slaughter and devastation. And not one bit of it either necessary or conducive to the welfare of the human race.

    As well, Dr. Lifton goes on to observe:

    “No wonder that Vietnam veterans sometimes express strong identification with certain veterans of World War I — more so than, say, with those of World War II. Wilfred Owen died a week before his war ended, having already put his death guilt to powerful use in the moving “survivor formulation” contained in his poems. Now we see a vast segment of an entire American generation doing the same, not through poetic talent (although a few poets among them are beginning to emerge) but through a fierce articulateness of their own, energized by their animating guilt. The inner imagery is: “I killed or let die — wrongly designated ‘enemies,’ my buddies, part of myself — for which I have been punished by a ‘deadening’ within me; now I must make things live, renew life, come alive myself.”

    World War I and America’s War on Southeast Asia have additional parallels for us Vietnam veterans because President Woodrow Wilson campaigned for office on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” only to plunge the United States into a morass of meaningless slaughter once elected. We can understand that flagrant betrayal because President Lyndon Johnson campaigned for election in 1964 as the candidate who would “not send American boys to fight a war that Asians can fight for themselves.” No sooner had he won a staggering electoral mandate than he plunged the United States into another morass of meaningless slaughter. Both Wilson and Johnson betrayed an embittered an entire generation of Americans, and so when we Vietnam veterans read the works of WWI poets like Wilfred Owen, we not only can understand them, but come away from the reading feeling that we had lived the awful experience ourselves.

    1. “The key phrase here: “that war’s dreadful combination of slaughter and meaninglessness”


      I had never before made a connection between WWI and Viet Nam, though I thought both fantastically tragic mistakes. Reading your comment and quotes lit a bulb in my brain and I saw the analogy instantly. I’m always reading to learn new things and see new perspectives, even as I slip into my dotage. Thank you.

  7. OS:

    I have read this post several times. It is a truly sensitive and moving piece. Memorial Day always reminds me of the poet Wilfred Owen, and in particular the following lines from “Dulce Et Decorum Est”:

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

  8. BK,
    Yes, all you need is proof. As I wrote, a discharge affidavit, widows pension, payroll documents, or even land grants from President Washington for service. The organizations I mention are usually very good. Also, Confederate soldiers may also be buried in National Cemeteries. Their stones are cut differently. Instead of a rounded top, they are slightly tent shaped with a peak on top. Here is a section of Confederate graves in Arlington.

    I am not sure what Arlington does about decorating Confederate graves on Memorial Day. In some military cemeteries they use Old Glory for Union graves and the Stars and Bars for Confederates. I have seen a Kepi cap placed on top of the flagstaff, I suppose by family of the deceased. The flag shown is the real Stars and Bars, not the battle flag with the saltire cross.

    As for my ggg-grandfather, I have plans to get a Betsy Ross flag to place by his stone. It seems fitting that a soldier should have the flag he fought under.

    The National Cemetery pays all expenses except funeral home and a piper if you want one. That includes Confederate stones as well.

  9. Thanks. That’s really impressive for your ggg-grandfather.

    I see where it’s a separate area on the web site for pre-WWI. I know of 2 Revolutionary War Vets, father and son. Son served as his father’s aide until his father was killed. He was sent home b/c he was too young. When he was of age, he enlisted. I think they are gggg and ggggg grandfathers, but maybe I counted wrong. I’ll see what info I can get on them. There may be others. All my ancestors are New England, northern PA and NY. Plus one set of g-grandparents who emigrated from Denmark to North Dakota. Their daughter, my grandmother, married a man from northern PA. Wish I had asked how they met. They were estranged while my mother was still in school. Loved my grandmother too much to ask her a difficult question and didn’t know my grandfather.

    So with proof, any vet can have a stone added to a national cemetery?

  10. bettykath,
    I hope your father’s records were not destroyed in the fire at the St. Louis warehouse like my father’s and many others. Good luck! I will be interested in hearing what you are able to find.

  11. bettykath,
    You can also find pre-civil war records as well. I was lucky enough to have the widow’s pension affidavit from my ggg-grandmother, as well as several other documents. Another document was payroll records, even though the name was misspelled by one letter. Another document was an affidavit from a Lieutenant which showed my ggg-grandfather had signed the Lieutenant’s discharge papers in 1791. We had over fifty pages of authenticated documents, which was enough for the VA to approve him full military honors and a stone in the National Cemetery almost two centuries after he died. The cemetery manager faxed the packet of documents to the VA headquarters, and we got a reply within 24 hours. The approval letter said they had never seen an application so well documented for a Revolutionary War soldier. His information is here:

    For older wars, the DAR and other such groups can be helpful. If an ancestor was in the Confederate Army, the Sons of Confederate Veterans may also be helpful.

  12. the engineering students might have done better if the admin had made a slide rule sign.

  13. @bettykath,

    As the robot android Andrew said in the movie Bicentennial Man: “One is glad to be of service.”

    Perhaps a bit off topic, but memories lead to other memories, and remembering my adventures trying to re-enroll in college after separation from the military in 1972, I recall decades later setting out to enroll at Cal Poly Pomona for a secondary teacher’s credential. As I walked up to the registrar’s office, I encountered a door with a sign on it saying: “Door broken. Use other door around the corner.”

    I followed the instructions and entered the office via the other door. When I approached the registrar’s desk, the clerk smiled and said to me: “You must be here to register in the teacher credential program.” I replied, “Yes, but how could you know that?” She answered: “Because you came in through that door over there” (pointing to the functional door through which I had entered.). “Sure,” I said, “but I only did so because the sign on the broken door said to use this other door, instead.” The clerk then pointed over to the broken door where engineering student after engineering student approached the broken door, tried to open it, failed, and then just turned and walked away without registering for classes. Said the clerk to me: “Yes, but you could read the sign.”

    What memories other memories bring to mind.

  14. @bettykath,

    The way you spelled my last name — inserting an “a” into it — brings back memories of my separation from military service.

    After graduation from high school on June 18, 1965 I enrolled in college and completed my freshman year before having to drop out. At that time, my government helpfully provided me with four “choices” : (1) Conscription into the Army, (2) Prison, (3) Exile, or (4) Enlistment (in one of the alternative military services). I wanted none of them, but chose enlistment into the Navy as the least repugnant. Thus, on August 4, 1966, I began my six year prison sentence for a crime I had never committed and managed to get an early release by a few months upon returning from Vietnam at the end of January 1972.

    I immediately returned to my previous college and applied for re-admission as a sophomore in good standing. The admissions clerk flatly refused my application, stating: “We have no record of you ever attending this institution.” After a slight pause for effect, I replied acidly: “Look under M-U-R-R-A-Y.” The embarrassed clerk promptly found my records filed in the wrong place, but this discovery only fueled her determination to deny me admission. So she started picking at dates and other minutia on my application. I hadn’t done this properly and I hadn’t done that properly.

    After nearly six years of saluting and following stupid orders from a lunatic chain of command composed mainly of barely literate morons, I had had enough of power-drunk fools. So I began demanding admission, and a heated argument ensued. Hearing all the noise and commotion, the Director of Admissions stepped out of his office and wanted to know the source of the disturbance. The clerk began to sputter “but … but … but .. he didn’t …” The Director cut her off. Turning to me he asked: “What’s the problem, son?” I replied calmly and respectfully: “Sir, I’ve just returned from a year-and-a-half in Vietnam and I only want to resume my education.” The Director turned to the clerk and said simply and quietly: “Admit him.” The clerk glared at me in helpless rage, but did as her boss requested. Then the Director of Admissions invited me into his office for a chat about the real situation in Vietnam. I replied in a word: “FUBAR” (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition). “I thought so,” he said. “If you ever have a problem with anything at all, you come and see me and we’ll figure out what to do about it.”

    All that because someone had mistakenly presumed the existence of an “a” in my last name. [hint]

  15. Mike, This is exactly what I was looking for. The archive web site tells me how to get the records of my father, 3 g-g-grandfathers (civil war), and some others. Better than roaming around!

  16. @bettykath,

    Normally, you would want to get a copy of your dad’s Form DD-214, the most important official document for veterans and their surviving descendants. I received one upon my honorable separation from the U.S. Navy in February of 1972. However, after wondering about the history of this document, I stumbled upon a Wikipedia entry that says:

    “The first DD Form 214s were issued in 1950, after replacing the older “WD AGO” (War Department Adjutant General) Forms and the NAVPERS (Naval Personnel) discharge documents. These documents, in turn, had existed since 1941.”

    So your dad and my dad (who served at about the same time) didn’t receive a Form DD-214 upon separation from the service in 1946. Other documents applied to them, as noted in the citation above. My dad’s honorable discharge certificate from 1946 lists (on the front side) the date of his separation as “this 19th day of August 1946,” while on the reverse side it reads:


    Serial or file number: (ex: ### ## ##)
    Date and place of birth:
    Date of entry into active service:
    Highest rank or rating held:
    Service (vessels and stations served on):
    Remarks: [like medals and commendations, record of authorized leave, etc.]

    I suppose, then, that you should acquire either your dad’s honorable discharge certificate or your dad’s NAVPERS-533 document — better to get both — since the marines serve as part of the Navy and so Navy documents will apply to him.

    You might also want to check out the following link (you can find others, of course):

    I hope this information will prove of some help to you in searching for the answers to your questions regarding your father’s military service.



  17. This is OT but this thread and an email from giving free access to some military files got me looking for my father’s military record. What ancestry had available are for the USMC is a file of rosters. My father is listed 3 times but I’m having trouble finding out the meaning one of the indicators. Perhaps someone here can help or can direct me elsewhere.

    Jan 1946 he is listed as mustered out in Jan., a spec # (? hard to read) of 521, assigned to the post band.

    Apr 1946 he is listed as mustered out in Apr., a spec # of 432, assigned to the post band.

    July 1946 he is listed as mustered out in July, a spec # of 432, assigned to the post band.

    Why would he be listed as mustered out over a 7 month period?
    521 seems a common # but 432 is unusual.

    I’m old as dirt but I don’t remember much about this time except the painful prickers in the sand and the hot afternoons when I was supposed be taking a nap. Our very small house was in a compound of other very small houses.

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