Why Memorial Day Matters

It happens every Memorial Day. I am drawn back to a day long before I was born: when my mother found out her brother was killed in World War II. It was before there were support groups for such things, before we knew what PTSD was, and before anyone dared to talk about war and the carnage it leaves behind.

It was the summer of 1944, and my mother was 12 at the time. A black government car pulled up to her apartment building in West New York, New Jersey. A group of men stepped out of the car and walked up the stairs. A dozen or so families lived in the building, including those who had loved ones volunteering to fight in the war. Her brother John was one of them: he signed up for the Army when he was 18.

My mother later remembered praying hard that it would be someone else's apartment door those men knocked on, and that she felt terrible over praying such a prayer. Then she heard footsteps stop in front of her family's apartment door, followed by three firm knocks. She told me she never heard her mom cry so hard when that happened. Her mom didn't need to open the door to comprehend the news.

My mother's dad barely cried. Afterwards, she would never again see him truly enjoy his life. He'd lost not just his only son—he'd lost his bloodline and future.

John, the uncle I never knew, is buried at the U.S Military Cemetery in St. Laurent, France. A framed picture of that cemetery hangs on my office wall, next to a framed Purple Heart citation.

For me and millions of Americans, Memorial Day is a day to look back. It's a sacred day. Yes it's also the extended weekend that kicks off the summer with hot dogs and picnics, too. But mornings on Memorial Day were always about honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice serving their country in uniform.

The number of Americans—and American families like ours—who paid that price is well over a million lives lost—and that's not counting the sons and daughters who would never be, the marriages that never happened, and the grandkids who were never born. More than 25,000 died fighting in the Revolutionary War; 36,000-plus in the Korean War; 58,000 in the Vietnam War; 116,000 in World War I; 405,000 in World War II; and an astounding 620,000 in the Civil War. To date, over 7,000 Americans have died in the global war on terror, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Memorial Day is more than a weekend of fun and sun to so many millions of us. It's personal. That's why it's about visiting military cemeteries and adorning gravesites with small American flags.

Indeed, it was Gen. John A. Logan who started the tradition back on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, where he and some volunteers decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. In 1971, Decoration Day was renamed Memorial Day and became a national holiday to honor all Americans who died serving their country in times of war.

In Andrew Carroll's remarkable book War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From American Wars, historian Douglas Brinkley begins his foreword with a quote from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in a speech in 1880: "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell. You can bear this warning voice to generations yet to come. I look upon war with horror."

Carroll's book is filled with a remarkable array of letters from soldiers to the homefront, and from the homefront back to the battle lines. Many were the last letters that those soldiers, sailors and airmen ever wrote to their loved ones—or that their loved ones ever wrote to them.

"We're licking the tar out of the Germans and I'm a live part of it," Lt. Robert E. Mitchell wrote to his family on October 6, 1918. "The spirit of the boys is great and they are brimming over with confidence. These are stirring times and regardless of my personal outcome, I'm glad to be a part of it."

Lt. Mitchell was killed a mere nine days later.

Kate Gordon sent three of her boys off to Europe in World War I. Here is part of a letter she wrote to one of them: "When you do come marching home, bring me back the same boy I gave my country, true and clean and gentle and brave. You must do this for your father and me and Betty and Nora. And most of all for the daughter you will give me one of these days."

But Gordon wasn't finished with her short note to her son about the daughter he didn't yet know: "Live for her or if God wills, die for her, but do either with courage, with honor and with mirth. But I know you will come back to me."

The letter was signed "Mother." Her son Jimmy – all of 18 years old – would be killed in the war. Her other sons John and Luke would return from the war, but Luke would die a few years later from complications from a mustard gas attack.

In a letter to his fiancée Audrey Taylor on July 6, 1944, Lt. Jack Emery wrote these words: "I like to sit up these warm bright nights and watch the white clouds and dark shadows move in the night. That's when I miss you the most. On the nights that I sit up alone, I can feel you close to me. Sometimes we sit and talk and sometimes I pretend we are just sitting there with our arms about each other."

Lt. Emery was shot down three days later over Burma.

One of the most harrowing letters came from Lt. Tommie Kennedy, who was captured at Corregidor in Manila Bay and imprisoned on what came to be known as Japanese "hell ships." He scribbled these words to his parents: "If I could only have been killed in action, it's so useless to die here from dysentery with no medicine. Write Mary Robertson at Houtzdale, Penn. Her son Melville died of dysentery on the 17th of January with his head on my shoulders. We were like brothers. He was buried at sea somewhere off the China coast. I weigh about 90 lbs. now so you can see how we are. I will sign off now, darlings, and please don't grieve too much. I'm not afraid to go, and will be waiting for you."

Lt. Kennedy's last letters were passed from one POW to another. When the final survivors were freed at war's end, Kennedy's parents finally received those letters. It had been four years since their teenage son left for the Pacific.

Twenty-five-year-old 2nd Lt. Jack Lundberg's note to his mother, father and family, was written a few weeks before D-Day. It's what soldiers, airmen and seamen call their "final" letter—a last note to loved ones in the event they didn't return home from battle.

"I want you to know how much I love each of you. You mean everything to me, and it is the realization of your love that gives me the courage to continue," Lt. Lundberg wrote.

After thanking them for the sacrifices they made on his behalf, he closed out his letter with these words:

We of the United States have something to fight for – never more fully have I realized that. There just is no other country with comparable wealth, advancement or standard of living. The U.S.A. is worth a sacrifice! Remember always that I love you each most fervently, and I am proud of you. Consider Mary, my wife, as having taken my place in the family circle, and watch over each other. Love to my family, Jack.

Two-and-a-half weeks after D-Day, Lt. Lundberg was the lead navigator on a B-17 mission to bomb the railroads in a small town in France. Hit by German anti-aircraft rounds, Lundberg's plane crashed. His body wasn't recovered until nine months after his death.

In a letter to his mother on September 6, 1950, Pvt. William Geary from Pusan Perimeter wrote: "Well mother, I am in a fox hole writing this letter, still here on the front line. I pray every night. How is the family getting along? Fine, I hope. Well, I spent my birthday here. I am on a machine gun. I haven't slept for 6 days. I will close hoping to hear from you. Your loving son Bill."

He died a few weeks later, not long after his 22nd birthday—an early casualty of the Korean War.

Carroll's book is filled with letters like these as well as letters from American families such as mine who lost a loved one to one of our nation's wars. We cherish those letters, medals and photographs that were left behind. They are an enduring memory of a life that could have been; of graduations and weddings and the birth of children missed; and of lives lost preserving all the things Americans love and that we all too often take for granted.

That's why Memorial Day matters to so many of us. It's also why it should matter to all of us.

Memorial Day 2021
Service members place a small American flag in front of a grave site as part of the "Flags In" ceremony ahead of the Memorial Day weekend at Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery on May 2. Getty Images/Anna Moneymaker