by Michael Avramovich
Memorial Day is the most solemn of our national holidays. The solemn tribute began in 1866 when three Christian women from Columbus, Mississippi, decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers there, and at the same time laid flowers on the graves of the Union soldiers buried in the cemetery. At the insistence of his wife, General John Logan, then Army Chief of Staff, issued an official order shortly thereafter proclaiming Memorial Day an annual day of remembrance for our nation’s war dead.
From the days of the Revolution, through the struggles of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and the present War on Terror, the strength of our nation is in the spirit of its men and women who fought and died for a nation determined to know its ancient liberty. There have been 4,435 combat deaths in the Revolutionary War, 2,260 in the War of 1812, 1,733 in the Mexican War, 140,415 on the Union side in the Civil War, 74.524 on the Confederate, 385 in the Spanish-American War, 53,513 in World War I, 292,131 in World War II, 33,667 in the Korea War, 47,393 in the Vietnam War and 148 in the Persian Gulf War. Over 4,491 have died as a direct result of hostile action in Iraq since March 19, 2003, with 2,357 more in Afghanistan. Most recently, there have been a number of combat deaths in Operation Inherent Resolve, the military intervention against ISIS. The loss of life to American military men and women in all of our nation’s wars exceeds 1,354,600.
On the first few days after D-Day in June 1944, 6,603 Americans died in combat; 4,000 alone on the first day. Iwo Jima, lying midway between Guam and Japan, is less than five miles long. On that island, Japanese troops were ordered to dig in the mountain fortress and to die to the last man. The assault on Iwo Jima was the fiercest landing fight the world has ever seen. The Japanese kept up an incessant rain of death upon the attacking American troops on the beaches. Navy and Marine casualties exceeded 22,000; the Japanese counted more than 20,000 dead. On the sacred soil of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the battlefield was a sea of carnage. In three days of fighting, Confederate losses were 3,900 killed, and 24,000 wounded and missing; Union losses were 3,100 killed, and 20,000 wounded or missing. Those soldiers listed as missing simply vanished, ground up in battle disappearing into the soil. In November 1863, several months after the battle of Gettysburg, its military cemetery was dedicated, at which President Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address.
Today, there are 120 national military cemeteries in our nation. From Arlington, Virginia, on the Potomac to the Golden Gate in California, from St. Augustine, Florida, to Sitka, Alaska, as well as on many other burial grounds elsewhere around the world. The war cemeteries in Normandy, one of which appears in the deeply powerful opening scene of the film “Saving Private Ryan,” holds the remains of 9,386 American soldiers. The cemetery of Meuse-Argonne in France contains more than 14,000 American military dead from World War I, the largest number interred in a single place in Europe. France has 11 American cemeteries, the most outside of the United States; Belgium has three, the United Kingdom and Italy, two, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, one. A number exist outside Europe; the oldest is the Mexico City National Cemetery, which dates from 1847, and is the burial site of nearly 750 unidentified American soldiers killed in the Mexican-American War, and later from the U.S. Civil War and Spanish-American War. Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines is the largest overseas cemetery, with more than 17,000 Americans who died in World War II’s Pacific Theatre. In 2003, former General Colin Powell, responding to a remark by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who had been critical of American “hard power,” said, “We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan, and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in.” More than 125,000 U.S. war dead are buried in these overseas resting places.
On this hallowed soil, as in the hearts of the American people, the memory of these gallant men and women, who made the supreme sacrifice, is enshrined forever. In a letter written by President Lincoln to Mrs. Lydia Bixby in late November 1864, a widow who lost her five sons in the Civil War, the President wrote the following:
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
On this Memorial Day, as I have been reminding younger people, that amidst the travel, barbeques, and shopping, let us not forget to thank God that such brave men and women as they lived and died for our nation’s freedom. May God have mercy upon them, and may their memory be eternal.