How Memorial Day is remembered

Jun. 05, 2013 @ 04:31 PM

Memorial Day isn’t like Veterans Day. The military service members we’re honoring aren’t alive. They’re not wearing uniforms and marching down the street in a parade. What remains above ground is a U.S. flag folded into a triangle and kept in someone’s closet or encased in a display case.

It’s a hard day to properly observe. Some people go to the cemeteries for services and face death where death lies. A few might go to the battlefields turned into hallowed ground. But most, I would gather, go on about their daily lives, including those who are directly connected to the mortal cost of war. Those that know military who have died in war – or witnessed it -- may not want to cry in public. They may not want to talk about it. They may not want to remember. To each his or her own. Americans are free to observe holidays as they please.

But there is still a significant number of Americans, mostly veterans, who want to participate somehow in remembering the fallen. They do so publicly because they think the war dead deserve to be remembered publicly. In fact, in Durham and Chapel Hill there are multiple Memorial Day services going on at the same time Monday, so there are plenty of places to go. [Check Saturday’s paper for my advance story on observances.]

But Memorial Day itself, the fourth Monday of the month, isn’t a date that is remembered as much as others. Whenever I interview a military veteran, they can tell me the exact day they went in and the exact day they came out. If serving in a war, they can tell me the date – and time – they found out it was over or time to come home.

Local World War II veteran W.B. Turner, whose story I told in theses pages a few years ago, called me on May 8. He didn’t see anything in the newspaper about it being V-E Day, he said, but he figured if anyone at the paper would remember, it would be me. I hadn’t. I know V-J Day for sure, because my mom was born on it, England time. And I know June 6 is the anniversary of D-Day. But I didn’t think twice about May 8 being the anniversary of the Allies’ victory in Europe during WWII until Turner called me. I told him I’d mention it here. It’s not something many World War II veterans forget. It was a war that saved America in many ways, he told me, adding “of course, no war’s a good war.”

Memorial Day became official a few years after the end of the Civil War, when people were already decorating the graves of war dead. There have been thousands upon thousands more buried since, and thousands more who take time to remember their sacrifices at least every May.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at or 919-419-6563.