Memorial Day Dates Back to Civil War Veterans

May 25th, 2008 - by admin

Carl Nolte / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-05-25 22:22:55

(May 25, 2008) — Memorial Day is the most complex holiday on the American calendar — the unofficial beginning of a long summer of vacations in the sunshine, and a solemn day to remember the men and women who died in the service of their country.

Monday is the 140th observance of Memorial Day in the United States. The first was in 1868 when the Grand Army of the Republic, all veterans of the Civil War, designated a day in May to honor “the memory of our heroic dead.”

Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army, asked the public to decorate the graves of the fallen with “the choicest flowers of springtime.”

After World War I, the Veterans of Foreign Wars began distributing artificial red flowers, called Buddy Poppies, as a sign of remembrance.

The flowers, made by disabled veterans and intended to be worn in buttonholes, recalled the fields of red poppies that grew among the soldiers’ graves in Flanders, the scene of fierce fighting in the war that was supposed to end all wars.

The old soldiers sold millions of Buddy Poppies years ago, and Americans wore the red poppies on Memorial Day as a matter of course. It was a rare ceremony that did not include a recitation of Maj. John McCrae’s poem:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead…

Special Protocol
The mixture of death and springtime is a curious one, a celebration of spring on a day when buglers play taps and cannons fire solemn 21-gun salutes.

“When I was a kid in San Francisco during World War II, we used to all wear the red poppies on the Memorial Day weekend,” said Raymond Wong, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars District 15 in San Francisco. “We thought it was a neat thing to do. It signified spring was here. We didn’t understand what Memorial Day meant until later.”

There are fewer Buddy Poppies than there used to be. The VFW had 30,000 members in San Francisco right after World War II. Now there are only about 1,800 members in the local post, Wong says.

There is a special protocol to Memorial Day. The flag is supposed to be flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon, then “raised briskly,” as the flag code directs, to the top. It is one of the rare days when veterans are allowed to wear their old uniforms.

In the Bay Area, Memorial Day is commemorated at military cemeteries, some of them very old, and one or two very new. There are 138,542 graves at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, and 1,721 at the new Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon, in Solano County.

The oldest military cemetery is in the Presidio — 31,576 men and women are buried there, including 35 recipients of the Medal of Honor, and the remains of Pauline C. Fryer, whose gravestone calls her a “Union Spy.” She was a stage performer who did intelligence work for the Union Army during the Civil War, died in San Francisco in 1893, and received a magnificent funeral and a place of honor in the Presidio cemetery.

Here also are the graves of people who served in the Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, both World Wars and Korea. The graves of Phillip and Sala Burton, who represented San Francisco in Congress, are also there.

The largest national cemetery is Golden Gate in San Bruno, where there are the graves of 15 men who received the Medal of Honor. It is also the last resting place of Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, the architect of naval victory in the Pacific in World War II.

Grave markers honoring men and women who died in Afghanistan and Iraq are in the San Joaquin National Cemetery, near Gustine, and in the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon. These are the only national cemeteries in Northern California that still have room for those who die in the country’s service.

Shipboard Ceremonies
There will be a ceremony at noon today at the memorial to the cruiser San Francisco at Lands End in San Francisco.

Two World War II memorial vessels will hold ceremonies on Monday, the official Memorial Day. The aircraft carrier Hornet will host a Memorial Day ceremony at 1 p.m. at its berth in Alameda. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Craig Bone will be the principal speaker.

The submarine Pampanito will hold a “lost boat” ceremony at Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf at 5 p.m. Monday to honor the 52 American submarines that never returned from their last patrol in World War II.

“No matter how great the ceremony is, it is never enough,” said Wallace Levin, an Army veteran who organizes the Presidio ceremonies. “It’s sad we only give them one day.”

Wong, the VFW commander, likes to recall what Gen. George Patton said at his last Memorial Day ceremony: “In my mind, we are here to thank God that men like this lived, rather than regret that they died.”

E-mail Carl Nolte at

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