We’ve always had to fight for Memorial Day

FROM A 1947 issue of the Addison Independent.

ADDISON COUNTY — When Memorial Day rolls around it’s easy to talk about why we honor those who have sacrificed their lives for their country.

What’s less easy to talk about is how hard it can be to get Americans to stop and actually take the time and effort to remember.

In a way, it stands to reason. Americans are as busy and distracted and politically divided as ever.

But the truth is, it’s never been easy to persuade more than a small minority of people to pay remembrance to our war dead.

The Addison Independent publishing the year after World War II concluded.

In those days Memorial Days, or Decoration Days as they were often known, occurred on May 30 each year.

Early editions of the Independent kept readers informed about the day’s events in sober, earnest terms.

“Memorial Day will be solemnly observed throughout Addison County in various ways, with the traditional services in cemeteries and parades in Middlebury, Bristol and Vergennes,” the paper announced in 1947.

A companion story on the front page contained 12 lines from the 19th-century poem that’s inscribed on the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery, “Bivouac of the Dead.”

Editors included the lines “lest we forget May 30th.”

The following year the Independent noted that the American Legion Auxiliary would be selling poppies, which they encouraged citizens to wear so as to honor the war dead.

“The poppies … have been made by disabled veterans at the White River Junction Veterans’ hospital,” the article explained. “They are crepe paper replicas of the famous wild poppies of France and Belgium, well known to veterans of the first World War and which have been the symbol of remembrance for the dead ever since.”

But by 1950, less than five years after VJ Day, there was a feeling that we were not doing enough for our soldiers.

At Middlebury’s parade exercises at West Cemetery that year, Middlebury College English instructor Lockwood Merriman “made a plea for greater recognition of veterans in private life.”

A year later, even as the Middlebury Post of the American Legion was dedicating a memorial plaque to the dead of World Wars I and II, which bore the names of 15 Middlebury residents, we were at war again, this time in Korea.

In 1952, the Independent included with its Memorial Day content a syndicated cartoon on the editorial page. Titled “How Many More?”, it depicted a large cross engraved with “Korea June 1950.” Leaning against the cross was the bare wire frame of 1951’s Memorial Day wreathe. In the foreground stood a fresh wreathe with a new ribbon and bow, labeled “Memorial Day 1952.”

FROM A 1953 issue of the Addison Independent.

The following year, Middlebury’s Memorial Day rites featured a veteran from that war, Lt. Col. Charles Adcock, as its guest speaker.

As the Cold War began to harden and settle in for the long haul, local Memorial Day speeches began to acquire a touch of military boosterism.

“The nation’s war dead deserve, and would desire, maintenance of the American heritage they died to preserve, rather than gratitude,” said Senior Army advisor to the Vermont National Guard Col. John W. White at Middlebury’s 1956 memorial.

“The US has been struck when weak, rallied its strength to win victory, then relaxed its vigilance only to have aggressors attack once more,” White continued. “Though the American economy prohibits a massive armed force, the cycle of weakness, attack, strength, and weakness again can be prevented by building up a citizen soldier in the Reserve Forces.”

In 1960, Lt. Col. John H. Washington of the Plattsburgh Air Force base warned of “red missile power.” The main danger to the nation, he said, “is the Soviet ability to deliver nuclear weapons by air.”

A few days earlier, the Independent’s main Memorial Day article had focused Memorial Day being “the first of three long weekends this year,” which would inspire a lot of car travel. And a half-page advertisement in that edition announced a “Decoration Day Sale.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Independent’s editorial page used Memorial Day as an opportunity to show support for — and scold opposition to — the Vietnam War.

ADDISON INDEPENDENT, 1964

Nonetheless the true meaning of the day shone through.

“The brave who died on foreign fields of battle defending our conception of right and liberty, the mothers and fathers prematurely called from the green hills and fields of home, the grandfathers and grandmothers whose twinkling eye stayed with them and with us — each and every Soul in Heaven — fully deserve and merit the total 60 seconds worth of distance run in the golden moment of silence devoted to them,” editors wrote in 1968. “Give them the 60 seconds. It only takes a minute.”

In 1971 Congress officially designated the last Monday in May as Memorial Day.

The following year, the Independent’s editors spent more ink complaining about “long-hairs and weirdos,” “transient hippies” and “government employees” and “unions” bent on “getting another paid holiday” than on exploring the true meaning of the day.

ADDISON INDEPENDENT, 1975

But the memorials continued and the parades persisted. In 1976, veterans of five different wars placed wreathes on the Soldiers Monument in Middlebury: Arthur Benedict (Spanish American War); George Peck (World War I); Eric Flanagan (World War II); Walter McGuire (Korean War) and John Fraser (Vietnam War).

Over the ensuing decades, the meaning of Memorial Day became more complex, with people finding ways to broaden and deepen its messages.

On May 22, 2008, the Independent printed the names, ranks and hometowns of 4,580 servicemen and women who had died in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The seven-page spread opened with a quote from the 20th-century journalist and English professor Bergan Evans.

“Freedom of speech and freedom of action are meaningless without freedom to think. And there is no freedom of thought without doubt.”

ADDISON INDEPENDENT, 2000

In recent years the Independent has helped honor the dead by sharing stories about the ones who came back, folks like:

  • World War II B-17 pilot and Nazi prisoner of War J. Francis Angier, who wasn’t sure if he deserved to be the Vergennes parade marshal.
  • Of Spanish War veteran Nelson Pickering, who participated in Middlebury’s Memorial Day ceremonies into his 90s.
  • Of Lesley Urban, who in 1950 defended his homeland of Hungary from the Russians and eventually made his way to America.

These stories help us to remember, too, and though the remembering is complex, we urge you to take a moment this Monday and be a part of it, even if in solitude, even if in silence.

We cannot help but be better for it.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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