Most Memorable Memorial Day

In May of 1865, former slaves in Charleston, S.C., reburied from their mass grave 257 dead Union prisoners of war in the cemetery bordering the race track that had been their prison. They decorated the new individual graves with flowers and flags and held a grand parade led by 2,800 children who “marched, sang, and celebrated,” thus paying homage to those who died for their freedom. This event is only one of many laying claim to the first Memorial Day in the United States.

The modern Memorial Day would be observed on the last day of May, and was formally designated as “Decoration Day” (as in decorating the graves of our fallen warriors), thus decreed by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in May 1885. This was followed three years later by the first national observance held at Arlington Cemetery in Washington in the proximity of the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. (The Lee Mansion can be seen prominently high on the hill overlooking the National Cemetery.) The ceremony was presided over by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. After the speeches, children from the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan home – singing and reciting prayers – placed flowers on every grave of both Union and Confederate dead.

Actually, Memorial “Day” is observed several times a week all over our war-saddened nation, as our fallen warriors are flown in metal “transfer cases” from their respective battlegrounds halfway around the world, and are off-loaded from military and civilian aircraft at metropolitan airports and small airfields in our hinterlands. Flags fly and speeches are made, but the most common denominator is the sense of loss and feelings of frustration. A micro “Memorial Day” occurs within each of us with every tiny fragment of memory or feeling of deja vu as subtle little cues in our daily lives flash us back together again, albeit for only a fleeting synapse.

I know in some previous column I have tried to describe my feelings when visiting the black marble name-covered wall near the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. When I trace my finger along my crewman’s engraved name – “Lieutenant Junior Grade Robert Taft Hanson, Toledo, Ohio” – and I realize again for a split second or a fraction of an inch it could be my name there along with his, or maybe instead of his. I feel that on this occasion of Memorial Day, an excerpt from the last few paragraphs of my book, Beyond Survival might be appropriate. Please bear with me:

“Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii – Nov. 3, 1988: The huge C-141 Jetstar taxis from the runway complex, lumbering cautiously toward the ceremonial area in front of

Base Operations. The deep purr of the engines resonates from nearby hangars. The plane bobs to a stop in front of the coterie of four-star officers representing all services. They stand abreast and erect to honor the approaching aircraft carrying the just-released remains of 32 Americans.

“An impeccably creased and polished color guard stands to the Flag Officer’s right, their banners flapping lustily in the moist trades from over the Ko’olau mountains. The tarmac is still wet from earlier showers.

“After a few comments from the Commander of Pacific Forces, the offloading of metal transfer cases commences. As the 18th case appears on the cargo ramp, the name I came to hear is announced: ‘Lieutenant Commander Robert Taft Hanson, February 3, 1966.’ The pallbearers place my deceased crewman gently in line with the others.

“Finally, when the last set of remains is in place, salutes and honors are again rendered, and the bugler sounds taps as only taps can sound beneath mournful gray skies, some notes lingering in their own echo, some swept away by the wind across the wet runways, and finally out to sea.

“‘Thanks, buddy. Welcome home!'”

This was my most memorable Memorial Day.