Memorial Day 2016

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Robert Matte Jr.

 This Monday, May 30, 2016 Americans across the nation and around the world will observe Memorial Day.  Its first official observation was May 5, 1868, when it was called Declaration Day.  In 1968 it was decided that Memorial Day would be observed on the last Monday in May. It is a day to remember those who have sacrificed and died in our nation’s service.

I have been reading a series of histories on World War II. Rick Atkinson's Liberation trilogy about the North African and European campaigns and Ian Toll's trilogy about war in the Pacific.  These books are fascinating insights into the courage and persistence required of both men and women in defending our freedoms. Over 400,000 American service members made the ultimate sacrifice during the war including more than 400 military women.  A great many of the fallen are either buried or memorialized overseas.

The American Battle Monuments Commission was established by Congress in 1923, and currently the Commission administers, operates and maintains on foreign soil, 25 permanent American burial grounds, and 27 separate memorials, monuments and markers, including three memorials in the United States.  Those buried or memorialized at these sites fought in both World War I and World War II.

One of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign occurred in June 1944 on the Japanese held island of Saipan in the Marianas chain.  71,000 U.S. troops, marines and army, faced 32,000 Japanese determined to fight to the last man. Over several days of intense fighting, the Japanese garrison was eliminated with only 900 prisoners taken. The rest were killed or committed suicide. U.S. casualties were 3, 426 killed and 10, 364 wounded.  Three servicemen received the Medal of Honor posthumously. Today, the Saipan American Memorial, on Saipan, honors not only those who died on this island but also the 21,000 marines, soldiers and sailors whogave their lives on the nearby islands of Tinian and Guam. Throughout the Pacific campaign, marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen, willingly risked their lives so that the America they knew and loved would remain free from foreign threat.

The European theater saw equally desperate fighting.  One of the purposes of American Battle Monuments is to give visitors a place to honor those who didn't come home. Every Memorial Day ceremonies take place at these cemeteries, monuments and memorials. Sacrifices are remembered; thanks given.  Throughout the year one can walk the rows of crosses at American cemeteries in Normandy, near Rome, in North Africa and in the Philippines, among other locations.

Jac Conlon never knew his father.  Capt. Robert B. Conlon was killed in action, in Italy, on May 21, 1944 while attacking a German held bridge. His heroic efforts, just before his death, saved the lives of 1,000 men.  Jac Conlon reflects on the emotion of visiting his father's grave site.:

"He’s buried in Nettuno, the American military cemetery. It’s about 100 miles north of where he was actually killed, the cemetery, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful tribute to those men and women who sacrificed. To visit the place where he was killed in the area, it was very important to me because of never having known him, or anything, here was an opportunity for me to be near his bones, so to speak. And to just stand in front of the cross and cry. And put my hand on the cross, and stand up, come to attention and salute him and tell him I miss him."

As a nation, we must salute all those who fight for our country and especially those who pay the ultimate price. As a people we are nothing without those who stand on the wall of freedom and say, "You are not breaking this down today, or tomorrow, not ever."  God protect the United States of America.