Whether Buried Here Or Abroad, Today We Honor The Memory, The Lives, And The Service Of Those Who Died For This Country.

A post on the meaning, observance and history of Memorial Day.

THE GENERAL WEPT when he heard the news. About 3 a.m. on November 3, 1917, German troops overran an isolated Allied outpost near Verdun, killing three men from the 16th Infantry who had slipped into the trenches for their combat debut only hours before. These were the first of Jack Pershing’s men to die in the Great War. One was shot between the eyes; another had his skull smashed. The third was found face down, his throat cut. All three were buried near where they had died, amid the beautiful rolling hills of northeastern France. This was as it should be, General Pershing believed. There was no time to bring fallen soldiers back to the States, he said, nor any space on ships crossing the Atlantic. And he couldn’t bear to think of mothers opening caskets to see their boys ravaged by the fearsome new weapons of the industrial era. Within days, however, the War Department discovered that the families and friends of the dead thought differently. Letters and telegrams arrived in Washington asking when the soldiers’ remains would be shipped home. Grand funerals were planned. No matter that the men had died an ocean away or that the war was still going on. Bring them home. This was a refrain Pershing and the military establishment would hear for the rest of the war, indeed, for years afterward. History had given the American people definite ideas about what to do with the war dead. And they weren’t to be denied.


ABOUT A QUARTER CENTURY after [Union Quartermaster General Montgomery C.] Meigs’s men recovered their last body [and burying Civil War dead at Arlington National Cemetary,] President William McKinley took America to war again, this time against the Spanish in Cuba and Puerto Rico. A Civil War veteran who at 19 fought at Antietam, McKinley had been greatly affected by the death he had seen. After the last shot was fired in the Spanish-American War, he quickly dispatched teams to recover fallen soldiers. The United States did the same after the 1901–1902 Philippine-American War.

The New York Times hailed these efforts as an “innovation in the world’s history of warfare.” It was fitting, the newspaper declared, that the bodies of soldiers who died abroad “should be gathered with tender care and restored to home and kindred.”

By the time World War I concluded in 1918, however, U.S. military leaders balked at a similar recovery effort. And no wonder. Initial estimates suggested that more than 70,000 men had been buried in temporary battlefield graves. Even the relatively small efforts to reclaim the few thousand dead from the previous foreign conflicts had been costly and difficult. David H. Rhodes, a former landscape gardener at Arlington cemetery, had supervised those operations, slogging hundreds of miles through jungles and over rugged, mountainous terrain amid threats from insurgents, monsoons, and disease. In a final report, Rhodes pointedly noted that the venture was “an extremely hazardous operation for the safety of the dead, as well as the living.”

U.S. allies, meanwhile, were horrified at the idea of Americans digging up their dead and shipping them home. The British government worried that its own people would demand the same for its more than 700,000 dead. French leaders, meanwhile, envisioned ghoulish trains packed with bodies crisscrossing their countryside. Arguing that France had to concentrate on rebuilding, they banned removal of bodies for three years.

Within the United States, powerful figures—including General Pershing and much of the military leadership organized to argue that burying servicemen at the battlefield with their fallen comrades offered the greatest glory. Former president Theodore Roosevelt spoke to this when his son Quentin, an American pilot, was shot down over France in July 1918, then laid to rest with full military honors by German troops. Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, objected when told their son’s remains would be brought home.

“To us it is painful and harrowing long after death to move the poor body from which the soul has fled,” he wrote. “We greatly prefer that Quentin shall continue to lie on the spot where he fell in battle and where the foeman buried him.”

Standing against all this logic and power were thousands of Americans who demanded that the government bring home their dead. They contended that the government had to do what it had done in wars before. One mother from Brooklyn wrote: “My son sacrificed his life to America’s call, and now you must as a duty of yours bring my son back to me.”

Another begged for her son’s return in terms that illustrated the lasting power of the Good Death ideal: “Pleas send his body home to us as soon as you can and tell me…how bad he was hert and if he had a chance to say eny thing be for he died oh if I could of bin with him.”

Nearly a year after the armistice—two years after the first of Pershing’s troops had been killed a compromise was forged. The War Department announced in October 1919 that it would survey each of the fallen soldiers’ next of kin. They could choose to bring home remains or have them buried in newly created American military cemeteries in Europe. Ballots were sent to nearly 80,000 families, and in kitchens and living rooms across the country, the bereaved sat down to decide how best to honor their loved ones.


IN LATE 1920, the French finally yielded to American pressure and lifted their ban on the return of bodies. The United States spent the next two years and more than $30 million – $400 million in today’s dollars – recovering its dead. The remains of 46,000 soldiers were returned to the States at their families’ request, while another 30,000 – roughly 40 percent of the total – were laid to rest in military cemeteries in Europe.

The grisly exhumations horrified some witnesses. Author Owen Wister and diplomat Thomas Nelson Page wrote in the New York Times: “Out of these holes were being dragged—what? Boys whom their mothers would recognize? No! Things without shape, at which mothers would collapse.

British writer Stephen Graham bitterly surveyed the caskets stacked on the docks of Calais waiting to be shipped to the States and wrote: “America feels that she is morally superior to Europe. American soil is God’s own country and the rest is comparatively unhallowed.”

But a sacred tradition had been born. After World War II, with 359,000 American dead scattered across both hemispheres, the military mounted a six-year recovery effort that yielded the remains of 281,000. (Nearly 80,000 were missing in action, most lost at sea.) In the Korean War, America redoubled its commitment to the dead. The fast-changing battle lines in that conflict left little time for soldiers to dig temporary graves, so the dead for the first time were carried from the front and shipped home even while hostilities continued. During the Vietnam War, soldiers’ remains often reached home within a week. Today, of course, the dead are whisked home in a matter of days.

Other countries have followed America’s lead. Britain, for one, committed to bringing its war dead home after the 1982 Falklands War.

Even Jack Pershing seemed to come to terms with the idea of returning the war dead to the States. On July 10, 1921, he was on the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, to greet the first transports bringing home American fatalities of World War I. Caskets with the remains of 7,264 men stretched out on the pier for a quarter mile, including those of the men recorded as the army’s first combat fatalities.

Pershing spoke at a ceremony honoring those three, the same men whose deaths had brought him to tears. With their caskets arranged before him, Pershing stood straight and tall as he delivered an emotional tribute to all the Americans who had died in the war. Sounding much like Pericles, he spoke of men who deserved great glory because they had fought for freedom. “They gave all,” he said, “and they have left us their example. It remains for us with fitting ceremonies, tenderly with our flowers and our tears, to lay them to rest on the American soil for which they died.”

Afterward, he laid wreaths on the coffins of the three men. Within days, each was returned to his hometown and buried with honor by friends and family.

When one visits a military cemetery there are rows after rows after rows of graves for men and women who died for this country and its ideals. There are so many markers and stones that it is easy to forget that the people forever interred within that sacred ground left their homes, their loved ones and the life they were leading only to return to a grieving and devastated family in a pine box.

Lives, loves and their families forever changed by their deaths.

Today we honor those men and woman and their ultimate sacrifice.

Compared to what the gave for us, we owe them nothing less.

Comments are closed.