Memorial Day, with its barbecues, beach towels, and parades, signals the unofficial start of summer. Thus, to many of us, the day means nothing more than hot dogs and potato salad. It's much more than that!
Many Americans confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day; however, though both holidays are dedicated to our servicemen and women, they do not commemorate the same thing. Veterans Day honors all Americans, both living and dead, who served in our armed forces; Memorial Day remembers American military personnel who died in battle or as a result of wounds suffered in combat.
During the War Between the States, our divided nation sustained devastating casualties on both sides of the conflict. Three years after the war's end, the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, established Decoration Day to place flowers on the graves of the fallen. The first official observance of Decoration Day was held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. Both Union and Confederate dead were honored with flowers and prayers. Decoration Day became Memorial Day.
Though many cities above and below the Mason Dixon line claimed credit for the first Memorial Day, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York as the founding city. In 1866, Waterloo's Civil War veterans instituted an annual ceremony on May 30th to honor their fallen comrades; by the end of the 19th century, similar ceremonies were held nation-wide. After World War I, the last Monday in May was designated as Memorial Day to honor those who died in all American wars.
This Memorial Day, I honor my Great-Uncle, Peter Rooney. The son of Scottish immigrants, Peter served in World War II, enlisting in the U.S. Army, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, in May, 1942. Just 23 years of age, Peter was killed at Normandy on July 11, 1944 and rests in Normandy American Cemetery in France. Sadly, I did not know Peter existed until genealogical research revealed him hidden in my family tree. That his bravery and sacrifice were swept away by time, all but forgotten, is appalling to me. No soldier should ever be forgotten!
This holiday, please think about Peter Rooney and those like him, the men and women who lost their lives in service to our country. Enjoy your hot dogs and potato salad, but remember Memorial Day is not about the parade and offer prayers of thanksgiving for our fallen heroes.