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Artwork:  "Planting of 20,000 Flags on Memorial Day".  Artist:  Ellen White, Arlington National Cemetery, Aug. 1976.  Catalog Number:  P.23.37.76.

Remembering Those Who Deserve to be Remembered

As Memorial Day nears, discover the holiday's overlooked history—from African American freedmen honoring Union soldiers to today's federal observance, and honor the legacy of our fallen heroes.
Artist Ellen White, Arlington National Cemetery, August 1976

Fifty-four years ago, I swore an oath to defend my country against “all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” If you are a veteran, I am sure you remember the day you took that oath. I felt a sense of pride knowing that I was going to serve my country. I had a feeling of awe and wonder about what I had just sworn to do, defend with my life people that I didn’t know and never would.

Ten men I served with in Vietnam did not come home like I did. They didn’t meet their wives, their children, their parents, or their grandparents at the airport. They didn’t return home to thanks for doing their duty or hopes for a bright future. They came home in a steel casket draped with an American flag. Every Memorial Day, I take time to remember those ten men who sacrificed so much for me and for you.

Every year on my birthday, I take time to remember one of those ten men who was special to me, Ferenc John Ramm. John was the oldest soldier in the first unit I served with while in the jungle. He took me under his wing and taught me how to stay alive in a war zone. In the three months that I served with him, I learned that as a young boy, he and his mother escaped from communist Czechoslovakia and came to America to live in freedom. John took President Kennedy’s words to heart when he uttered those famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” John joined the Army and served two tours in Vietnam. While serving in the United States after his last tour, he made a mistake and was demoted from Sergeant First Class (E-7) to Specialist (E-4). To make enough money to care for his family, John volunteered for one more tour, his third, in Vietnam.

On my birthday, when I should have been leading a night patrol, John Ramm and Joseph Curtis were killed. I had been sent to the rear to sleep in a clean bed and have a hot shower as a birthday present. I heard the news of their deaths while eating breakfast in the mess hall the next morning. It was my twenty-first birthday.

We can teach the next generation how important it is to serve.

Speaking of those who gave their lives in war, General George S. Patten once said, “We should thank God that such men lived.” I have served my whole adult life with men who were willing to die for our country. I served with them in the Army and as a police officer. I still marvel that such people are willing to serve. We should all be thankful for them and praise them and remember them at least on one special day of the year, Memorial Day.

Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, is a federal holiday to honor all who have given their lives in defense of this nation. It is not a day to honor all veterans; we do that on Veterans Day. This is a day to honor, remember, and revere those who were willing to go to war and then died while keeping the citizens of the United States safe from its enemies. 

The origins of Memorial Day are unclear, with many states and cities laying claim to being the first to honor those who sacrificed all for this nation. There is an interesting history regarding this special day. As America’s Civil War was coming to a close, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered the evacuation of Confederate soldiers from Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of an impending attack by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. The city’s white population had evacuated the city leaving thousands of former black slaves behind. As a symbolic gesture, the first Union troops that General Sherman sent into the city were the black Union soldiers of the 21st Infantry Regiment and the 55th Massachusetts Infantry.

In 2014, David Blight, a Yale history professor, uncovered lost evidence from old newspapers stating that Charleston, South Carolina, was the first city to observe Decoration Day on May 1, 1865. On that day, black workmen (recently freed slaves) voluntarily dug up every Union soldier who had died in the Charleston prisoner of war camp after they had been buried in hastily dug mass graves. The former slaves reburied every Union soldier in a properly dug grave and rendered the proper honors they were due. Afterward, a memorial was held. They also celebrated with a parade of school children, citizens, and Union soldiers. Blight argues that the first Memorial Day was founded by African Americans to remember the fact that the Civil War was fought to abolish slavery. 

A few years later, in 1868, Major General John Alexander Logan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Union of the Republic, a fraternal order of Union Civil War veterans, issued a proclamation calling for a Decoration Day to be observed nationwide and annually to decorate the graves of Civil War dead, both Union and Confederate. The day chosen was May 30th because it was a day without an anniversary of a major Civil War battle and a day with plenty of spring flowers with which to decorate the graves. 

The question today is how do we celebrate and repay those who gave their last measure of devotion for us? Those who served their country and returned from war are repaid by being able to live and prosper. They are repaid by being able to get an education, build a career, and have a family, but how do we repay those who did not return? The freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina, knew how to repay and thank those who sacrificed so much. I submit that the only way we can repay them is by being the best citizens that we can be and never forgetting what they have done for this country. We can teach the next generation how important it is to serve each other and defend the Constitution and the laws of the land. And most importantly, we veterans must remember that we took an oath to defend this country against “all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” We must also understand that we will never be released from that oath.

Memorial Day will be observed this year on May 29th. My hope is that while at the beach or at the lake, or in our own backyards having a barbeque, we will take a few minutes in the day to remember the more than 1.3 million men and women who gave their lives that this country would always remain the land of the free and the home of the brave.

About the author

Ski Ingram

Ski Ingram is a retired police officer from Southern California. He is a former Airborne Ranger and a Viet Nam combat veteran. He has served in the American Legion, VFW, and the Boy Scouts. He has a degree in criminal justice.
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